Learning to Grow: Saanich School Gardens 1913-1921

The Saanich schools are well-advanced in school gardening

Inspector of Saanich schools, W.H.M. May, 1919

During the World War One era, Saanich school children were taking their lessons outside into the school garden. Through the support of Women’s Institutes, the Department of Education and the Saanich School Board and Council, Saanich schools vied for “Best School Garden” at the Saanich Fair and grew produce to help the War effort. Featuring contemporary photographs, documents and vivid reports of Council meetings, here is the story of the Saanich school gardens.

Jack Whitehead of Prospect Lake School tends to the crop with his hand cultivator. Photo credit: Saanich Archives

1913 – Women’s Institutes and the beginnings of school gardening

An effort was made through the medium of Women’s Institutes to interest school children in agricultural matters, the department supplying the necessary vegetable and flower seeds, with the result that many school grounds have been made beautiful. The degree of interest shown by the children justifies my recommending a further extension of this work.”

W.E. Scott, Deputy Minister for Agriculture, Eighth Report of the Department of Agriculture 1913

Our story begins in 1913 with the recently-started Women’s Institutes of British Columbia supporting school gardening. An early advocate of Women’s Institutes and school gardens was Maria Lawson of The Daily Colonist newspaper’s “Matters of Moment in Women’s Realm”. Lawson, a former school principal, used the women’s page to educate her readers on emerging topics in children’s health and education. On April 13 1913, Lawson wrote:

“It is very gratifying to learn that the Women’s Institutes are advocating the cultivation of school gardens on Vancouver Island. Their efforts should be heartily seconded by the teachers. The many years school inspectors have, without great success, spoken in favour of school gardens. The failure was not surprising. In few districts does the teacher remain long enough to see the fruit of her labours in ornamenting the school grounds. Few teachers, whether men or women, have had much experience in the work of gardening and it is not everyone that can prevail upon boys and girls to do hard work that is not looked upon as part of the curriculum.”

School gardening was not mandatory. On June 6 1913, Superintendent of Education Dr. Alexander Robinson addressed a conference on women’s work in connection with schools in rural districts. Dr. Robinson advocated the beautifying of the school grounds and outhouses by tree planting, the removal of stumps and rocks…. Asked whether school teachers were obliged to take up school gardening, he stated that they were not legally compelled to do so, though every effort was made by the authorities to induce them to undertake the work. (The Daily Colonist June 7 1913)

Re the stumps — Ursula Edwards Jupp attended Gordon Head School from 1912–1915. This is how she recalled the school grounds: “At that time there was just half an acre in the front, later on when they built the two-roomed school they got another half acre at the back. Very rough that was too. Just where the stumps had been blown out, you know, it was a rough old place in my going to school time there.” Ursula’s description was typical for rural school grounds in British Columbia at that time. Here’s a photograph that appeared in the Forty-fourth Annual Report of the Public Schools of British Columbia 1914-1915:

School grounds filled with stumps were fairly common for the time. Photo credit: Forty-fourth Annual Report of the Public Schools of British Columbia 1914-1915, UBC Open Collections

Maria Lawson continued: “It will be quite a different matter if the co-operation of the mothers of the children is secured. They will help and encourage the children and, no doubt, prevail upon the men of the districts to do work that is too difficult for either teachers or children. The Department of Agriculture is ready to supply seeds and will offer prizes. There will, it is to be hoped, soon be a healthy rivalry between the rural schools in making the school house and its surroundings beautiful.”

“Realizing the benefits to the children, and through them to the community, from the cultivation of school gardens, and in response for requests for assistance for these, the Department (of Agriculture) issued collections of seeds – flower and vegetable – to schools making application for these through the Women’s Institutes.” (Advisory Board of Women’s Institutes annual report quoted in the Forty-Fifth Annual Report of the Public Schools in British Columbia).

Seventeen Women’s Institutes applied to the Department of Agriculture for collections of flower and vegetable seeds that were distributed to forty-two schools. The institutes promised to take an interest in and maintain a certain amount of supervision over these gardens. A circular dealing with the planting and care of school gardens, prepared by the Provincial Horticulturalist, was supplied through the Women’s Institutes to schools.

In Saanich, the Gordon Head Women’s Institute (one of the first B.C. institutes) applied for seeds for their school.  In May 1913, the Gordon Head Women’s Institute heard a talk from Mrs. Hutchinson, President of the Royal Oak Women’s Institute (and future School Trustee) who “explained the idea of the school gardens as a help in educating the children, and in bringing the institutes and schools together.” (The Daily Colonist May 10 1913) The garden was soon planted and growing by the end of the school year.

On Friday June 27 1913, the Gordon Head School closing exercises took place. “At the same time, the school gardens planted by the children with seeds supplied through the Women’s Institute by the Department of Agriculture were judged, and the prizes donated by the president of the Institute and Miss Lister, teacher, for the best-kept gardens, were awarded.” (The Daily Colonist July 1 1913)

Gordon Head continued to develop its garden — Here’s a photograph of the Gordon Head School garden a few years later.

Lettuce growing in the Gordon Head School garden. Photo credit: Saanich Archives

1914 – Elementary Agricultural Education

Soon, the British Columbia Department of Education took over the administration of school gardens. Education historian Patrick A. Dunae writes: “In 1913, the federal government introduced legislation intended to assist the agricultural industry and to foster “rural values” in Canada. The Agricultural Instruction Act [3-4 Geo. V.,c.5], which took effect in March 1914, allocated $10 million dollars to the provinces over a ten year period. British Columbia used its share of the money to establish the Elementary Agricultural Education Branch within the Department of Education.” (The Homeroom, British Columbia’s history of education website)

In July 1914, the Department appointed a Director of Elementary Agricultural Education, John Wesley Gibson. “As well as developing elementary courses in nature study and rural science, Gibson was active in promoting school gardening projects and in encouraging the beautification of school grounds. With a team of District Supervisors of Agricultural Instruction, he helped organize agricultural exhibitions and school fairs,” writes Patrick A. Dunae.

Teachers learning to garden at Summer School, 1914. Forty-Fourth Annual Report of the Public Schools of British Columbia

Summer School 1914 – Rural Science and School Gardens

To start off Elementary Agricultural Education, the Department of Education ran a summer school on Rural Science and School Gardens. “The object of these courses is to give British Columbia teachers the opportunity to supplement their general knowledge and professional training.” (The Daily Colonist May 15 1914)

Saanich school teacher Miss Margaret Johnson, Principal of Craigflower School, was one of the over 170 teachers who attended the four week course (July 6 to August 1 1914) at the brand new Victoria High School.

“The work of the rural science and school garden course will be made as practical as possible. Part of the instruction will be given in the lecture room, but most of it will be conducted in the laboratory, garden and field. Afternoon work, more especially, will be conducted out of doors. Besides Saturday excursions, there will be almost daily short field trips for the study of plant and animal life, gardens etc. There will be eight lectures on rural science administration, eight lessons in school gardening, twelve lessons on plant studies, four lessons on bird study, four lessons on insect study, eight on soil study, twelve on farm animals, fourteen on horticulture and floriculture, four on field husbandry, and others on weeds, bacteriology, weather, agricultural literature and forestry.” (The Daily Colonist July 5 1914)

H.B. Maclean (of George Jay School, which had Victoria’s first school garden) ran the courses on School Gardening. The topics included: The planning, making and care of school gardens, with practical instruction as to the propagation of plants from seeds and cuttings, the management of greenhouses and experimental work with fertilizers, soils and variety of crops. (The Daily Colonist July 25 1914)

Aside – the fact that this summer school warranted three stories in the newspaper in the weeks leading up to the outbreak of war shows that it was clearly a novel topic for the time. (More about the war later, as this would certainly impact the focus on the school garden program.)

If goodwill and enthusiasm and careful attention to instruction on the part of pupils and teacher can make up for want of experience, the Craigflower school garden of 1915 will be a success.

The Daily Colonist April 15 1915

In Fall 1914 Miss Margaret Johnson returned from Summer School to Craigflower School, full of ideas that she soon put into practice. The following Spring, the school garden was profiled in The Daily Colonist on April 15 1915:

The boys and girls…want to beautify the grounds of the new school and have a garden of their own. The principal of the school, Miss Margaret Johnson, has entered upon this work with great enthusiasm and the manual training instructor for Saanich, Mr. Leonard Campbell, is seconding her efforts. Mr. Gibson, who is supervisor for the Province in the teaching of agriculture, has been, of course, more than ready to give advice and express his approval.

Craigflower School garden, Forty-Fifth Annual Report of the Public Schools of the Province of British Columbia

It was evident a beginning had been made last year [Fall 1914] in school garden work. There were boxes in the windows from which the early daffodils had been removed, ready for seedlings and plants to brighten the rooms in Summer. In front and at the sides was a narrow border filled, by the help of mothers of the pupils, with perennials. But all this was but incidental to what the boys and most of the girls look upon as the serious work of the season.

“On the Saturday previous the boys had put up a fence around the plot of land chosen from the virgin soil and ploughed and disced by the trustees – the only help given. With brooms and rakes and willing hands the girls, big and little, cleared up the yard till not a stick or a stone remained… A gang of thirty boys, directed by Mr. Campbell, measured the ground and boards, dug holes, sawed and nailed posts and boards and fastened the wire to posts and rails…During the week the plots have been laid out and the seeds sown and now the pupils of four rooms are watching eagerly for the green leaves to appear above the smooth brown earth. Water has been laid on, so that there will be no need to depend altogether on the showers that have come so seldom this season.”

Craigflower School, located in the “suburbs”, had municipal water. No so for rural schools like Gordon Head and Keating.

In March 1915, the South Saanich Women’s Institute helped to get the Keating School garden established. Teacher Miss Nadine Berton did the pioneering work at the school in the 1915-1916 school year. The school’s location presented some challenges for growing, first of all that Keating had no running water: “The sunny slope looks to inexperienced eyes an ideal place for a garden, but…the light soil soon dries out and that only the earliest crops will flourish.” In Summer 1916, the South Saanich Women’s Institute held a Keating School garden competition. “Considering the nature of the soil the results showed much care and attention on the art of the little folks and reflect a great credit on the teachers Miss Burton and Miss McKenzie.”

By 1919, they were growing sweet peas, cantaloupes (!) On the top of the hill, a grove of shade trees had been planted and in the rear of the schoolhouse a new garden was begun. “The soil here is deeper and more moist and the crops, it is hoped, will be more bountiful.” (As reported by Maria Lawson, School Gardening in Saanich, The Daily Colonist May 11 1919)

Keating School garden, Forty-Eighth Annual Report of the Public Schools of the Province of British Columbia

A backward spring and dry summer 1917

On October 25 1917, School Inspector W.H.M. May reported that “There was a slight increase in the number of school gardens, but owing to the backward spring and dry summer, they were not in many instances, as successful as the teachers had hoped.” Poor gardens were a Province-wide problem, as J.W. Gibson, Director of Elementary Agricultural Education, outlined in his 1917 report: “Summer proved disastrous to many gardens that under ordinary weather conditions are very good. Even more serious, however, than the Summer drought in some gardens was the lack of cultivation during the months of July and August, when the schools are closed.”

The Daily Colonist on September 11 1917 had previously noted: “The schools have not been very successful as a whole in the school garden work, Prospect Lake being relied upon to save the honour of the district [at the Saanich Fair]”. Prospect Lake School had no issue with irrigation: “A stream near offers the gardeners plenty of water and something has been done in the way of irrigation.” (Maria Lawson, School Gardening in Saanich, The Daily Colonist May 11 1919)

Prospect Lake School garden, Forty-Eighth Annual Report of the Public Schools of the Province of British Columbia

Page 2 – District Supervisor of Agricultural Education