Youth Grow Local at Troy Gardens

Feature Stories Spring 2011 Issue

Youth Grow Local at Troy Gardens

By Nathan Larson | Photos By Nathan Larson 0

In the mid-90s, a group of concerned neighbors gathered around a kitchen table to hatch an audacious plan for saving a muchloved piece of land in Madison from development. They never dreamed how wildly successful their plan would be. The piece of land, affectionately known as Troy Gardens , was eventually saved through the efforts of a broad-based coalition of forward-thinking individuals and organizations. Not only did the coalition successfully ensure that 26 acres of urban land would stay open for future generations, it created a community-based nonprofit organization called Community GroundWorks to develop Troy Gardens into a new kind of urban park. Today Troy Gardens is home to an organic community supported agriculture (CSA) farm, over 300 community garden plots, an award-winning Kids’ Garden, a Hmong demonstration garden, restored tallgrass prairie, sugar maple woodland, nature trails and edible landscaping. The success of Troy Gardens has led Community GroundWorks to develop garden projects in other parts of the Madison as well, including the East High Youth Farm and the recently installed demonstration vegetable garden at the state capitol building.

Education lies at the heart of Troy Gardens and other Community GroundWorks projects. The Community GroundWorks learning community engages a diverse population of children and adults in a wide variety of hands-on learning opportunities. One such opportunity, the Troy Kids’ Garden, offers children from area schools and community centers a wonderful learning environment to connect with good food—and to learn exactly where their food comes from through direct experience.

In the Troy Kids’ Garden, providing children with regular hands-on opportunities to engage in meaningful garden work is the key to fostering positive relationships with food. When given an opportunity to grow, prepare and eat food in the garden, young people forge a deeply personal relationship with the food that sustains them. This relationship encourages children to be adventurous about eating a wide variety of less familiar fruits and vegetables. For example, after harvesting a broccoli floret and taking a bite, a child exclaimed, “Yum! Wait, I thought broccoli was gross!” In the Kids’ Garden, children enjoy munching on such fresh treats as spring garlic, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes and kohlrabi. Through these first-hand experiences, children learn a great deal about the food that they are eating. One afternoon, a young boy pulled a big, red raspberry from its cane, and while staring deep into the resulting hollow center, he said, “Oh! That’s why they have holes in them.”

“I like coming to Troy Gardens because of all the things to do, all the experiences, and all the things you can get ready to do if you’re going to plant a garden at home,” said Tori, 10. By teaching young people how to grow their own food, we introduce them to the ultimate local food system as they take on the dual roles of growers and consumers— they develop an understanding that food comes from living plants, which gives them a new appreciation for the food that they consume. A bell pepper becomes more than a commodity when linked to the plant that bore it; the rain, soil, air, and sunlight that fed it; and the children and adults who nurtured it from seed to harvest. During a snacking activity, another child remarked, “I can’t believe nature can taste so good!”

At the Kids’ Garden, we also believe it is essential that children feel it is their garden. As empowered caretakers of the garden, children gain a sense of place as well as a sense of purpose as they grow food throughout the season. Children gain a profound feeling of accomplishment as they are given an opportunity to provide for their families. One young girl said, “My plot at Troy Gardens means a lot because if the plants were to die, I wouldn’t have any good vegetables in my house.”

After a harvest day, vegetables and fruits that are not eaten fresh in the garden are regularly taken home. Children also gain self-confidence as they build a host of valuable new skills—making compost, wrangling chickens, preparing garden beds, and maneuvering wheelbarrows through tight garden paths—all in pursuit of healthful food production. “I like coming to Troy Gardens because I get to water, I get to plant, I get to pick the leaves, and I get to pick the plants when they are done,” said Ariana, 6.

In the Kids’ Garden, the interpretation of food moves beyond that of a commodity—it becomes a delicious symbol of life itself. 

To learn more about Youth Grow Local and other Community GroundWorks Programs, visit

Nathan Larson is the Education Director at Community GroundWorks and a Senior Outreach Specialist in the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Nathan directs urban farm and garden education programs for pre-K-12 students and provides professional development for schoolteachers, college students and community educators. He writes garden-based curricula and recently co-authored Got Veggies?: A Garden-Based Nutrition Education Curriculum. Nathan—a third generation Madisonian—lives with his wife and children at Troy Gardens.

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