Jane Smillie Hirischi lights up when she talks about CitySprouts, a program that teaches children about plants. Inspired by the decades-long phenomenon of school gardens in California, Smillie Hirischi designed and wrote grants for teaching gardens to make their appearance in Cambridge. “Cambridge has a lot of unique things, but CitySprouts is a unique program in the country,” she says. CitySprouts is a program that is integrated with the schools, and the gardens are used by teachers as outdoor classrooms.

Youth interns numbered 34 last summer and 40 this summer. The school gardens are accessible after school to the students and families. Cambridge has 5 active gardens with 2 more in development. Last summer, thirty-four 11 to 14 year old participants assumed responsibility for caring for the gardens over the summer: watering, mulching, fertilizing, and weeding. They harvested food, learned how to prepare different delicious servings, and ate the fruits of their labor. And each participant earned $100 for their efforts, an appreciable sum to an 11 year old, and to some 14 year olds as well.

Students ventured beyond the classroom as well. At the farmer’s market in Central Square, students produced an herb butter sampling of culinary delights to display on their table, made from the herbs they grew in their garden. They visited the Gaining Ground program in Concord and the Food Project in Dorchester. In Concord and Dorchester, they worked with older students to learn farming, and sat down to a hearty lunchtime dining on food from the farms that they helped to grow.

In addition to food education, the summer program instilled in the participants a sense of responsibility in a manageable timeframe of 6 weeks – the responsibility to show up for work on time a couple of afternoons per week, to be a part of a team, and to keep the plants healthy and thriving.

There is a new wave of school garden interest, says Smillie Hirishi, and the CitySprouts program is in high demand. Recruitment for the summer interns is in the spring, and participants are selected by lottery, with some schools showing 15 applicants for 5 available openings to participate.

While participants can request that their favorite plants be grown in their gardens, there are some standbys that appear in every CitySprouts garden: corn, wheat, tomatoes, peas (which are related to a 4th grade unit in math), and kale (which is in the fall used to make a kale potato soup). Cherry tomatoes, which are fun to eat, are a popular pick, as are herbs that last until the fall. And a flavorful favorite that kids seem to love in every school, says Smillie Hirischi, is “tomatillos,” a green tomato used in salsa.

Drop in hours at the garden sites allow volunteers to help with harvesting and cooking the food crops, and taking workshops on such topics as plant composting. The program boasts a total of 225 adult volunteers, and tracks 1,500 garden visits – more than 1,000 of which were children visiting during drop-in, after-school hours.

Formerly an adjunct teacher in public speaking and communications at Bentley College and Boston University, Jane Smillie Hirischi currently is CitySprouts’ only full-time person. She fundraises, writes grants, and recruits volunteers and interns. For every $1.00 that schools contribute to CitySprouts, $2.00 is contributed to the program from foundations, corporate donors, local businesses and individual donors.

For more information about CitySprouts, contact Jane Smillie Hirischi at or call (617) 491-5732.

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I pass by the community garden at the Morse School all of the time and always thought it was a school project. I never realized there was a much broader network of schools with students, teachers and community members involved. Thanks for the info!