Gary Swick views gardening as fundamental to the future.
“We live in a society that thinks that food comes from a drive-up window or, at best, a refrigerator,” says Swick, an adjunct instructor of Foundations of Education in the NIU Department of Leadership, Educational Psychology and Foundations.
“I think that people growing their own food, or being involved in growing food, is really going to be a key thing for us in getting our culture back,” he adds. “Part of that is connecting to the natural environment, and we can’t really expect people to protect something they don’t care about.”
As a longtime educator, Swick knows that the most effective way to change a culture’s deeply ingrained mindset is through young children who are still learning about their world.
Planting those seeds is the mission of the Annie Glidden Heritage Garden, a plot of four raised beds tilled two years ago near the Barsema Alumni and Visitors Center.
Swick assigns his College of Education students to create and plan lessons in math, science, social studies and language arts based on the garden.
They realize through that process that gardens are powerful teaching tools as well as valuable resources for schools, he says, and become more likely to carry that back-to-the-earth philosophy into their eventual classrooms.
Dan Kenney, a key player in the Communiversity Gardens initiative, later helped Swick to construct the Annie Glidden Heritage Garden. “I told Dan that I wanted this teaching garden, and he made it happen. We wrote a dean’s grant, and I received it,” he says.
“I got it in my mind that gardening is a skill that every teacher from Northern Illinois University should walk away with if they’re not afraid to put their hands in the soil,” adds Swick, a retired environmental sciences teacher from Dundee-Crown High School.
“You can experience the magic of a child planting a seed, and being able to see that something they can eat comes from it later.”
Connecting that sense of awe and wonder to academics can bear great fruit, he says.
If students are excited over the miracle of seeds turning into plants, he says, imagine the poetry they might write! Imagine their curiosity to know where vegetables came from, how people used those crops over the centuries and their cultural significance to their countries of origin!
Lessons aren’t restricted to vegetable gardens, he adds, mentioning flower gardens and even rock gardens.
“This is really limitless,” he says. “The only limit is people’s imaginations.”
Equally limitless are the possibilities for society if today’s children embrace gardening in a way that matches Swick’s vision.
First, he says, naturally grown foods promote good nutrition, improve health and challenge business.
“You can grow food for way cheaper than you can buy it,” he says. “I’m a believer that consumers control the marketplace. That’s how capitalism works. If people understand their food better, if we start rejecting certain kinds of food, if we can start liking the crunch of carrots and celery instead of potato chips – then the food companies are not going to make it.”
“Our human culture is not on a sustainable path. We’ve got all of this violence and squabbling. But everybody eats. Everybody has to have food,” he says.
“If you look at a supermarket, people are independent. They’re rushing through, loading up carts, not interacting, being controlled by the marketing on the packages,” he says.
“At a farmers market,” he adds, “it’s a community experience. Conversations take place. Relationships are developed. People are willing to pay more money for something than they would in the supermarket because they know who’s producing it, they know what they’re getting and, in some cases, they can have some control over it.”
Next on Swick’s wish list is a pair of aeroponic gardens, indoor tower-shaped gardens that spray water onto the roots rather than immersing the roots.
He wrote a dean’s grant to obtain one model for the classroom and another for the Learning Center in Gabel Hall; the towers demonstrate the ability of year-round, indoor food production.
Meanwhile, he’s already doing his part to put gardens into tiny hands. First-graders from NIU’s Campus Child Care are watering and weeding the Annie Glidden Heritage Garden while their college-age counterparts are home for the summer.