The Lower School food forest – Switzerland’s first – opened in October 2021, funded entirely by donations to the Annual Fund. It’s a beautiful, largely self-sustaining garden with more than 100 different, mostly edible, trees, bushes, ground cover plants and vines, many of which are wild varieties of familiar foods such as kale, garlic, onion and mint. And it’s a far cry from its humble origins.
“Like many schools, ZIS had a garden. But it wasn’t being used to its full potential,” says Kristie Lear, the school’s sustainability lead. Every year, a teacher and class would clear it and plant some annuals – then it would become overgrown again. “It never felt integrated,” says Kristie. “When I was put in charge of sustainable initiatives, I wanted a sustainable learning space – a food forest that would help create a mini ecosystem. Annual gardening is a lot of work and usually you get the gains from it in the summer, when kids aren’t here. Designing something that mimics nature is a much more sustainable way to go.”
Food forests are based on permaculture principles – the oldest way of gardening. “A food forest incorporates the relationships between things in the forest,” says Kristie. “A garden like this shows how a full system works: systems thinking is a big part of sustainability. You don’t disrupt the soil in a food forest garden, for example. You just mulch and compost, like the forest does.”
Of course, the garden is a space for learning: it’s integrated into both science and social studies subjects. But it plays another very important role. “Research has shown that children who have an emotional attachment to a special place in nature are more likely to be stewards of the environment as adults,” says Kristie. “That’s why we also designed the garden as a place to play. We wanted it to be a space for kids who love plants and growing, but for those who will just love being there and having that connection.”
It’s a perfect example of what sustainability in schools can look like, says Kristie. “We need to talk about climate and biodiversity loss – but all those things are problems. It’s time to shift the narrative, helping students to interact with a futuristic model. What does sustainable look like? What does it mean?” The food forest is one answer to both those questions.
“Children who have an emotional attachment to a special place in nature are more likely to be stewards of the environment as adults”
Sustainability, Curriculum Development and Instructional Coach