Lessons from the garden

Lessons from the garden

The glory of gardening: hands in the dirt, head in the sun, heart with nature. To nurture a garden is to feed not just the body, but the soul. – Alfred Austin

Leona Vrbanac, a dedicated educator with a passion for nourishing minds and bodies, embarked on a transformative journey eight years ago. Having transitioned from teaching elementary students to high school culinary classes, Leona quickly recognized a missing link in her students' education - a connection with nature. It was this realization that prompted her to introduce gardening into her high school curriculum. The students began cultivating the earth, sowing seeds of curiosity and reaping the rewards of hands-on learning.

As the garden thrived and their connection with nature deepened, Leona's educational journey took another significant turn. It was a book, "Farmocology" by Dr. Daphne Miller, that served as a catalyst for a profound shift in her approach. The book shed light on the importance of not just growing "healthy" foods but understanding the power of nourishing, medicinal foods. This revelation opened a world of opportunities, inspiring Leona and her students to expand their educational horizons.

students are planting

Today, their culinary classroom has blossomed into a sanctuary for learning, a place where a flourishing herbal garden, a mushroom bed, a pollinator patch, and a small orchard coexist harmoniously. Together, Leona and her students embark on a journey of exploration, crafting infusions, tinctures, preserving herb salts, and distilling hydrosols. Her students eagerly anticipate the start of each new year, visiting the garden to handpick their cup of "tea."

Leona's mission goes beyond just nurturing the garden. She has created a safe haven within an urban high school, nestled in a food-insecure community. In this little world that they have nurtured together, students not only grow plants but also develop a profound sense of belonging and security. Leona's commitment to her students and their shared love for their little green oasis is a testament to the power of education, nurturing, and the boundless potential that blooms when nature and knowledge come together.

Interview with Leona

What can today's classrooms or modern students learn from ancient cultures and traditions?

Today's students are looking for a way to reestablish relationships physically, emotionally, and mentally. Nature has always been a powerful tool for connection. The sunshine and earth lend themselves to instigating a lightening of spirit, an elevation of mood, and a relaxed demeanor. Our ancestors did not spend their days connected to a device or under fluorescent lights, they spent their days keenly observing the natural world and leveraging the gifts of nature. When we honor ancient practices, when we take time to observe the natural world, when we rediscover ancestral knowledge, we feel connected to a global community established at the beginning of time. From watching my students, I believe that they find their place in this time and space--the time and space they were uniquely created for--by working in the sun and soil. We might step outside the classroom to do a small job, but when it is time to go inside the building the students ask to stay outside. I hear them say, "but I feel so serene" or "I'm so relaxed." I believe that this relaxed, calm, steady mental state opens opportunities for learning throughout the school day. Conversely, high school drama and sometimes significant trauma closes the door of learning for my students. Thus, the importance of regenerating a bit of soil and growing a bounty of herbs is beneficial in a multitude of ways.  

Leona Leona Vrbanac: Pictured here in the center


“When we honor ancient practices, when we take time to observe the natural world, when we rediscover ancestral knowledge, we feel connected to a global community established at the beginning of time.”

What inspired you to weave hydrosols into your education?

I moved from teaching elementary to teaching high school culinary about 8 years ago. I could see that the students needed to connect with nature - so we began  gardening. We were able to use what we were growing in class  - and it was a great start! Then, I read Farmocology by Dr. Daphne Miller, and it became clear that we needed to grow from eating "healthy" foods to learning about nourishing, medicinal foods. Oh my goodness...that opened so many doors and opportunities. 

What have you been growing with your students?

We now have a flourishing herbal garden, a mushroom bed, a pollinator patch, and a small orchard. We love to make infusions, tinctures, preserved herb salts, and hydrosols. I have students who come visit at the beginning of each new year to go pick their cup of "tea." I love creating a safe space in an urban high school in a food insecure community. We really do love the little world we grow together. 

leona grid collage

Why did you choose to teach your students about hydrosols?

  1. Hydrosols lend themselves to staying in the present, breathing deeply, and experiencing our herb of the week in a new way. 

  2. The statement "let's build a still" brings immediate engagement from all 150 students! 

  3. Hydrosols are the perfect balance of science and mystery.

  4. Hydrosols are nourishing and healing.

  5. Students have named our hydrosols "liquid garden"--builds appreciation and gratitude for the garden.

  6. We learn about our favorite herbs---growing, harvesting, collecting and distilling.

  7. The distillation process is beautiful and stressful - we go through the process together AND celebrate together at the end; this collective journey helps us learn personal self- regulation skills and also builds community. 


Students plant, grow, harvest and distill their own hydrosol.

    Books that have helped me plan our curriculum

    Farmacology: Daphne Miller

    The Dirt Cure: Dr. Maya Shetreat

    Eat to Beat Depression: Dr. Drew Ramsey

    Eat Like a Human: Dr. Bill Schindler

    Introduction to Permaculture: Bill Mollison

    A variety or essays by Wendell Berry


    High praise for Leona for providing enriching opportunities for adolescents to connect to our sustaining Mother Earth and her gifts! If only our whole nation would embrace our basic connection to our Life Force and involve this important subject in our school’s curriculums! May Leona continue to find success in her educational endeavors!


    Wow! Would it be possible to get in touch with Leona? I am also a teacher and I am very interested in making my own hydrosols. Any information would be appreciated. Thank you!


    Thanks for sharing this truly inspirational story! Hopefully the many benefits Leona has passed on by cultivating the garden with her students will encourage other teachers in similar situations to emulate her lead.

    Joan Sommers

    THIS IS AWESOME! I thoroughly enjoyed reading Leona’s story and how she is making such a HUGE impact on so many students lives! WOW! Inspiring! Thanks for sharing such an uplifting story. We need more of that these days!!!

    Tracy Noonan

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