The gardens are designed to fit into any school footprint, whether it has acres of surrounding fields or only a small rooftop. Designed by Musk's wife, artist Jennifer Lewin, the plastic containers come in three sizes and fit together to create an array of curves and spirals. Additional pieces create shaded areas, benches for seating and "art poles" for students to decorate.
So far, the costs are still high. A large garden and installation can cost as much as $50,000 — a huge sum for schools in challenging economic times. (Through fundraising — JP Morgan Chase has been the lead donor in Chicago — the Kitchen Community has raised $1.3 million to cover the costs.) But the modular nature of the gardens means that a small plot can cost as little as $3,000. As the program grows, Musk says, the costs will come down.
The planters are all but indestructible. And that's important, says Musk, because Learning Gardens are integrated into school playgrounds.
"I wanted a place kids could hang out," he says. "The layout is like a maze. It's easy to run around. It's easy for them to come check on their planters. It's a place that they'd like to be."
At Irma C. Ruiz Elementary in Chicago, the Learning Garden is called Playground 3. Unveiled in May, it has 19 planters, in which the students grow collard greens, peppers, Swiss chard, tomatoes and herbs. There's a metal arbor with large rocks beneath it that serve as chairs, tables and objects to climb on.
Seventh-grader Luna McWilliams says the garden is different from the playground but just as fun: "The garden constantly offers a place to work and learn in nature. I find it a lot of fun to care for the plants, and I know my classmates do as well."