The Environmental Laboratory for Sustainability and Ecological Education (ELSEE) is the model of a garden that does two important things:

  • Serves as a laboratory for learning science, nutrition, and sustainability
  • Promotes land utilization by preserving native biodiversity, growing local sustainable food, and protecting ecosystem services


It was first started on March 2nd in the year 2010 at California Native Garden Foundation’s Headquarter (CNGF). The teaching garden is used for field trips, summer camps, and weekly community events. By replacing schoolyards with ELSEE gardens, we can improve the health and sustainability of school lands and better utilize these public lands for effective STEM education programs.

It is a project directed and managed by the California Native Garden Foundation (CNGF) 


It is located at 76 Race Street, San Jose. It is a 4-acre square piece of property, bordered on the Northside by Garland Street, on the west by Race street on the south. Located next to St. Leo the Great School’s driveway and on the east by St. Leo’s parking lot. 


Alrie Middlebrook drew the concept for ELSEE in the winter of 2010. She is President and founder of Middlebrook Gardens and co-authored the groundbreaking book “Designing California Native Gardens; The Plant Community Approach to Artful, Ecological Gardens.” She regularly gives talks and lectures throughout California on sustainability in garden design.


It has both educational and sustainability goals:

Educational Goals

  • Gardening using the ecology-based model
  • Growing and preparing native food, and integrating it into a mainstream diet
  • Producing conventional food with urban agriculture technology
  • The hands-on components of the Environment and Education Initiative (EEI), the new ecology curriculum for California Schools

Sustainability Goals

  • Utilize school lands in a way that promotes both education and responsible, healthy land use
  • Preserve our clean air, water, and healthy soils and protect ecosystem services
  • Promote local Biodiversity by landscaping with native plants 


The current public schoolyard model is outdated, its lands are underutilized. These lands can be converted into teaching gardens that are more environmentally friendly and can even generate income for schools. As of 2014, California public schools are required to teach environmental education. Outdoor learning laboratories provide a space for hands-on, project based education, allowing children to be closer to nature and experience the natural environment.

Here is a video by Dr. Sanhita Datta, a math and science division faculty member at San Jose City College. She has been working for several years with California Native Garden Foundation: Center for Urban Sustainability. In the video, she portrays how her Environmental Science curriculum overlaps with CNGF.


  • Provide a space for teaching environmental science
  • Educate future voters, policy-makers, and leaders about environmental issues
  • Protect Nature biodiversity by utilizing native plants in landscaping
  • Restore soil nutrients using sustainable farming practices and composting
  • Teach healthy eating habits by growing organic fruits and vegetables
  • Protect our water system by replacing asphalt with permeable Hardscapes 


The ELSEE’s source of income:

  • School field trips
  • Venue Rental 
  • Fundraising events
  • Saturdays-workshops, CSA partner, native food brunch
  • Native plant nursery 


  • CNGF plans to open a restaurant, the Eating California Restaurant at its headquarters.
  • CNGF will teach certification classes for sustainable site certification through the USGBC and the SSI. CNGF headquarters 76 Race street, San Jose, CA is a pilot site for the SSI program
  • Fresh fruits and vegetables grown in our vertical farm can be sold. 
  • Visitors will pay an entrance fee to ELSEE. Publications and souvenirs will be sold in the Visitor’s center.


Currently, the ELSEE master garden utilizes many design features that protect ecosystem services: a constructed wetland, native gardens that recreate California ecosystems, porous handscapes, and a turtle and fish pond. The design takes advantage of urban farm technology to make the most of our space by using vertical gardening, an Aquaponics system, roof garden, and a wild-grape shade structure. Recycled materials have been to construct the food tours, play structure and vertical garden, and cordwood retail nursery office. The current structure on the site acts as the CNGF office and an indoor classroom. The native plant nursery is small but growing (literally!) every day. All sites and architectural development will conform to the benchmarks set fourth by the Sustainable Sites Initiative. 

In the future, we hope to own the land on which the master garden stands. The house on the property will then become the Eating California Restaurant. Three-dimensional designs for the finished garden can be viewed here. 

Class and Students

The ecology-based curriculum developed by the State of California will provide the content for our instruction. Classes are taught by student interns from local high schools and colleges. So far, the participating high schools are Downtown College Prep, Willow Glen High School, Notre Dame High School. Participating college interns have come from Foothill College, Cabrillo College, Stanford University, San Jose State University and Santa Clara University. 

CNGF invites classes from local elementary and high schools to the ELSEE master garden for field trips. During field trips, the students are given a tour of the teaching garden and are taught an ELSEE lesson.


  • Foundations and institutions who fund environmental projects, environmental education, food safety and security, sustainable development and green job development, outdoor educational programs, clean air and clean water programs, organic urban agriculture, water conservation and watershed management reduced carbon, zero waste, art education, student intern development and so on.
  • Public funding for economic green development, environmental education, neighborhood improvement and enhancement. 
  • Private donations to CNGF
  • Fundraising events hosted by CNGF members and friends
  • Private corporations such as food distributors and processors, agribusiness concerns, solar and alternative energy, manufacturing companies, green building materials, manufacturing, engineering and technology companies, construction management enterprises and restaurants