Born in New York City, Frances (Fannie) Griscom Parsons became a leader in the nationwide school gardening movement. Her father, John Hopkins Griscom, a physician, was one of the first to attribute environmental conditions—overcrowded tenements, poor sanitation, and lack of recreational conditions to the high mortality rates and low morale in slum neighborhoods. Her grandfather, John Griscom, a social reformer was one of the founding members of the New York House of Refuge for Juvenile Delinquents, the first children’s reformatory in the city.
In 1902, Parsons created the first garden for children in New York City, Children’s School Farm, on a plot of land in Hell’s Kitchen. Continuing the family legacy of reform, her work was also as an outgrowth of her experiences as a mother of seven. Along with overseeing the Children’s School Farm, which eventually found a permanent space with construction of De Witt Clinton Park, Parsons gave lectures, created exhibitions and trained teachers across the city, promoting school gardens. In 1910, the Department of Parks appointed Parsons the director of the newly created Bureau of School Farms. As the first woman director, she created new farms in Thomas Jefferson Park, Corlears Hook Park, Seward Park, and Isham Park in Manhattan and in McCarren Park, Betsy Head Park, and Highland Park in Brooklyn.