As I visit schools, I’m always amazed at the creative ways that plantings are being utilized. School gardens come in all types of sizes and shapes, but generally fall into three categories. Sometimes even small school sites have incorporated all three.
Gardens that create a habitat for wildlife
Although often not resembling traditional gardens, the planting of trees and shrubs on the school grounds provides cover and food sources for wildlife. Schools often plant formal butterfly or hummingbird gardens, but a bush planted near a classroom window can also encourage critters to come a little closer.
Gardens to honor or remember
Many schools have commemorative gardens or groves that recognize special people, events or achievements. Frequently these special areas have benches or winding pathways to promote a sense of reflection.
Gardens that are “rooted” in the curriculum
These are gardens that have been planted with specific curriculum in mind. For example, one Ohio family and consumer science teacher has her students plant herbs for use during a foods unit. A North Carolina teacher uses a sensory garden to help her first graders explore the five senses. She includes plants that have interesting textures, smells, shapes and colors, and tastes (mint is used for this one). Ornamental grasses and wind chimes provide sounds to complete the sensory experience. A Georgia teacher has a garden that includes the flowers and plants mentioned in several children’s books.
Gardens also can provide unique living examples of regional economy or history. A good example is the Three Sisters Garden that is grown to demonstrate the three main agricultural crops of many Native American groups. The function and arrangement of beans, squash and corn provides a fascinating history lesson as well as insight into agricultural practices and nutrition.
Plants associated with the local economy such as cotton are often incorporated into school plantings. One Ohio teacher plants state flowers for her state and all of the states contiguous to Ohio. One Georgia school has a “dye garden” where all of the plants in the garden have been used historically to dye cloth. Students then have the opportunity to card wool and then dye cloth.
Here are some other interesting garden themes:
- Pizza garden—Plants for pizza toppings (tomatoes, onions, peppers, etc.)
- Author garden—Plants that are mentioned in an author’s work
- Biblical garden—Plants mentioned in the Bible
- School name garden—Plants that start with various letters of your school name
- Multicultural garden—Plants associated with different cultures
- Fibonacci garden– Flowers or other plants that contain a number from the Fibonacci sequence in either the flowers, seeds or leaf structure(1,2,3,5,8,13,21…)
An excellent source of school gardening information is available from the Granny’s Garden School website. I know, I had to chuckle at the name also. Little did I know that Granny’s is considered by many to be the largest and most comprehensive school garden program in the Midwest. The website provides lesson plan guides with excellent examples of curriculum connections. And there really is a Granny! I had a wonderful conversation with Roberta Paolo, who shared some very practical tips for school gardeners:
- Although many garden plants will not bloom or be edible until after school is out for the summer, Roberta tries to have students plant something that can be harvested before the school year ends. Many greens are fast growing and can provide a salad before students leave. For other flowers and crops, the emphasis is upon planting forward for the next class.
- Planting different colors of the same vegetable can encourage students to sample a food that they may have already decided they don’t like. Radishes, for example, come in a variety of colors including red, pink, white, yellow and purple. Roberta tries to include several varieties of radishes in the same planting bed. Instead of saying “let’s taste a radish,” the statement is turned into a question. “Do you think the purple radish will taste hotter than the white one?” Amazingly, kids who wouldn’t think of eating a vegetable are intrigued enough by the question to give it a try!
- Get good shovels. Spending a little extra on good quality shovels is worth it—no more breakage.
- Looking for a protective cover for young plants, or a support for growing flowers? Roberta uses empty planters that had been lined with moss in a previous season. The empty wire basket serves as a perfect plant support.
Garden plots give kids direct contact with nature and provide a wonderful interdisciplinary living laboratory. A garden can be a classroom for lessons in measurement, estimation, journaling, local natural history, shapes, patterns, nutrition, creative writing — the applications are limitless. Perhaps more importantly, gardens can help to reinforce personal concepts like responsibility, patience and stewardship. That’s a tremendous return from a little plot of dirt!