Growing UP (and around, and down...)

Exploring Plant Growth with Garden Structures

One characteristic that distinguishes plants from animals is mobility. But just because plants don't walk, fly, or swim doesn't mean they don't move! Keen garden observers see that, in addition to stretching their stems and leaves upward and outward, sunflowers turn to face the sun, pea tendrils curl around stakes to keep vines erect, and morning glory stems wrap themselves snake-like around the uprights of a trellis. Underground, roots grow toward sources of moisture and away from obstructions. Plants have adapted these slow 'dance moves,' -- what scientists call tropisms -- to various environmental stimuli (e.g., light, touch, gravity) to gain a competitive edge and reproductive advantage.

Building garden structures gives kids a chance to track and experiment with plant tropisms while adding dimension, beauty, and creative play spaces to the outdoor classroom. Whether you and your students create seasonal structures built entirely of plants or from found objects, or permanent ones constructed from durable materials, you can enhance learning in the garden with structures that show off plant growth habits.

In this Classroom Project, we feature three types of garden structures: supports for vining plants, plant 'houses,' and root view boxes. Each of these can be built to fit your budget and climate, and with ideas from our Curriculum Connections, adapted to meet the curricular focus of your classroom.

Materials

In addition to garden tools, and seeds or plants, here's what you'll need to build each of the featured structures:

Tepee: Eight to ten 2-inch diameter poles (length dependent on desired height of your tepee). Use bamboo, recycled lumber or PVC pipe, branches cut from your garden, or another similar resource.

Tunnel: Lumber at least 2-by-2-inches thick and 4 feet long; nails or screws; hammer or screwdriver

Plant Houses: twine

Simple root-view box: Empty milk carton, scissors, cellophane and tape

Building Supports for Vining Plants

Making A Garden Tepee

There's nothing like sitting in a shady spot and snacking on green beans to help children make early and happy connections with the garden. A tepee, big enough for one or many children, will provide a wonderful secret spot and take advantage of the vertical growing space in your garden, a boon to gardeners with limited space.

1. Plan and plot. The size of your tepee depends on how much space you have, what time of year you are planting and the type of crop you are growing. For example, you can make a huge bean tepee in the summer using 10-foot poles, with space for 10 kids inside. Or, you can make a small pea tepee in the spring or fall using six-foot poles with room for just one child.

Make sure to choose a spot with adequate sun for the crop you are growing. Once you've planned how big you want the base, you can have students use geometry skills to draw the circle. This is a great way to give students practical experiences with the concepts of radius, diameter and circumference. Cut a string the length of the circle's diameter. Fold it in half to get the radius and cut it. Tie one end of one of the pieces of string to a stick and plant the stick in the center of the circle. Pull the string tight. Tie the other end to a stick and use it to draw a perfect circle in the soil.

2. Set up poles. Loosen the soil all around the circle to a depth of at least six inches and add compost or other amendments to enrich the soil. Decide how many poles you'll need to fit around the circle with 1 to 2 feet between poles.

Push the ends of the poles into the soil at the proper spacing. Pole ends should reach at least six inches into the soil. Pull the poles together at the top (you may need a ladder to reach) and tie with sturdy twine, wrapping them to make sure they're tight. To make your tepee grow more densely, you can weave strings around the poles and then tie vertical vining strings across those strings.

3. Raise green walls. Plant your seeds or seedlings all around the circle on the outside of the poles and vining strings. Leave a section between two poles unplanted to serve as the doorway. Keep plants watered and protected from birds as needed.

4. Decorate the interior! When the tepee is fully covered with vines you may want to cover the floor with mats, straw or even old carpet samples to keep the weeds down and make a comfy place to read, tell stories, or investigate plant growth.

Making A Crawl-Through Tunnel

Kids love to crawl and chase each other through a tunnel of vining plants. Making a tunnel is similar to making a tepee, except you plant the seeds in two long rows about 4 feet apart. Build a sturdy structure tall enough to crawl through using pieces of lumber that are at least 2-by-2-inches thick and at least 4 feet long. To add stability, nail or screw cross supports along the length of each 'wall' of the tunnel. Weave sturdy twine across the top and sides in a net pattern. Plant seeds that will grow tall enough to cover the arch of the tunnel.

Creative Garden Supports

Climbing plants will clamber up just about anything they can cast a tendril over. Think twice before discarding that broken ladder, old chair or bicycle wheel. A piece of driftwood or an old branch can be a whimsical support for climbing flowers or vegetables. Challenge your students to come up with unique designs for garden trellises that don't involve using new resources. Just be sure there is plenty of room for air to circulate inside the structure. Plant seeds or seedlings at the base of the support and watch them climb.

Climbing and Vining Plants to Try

Here are a few suggestions of plants that make fine "living walls." Be sure to choose plants that are hardy and will thrive in your climate, and that will grow quickly enough to cover your structure within the growing season.

Annuals
sweet peas, climbing varieties
morning glories
moonflowers
nasturtiums
pole beans — all varieties. Some good ones to try are scarlet runner beans, tricolor beans, yard-long beans
peas
gourds
Jack-Be-Little pumpkins

Perennials (Use these for dressing permanent structures)
trumpet vine
honeysuckle
hops
black-eyed Susan vine
passionflower

Raising Plant Houses

One sure way to encourage observation of plant growth and structure up close is to build a house out of them. Unlike a tepee, a plant house does not require poles. The walls are just plants! The best choices are tall plants such as corn, hollyhocks, or sunflowers.

1. Design the layout. Have students design the layout of the house. It can be any shape they desire, and can even have multiple rooms if there's enough growing space. Make sure to allow for a 3-foot-wide entrance, and some space for doors between rooms.

2. Sow the walls. Cultivate the soil where the house will grow. Scrape the outline of each room into the soil and plant seeds to the appropriate depth. Water and weed the patch as the plants grow.

3. Make some shade. If you want a roof on your house, train climbing vines such as runner beans or morning glories up the stalks of the walls. When they reach the top, attach strings to the tops of one row of plants to those on the opposite wall. Train the vines to crawl across the top. Now sit inside and enjoy the pride of home ownership!

Creating Root-View Boxes

root-viewroot-viewHere's a structure that will help students understand what's happening under the ground as plants grow. This window into the usually hidden world beneath the soil's surface will fascinate both children and adults. A root view box is essentially a planter box with a hinged door that you can open. Seeds or seedlings are planted against a wall of sturdy glass or Plexiglas for easy viewing. Our Curriculum Connections suggests experiments and observations students can make using this window on the root zone.

For instructions and a diagram for building a root view box like the one at right, download the Root View Box PDF file from Life Lab attached below.

Individual students can create smaller, much simpler root view boxes with a milk carton, some tape, cellophane, and black paper. Simply open up the milk carton and cut a long window in one of the vertical sides. Tape cellophane to the inside of the window to cover it. Fill the box with soil. Plant seeds near the edge with the window. Wrap the box with black paper (Leaving the top open for the plant to grow) and secure with tape or a rubber band. This box is perfect for observing roots over a short period of time. If students wonder why the window needs to be covered, suggest that they create a second box and leave the window open to the light to see what happens. (They'll discover that roots have a negative tropism for light.)

Guest Author

Erika Perloff was the director of educational programs for Life Lab Science Program in Santa Cruz, California. Her office looked out on the two-acre Life Lab Garden Classroom, a discovery center focused on garden-based learning that attracts thousands of visitors each year. The Garden Classroom is a wonderland of plant tunnels, mazes, tepees, root view boxes and other structures that get children and adults excited about learning. Erika also coordinated educational programs for schools to help teachers promote science learning through school gardens.

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Last updated on 10/31/2014
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