We planted the spring garden in the raised beds at my daughter’s elementary school last week and we were all so excited to be able to dig in after weeks of preparation. We started our journey mid-January when the third graders planted our tomato seeds indoors under grow lights. Then a couple of weeks ago we began prepping the outdoor beds by adding new soil and repairing the drip irrigation. This is my fourth spring garden with the Glen Loch Elementary Teaching Gardens, and I thought over the next few blogs I could share with you some of the most helpful tips and tricks I have learned through the years, starting with a suggestion that I’ve found to be a huge contributor to the positive impact of the whole garden program:

Tip #1: Every student needs to have an in-depth, hands-on experience to develop a sense of ownership.

The very first year I helped with the fourth grade garden we use two different types of garden planning and planting techniques. That first fall, we divided the beds into individual plots and then let the kids plan their own little gardens with a partner. Everyone loved it and the kids took their harvest home to share with their families. The following spring, to save time amid busy standardized testing prep, we chose to plant theme gardens. Instead of working in pairs, every class chose a theme and all the students in the class planted one bed all together. I tried to have something for everyone to plant, but needing to keep costs down, we had very few seedlings, and some students only planted a couple of seeds. Not only was it obvious throughout the spring that the students were not as invested in the garden, an end of the year survey showed that the kids greatly favored the fall garden style. We have used the individual plot method with the fourth graders with great success since then. It has also been so gratifying to see how much they learn between the fall and spring gardens. Being able to repeat the planning/planting/maintaining/harvesting cycle experience twice in one school year has delivered amazing increases in both confidence and knowledge gained.

I was reminded of the importance of offering extensive hands-on experiences when we added third grade gardens this past fall. We received a grant to add beds for our third graders, but due to space and money, our expansion resulted in each third grade class only having one 3’ X 3’ raised bed. This meant that planting a class theme garden was pretty much our only design option. In the fall, we divided each class into four teams and each student planted a sugar snap pea seed around a teepee and we hosted a sugar snap pea race (the team whose peas made it to the top first won). We also planted marigolds around the border and discussed companion plants. Although I do like marigolds, the main goal of adding them was really to give each student an inexpensive planting experience to go with the seed planting. Although the kids enjoyed the fall gardens and they each had a chance to plant something, much like the response from the fourth graders when we tried a class-themed garden, they definitely did not seem to develop the same sense of ownership.

We used colored straws to identify different tomato varieties.

Since outdoor space is limited, we came up with an alternate solution for the spring garden by purchasing a light garden and having the third graders start their own seeds for the spring garden. Each student planted at least two seeds in a starting tray, and then a couple of weeks later they each transplanted at least one of the small seedlings into a larger pot. So they had two planting experiences before we started the outdoor garden. The result was close to 180 tomato plants! (Whew, this proved to be a bit more work than I was expecting, especially when it came time to move the plants outdoors for periods of time to harden them off.)

Each class chose a tomato recipe-based theme for their spring garden. Last week they had the chance to plant their tomato plants, along with additional ingredients for the recipe. Once again, I made sure each student had at least one thing to plant. Our spring beds include a Pizza Garden, a Salsa Garden, a Bruschetta Garden, a Pasta Garden, and a Tomato Basil Soup Garden. All of the gardens have tomatoes (we grew 7 different varieties), onions and garlic. We also scattered in basil, cilantro, oregano, parsley, and peppers where appropriate.

Third grade garden tomato recipe-based theme gardens.

Obviously, we did not have space to grow 180 tomato plants in our school garden! We planted as many as we could, and we had enough left so that every student had a chance to take a tomato plant home (with some left for the teachers too). Although the season is young, their enthusiasm for the garden already surpasses what I saw with our fall garden, and I can feel that sense of ownership taking root. I will check back in with you guys after our harvest in May to report our findings.

The take away message is this – finding a way for each student to have an in-depth experience in the garden is not always easy, but is key to creating a lasting impact with your garden program. Being surrounded by gardens and observing the growth and change throughout a season provides numerous teaching opportunities and benefits., But from my perspective, it is establishing the feelings of ownership that fuels students’ pride and plants the seeds of gardening in their soul.

Next up, School Garden Tip #2: My Favorite Tools.

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Blog By: Sarah Pounders

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