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March 7, 2012 How Does Our School Garden Grow? Part 1 By Alycia Zimmerman
Grades PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8

    School gardens are becoming increasingly popular as we teachers discover the wide-ranging benefits of nurturing a green space with our students. For those of us living in temperate climates, March is the time to begin planning for a successful planting season. This week I’ll share the story of my school’s vegetable garden, as well as the rationale for starting a garden at your school.

    Then next week, I’ll provide practical tips for starting a garden this spring at your school, as well as an extensive list of resources. Gardening with students is a truly natural way to channel students' curiosity and exuberance into a wonder-filled interdisciplinary learning experience.


    The Story of Our Garden

    Three years ago, my 3rd graders wanted to find a service project to improve our school community. One of my students suggested that we clean up the overlooked dirt patch in front of our school, and the idea for our garden grew from those humble beginnings. After my students had removed the litter from the fenced-in space bordering Ninth Avenue, we realized that it was actually a sunny space with a lot of potential, but one in major need of some TLC.

    Our very first groundbreaking!

    That first year, with my principal’s permission and the help of some volunteers, my students dug up a corner of the yard, and we planted several packets of seeds. Soon we had tomatoes, herbs, peppers, and onions growing in front of our school! Other classes asked to get involved in the garden; members of the local community volunteered their time throughout the summer; and the PTA raised funds to expand our garden.

    By our second year, we had installed raised beds to prevent the accidental trampling of our garden; I had recruited a team of teachers committed to working in the garden with their classes; and we had the green light from our principal to weave garden lessons throughout our curricula. (We also had an enormous dump truck deliver organic soil and compost to enrich our garden’s soil and prevent contamination. Make sure to have your soil tested before starting a garden, please!)

    Garden Set-Up Year 2  

    We added raised beds and organic soil to our garden for the second year of planting.

    The success of our garden last year was incredible: we grew a rich bounty of tomatoes, beans, broccoli, beets, corn, and more, all in a small space bordering a busy city street. For all of my students, this was their first experience gardening, and for most of them, their first time being exposed to many of those vegetables. This fall, my students returned to school to a bountiful harvest, which we put to use in a wide range of nutrition and cooking lessons.


    We harvested our very own NYC corn this past summer! (This ear was picked a bit too early, but it didn't go to waste.) Another student "wears" a giant broccoli leaf.


    Why Garden?

    I’m going to skip the hard sell — there are plenty of websites and articles that expound on the myriad academic, social and emotional, and physical benefits of gardening with students. Instead, I’ll simply tell you about some of the benefits I’ve seen firsthand from our school garden. Does gardening take some time away from traditional reading, writing, and math lessons? Most certainly. Is it worth it? Absolutely!

    Student Engagement

    Let’s face it: during the last few months of school, it can be tricky keeping our students focused on their books instead of the bright blue sky outside. Not only are lessons out in the garden a fantastic motivator for finishing work in the classroom, but my students were also more focused upon returning to the classroom after garden lessons. Working in the garden provides a much-needed change of scenery, and it is a truly authentic context for a wide array of academic projects.

    A quiet moment pondering a young corn stalk.

    Community Involvement

    With students outside in our garden almost every day, members of the community would frequently stop to lean over the fence and offer a bit of advice or ask the children questions. The students’ parents and siblings volunteered time throughout the summer to come to school to tend the garden. My students’ families come from all over the world, and our garden spurred conversations between their families about their diverse gardening experiences “back home” in their former countries. Everyone seems to have a story, connection, or suggestion about the garden, and it’s a nonthreatening way for parents to get involved with the school.

    Families help to care for our garden throughout the summer.

    Nutrition and Environmental Education

    Chard, radishes, and soybeans went from scary alien invaders to delicious vegetable friends as the students enjoyed tasting the wide range of produce that they grew themselves. Our garden also provides a natural context for discussions about industrial food production, local and organic agriculture, pollution, composting, waste management, and more.

    A student checks out a burgundy bean. These amazing beans turn green when they are boiled.

    Constructivist Learning and Problem Solving

    From budgeting our seed purchases and planning the layout of the garden beds to dealing with pesky squirrels and neighborhood litter-bugs, our garden provides a seemingly endless supply of real-world problems to be solved.

    My students measure and graph our plants' growth each week.


    Ready, Set, Plant!

    Given all the benefits of gardening with children, are you considering starting a garden with your class? Next week, in "How Does Our School Garden Grow? Part 2," I’ll provide a very simple plan to start a garden this spring. It’s far easier than you’d imagine to create an “outdoor classroom” that nurtures your students’ curiosity, creativity, and sense of wonder. 


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Susan Cheyney