Nurturing Green Thumbs at School
Incorporating a school garden into the curriculum cultivates many benefits.
By Erin Bailey
Like people, gardens come in all shapes and sizes. Adding a school garden to your curriculum is a big undertaking, but it is one that has many positive outcomes. In addition to providing real-world applications for many scientific principles, these living laboratories engage learners at a deeper level than classroom work.
 Cornell University found that pupils scored higher on standardized tests and had better attitudes about school when a garden was part of the curriculum. Research from Texas A&M has linked school gardens to an improved attitude toward vegetables and overall nutrition.
How Will My Class Use a Garden?
A school garden can be incorporated into every subject. Science and math are just the beginning. A garden will help to develop first-hand knowledge of plant structures, interdependence of organisms, the water cycle, erosion, and countless other topics. Gardening strengthens observation skills and encourages discussions about nutrition and food sources. In math, the garden can be used to observe patterns in nature, and it provides a concrete visual for solving word problems and for practicing arithmetic.
Gardening enriches other subjects, too. In art class, the garden lends itself to lessons on varying perspectives, focal points, color, and texture. Pupils can write poetry and compose songs about the plants and animals in the garden. Adding new books about gardens to your library can inspire reading and writing. Birds by Kevin Henkes, Birdsongs by Betsy Franco and Steve Jenkins, and Planting a Rainbow by Lois Ehlert are colorful choices.
Before digging out your gardening gloves, you will need a few things to get started. One of the first steps is to find the money for the tools and supplies. Organic grocer Whole Foods and Annie’s food company provide grants to get your garden growing. Check with local businesses and your PTA for donations. There is a garden for just about any budget.
Decisions about who will maintain the garden must be made. Getting the support of a corps of volunteers as well as the maintenance department will be very helpful. Perhaps a single grade level will be responsible for one aspect of care so that as children progress through the school, they will have an opportunity to perform all the tasks associated with a garden. For example, fifth graders can prepare the soil in the spring while kindergarten classes will be in charge of harvesting. Another way to divide the labor is to assign a row or square to each classroom.
You will need a site that has easy access to water and the classrooms and receives six hours of sun. If your school does not have a space that can be converted, consider raised beds or container gardening. As any gardener will tell you, good soil is the foundation of a fruitful garden. Invest in a soil test through your local agricultural extension agency. Better yet, invite a technician to the school to lead the class in completing this task.
Selecting plants should not be a haphazard decision. Have your class research native species, noting their soil and water requirements. If you will be concentrating on vegetables, don’t forget to add a few plants that will attract birds and butterflies to pollinate them.
One of the best lessons that gardening teaches is patience. Mother Nature adheres to no one’s schedule but her own. Nevertheless, you can maintain the interest of younger students with a few plantings that grow to maturity in a short time. Try bush or pole beans, cucumbers, and peas; all of which can be harvested in about ninety days. Other plants that are fun for children are hollyhocks, sunflowers, and snapdragons. We plant moon flowers each year and invite the kids to the garden at night to view these nocturnal beauties.
Like any endeavor, a school garden requires planning and commitment. To achieve its greatest potential, it should not be approached as “one more thing” to do in the curriculum. Rather, an effort should be made to focus the curriculum on the garden. Once it is up and growing, a garden will enhance your school for years to come.
 Klemmer, C.D., Waliczek, T.M. & Zajicek, J.M. (2005). Growing Minds: The Effect of a School Gardening Program on the Science Achievement of Elementary Students. HortTechnology. 15(3): 448-452.
Lessons Utilizing School Gardens on Lesson Planet:
After researching plants and their needs, upper elementary learners select plants for a school garden based on the school’s location. They are given a budget for their designs and present these designs at the end of the unit. The lesson includes an optional technology component.
Pupils work in small groups to investigate native and non-native plants. They discuss the benefits and dangers of non-native species and create a brochure or PowerPoint about a selection of plants they would like to include in a school garden.
Middle schoolers read the book Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman. In a journal, they keep notes about the personalities, backgrounds, and garden selections of characters from the book. The unit culminates with each person creating a unique Seedfolks character and presenting it to the class.
In this geometry lesson, early elementary learners search for symmetrical shapes in the real world. After viewing several examples, they draw their own shape with at least one line of symmetry. To satisfy a technology requirement, they could use KidPix or AppleWorks drawing programs rather than paper.