NSTA Press publishes high-quality resources for science educators. This series features just a few of the books recently released. The following excerpt is from Schoolyard Science, 101 Easy and Inexpensive Activities, by Thomas R. Lord and Holly J. Travis, edited for publication here. To download the full text of this chapter, go to http://bit.ly/zbNMAN. NSTA Press publications are available in print and electronically through the NSTA Science Store at www.nsta.org/store.
Activity 42. Planting a Garden on the School Grounds (PreK–8)
NSES Science Content Standards
- Unifying concepts and processes in science
- Science as inquiry
- Life science
- Earth and space science
- Science in personal and social perspectives
- History and nature of science
Additional materials: flower and vegetable seeds (42a,b,c); topsoil, compost, or fertilizer if needed (42a,b,c); garden tools (42a,b,c); greenhouse materials as needed (42c)
Gardens are not new to most students, but few have had the experience of working in one. Once involved, students ask a variety of questions, most of which are interesting and insightful. Some questions may lead to valid independent study projects. Planning a garden is fun, and students should be actively involved in the decision making. To direct their ideas, encourage students to walk around schools, churches, homes, and parks in the vicinity of the school. As they walk, suggest they consider natural elements—such as sunlight, wind, and water relationships—and human factors—such as playgrounds, sidewalks, and parking lots—and particularly the way these factors would interact on the school grounds. With these factors in mind, work with the class to plan the garden during the late winter. Make sure you also check with administrators and school grounds personnel to identify sites that should be left undisturbed so plants are not mowed or destroyed inadvertently.
Once the garden is planned, the students can begin to grow plants indoors or in a makeshift greenhouse, such as those described in 42c. Following planting instructions at this point is crucial, since seedlings and shoots will reach their transplant periods at different times. Also, check with local nurseries to see if they would like to donate young plants.
As the weather warms, students should prepare the garden space for planting on the school grounds, as it will need to be turned and weeded. Good quality topsoil and a bit of fertilizer or compost (if needed) should be mixed with the soil. This phase takes time and may require students to work after school or spend some weekend hours on the project. Parents and family members often volunteer with this preparation, and students benefit greatly from this intergenerational experience. Students also enjoy planting and maintaining the garden. Guide the students as they select where specific plants will be placed. Consider subdividing the garden into zones so that each team has its own small garden patch to maintain. *Use caution when handling and applying chemicals such as fertilizers.
a. Set an example: Plan an environmentally friendly garden (grades 4–8)
Encourage students to consider using environmentally friendly substitutes for pesticides, fungicides, and chemical fertilizers. To prepare the garden’s soil, students should spread 2 or 3 inches of compost over the ground and mix it into the soil. Students should spread mulch, such as shredded leaves or bark, between the rows of plants to protect the soil and suppress weed growth. To prevent fungi from harming the plants, students can spray plants with a “home brew” mixture of water (1 gallon), baking soda (3 tablespoons), and canola oil or Murphy’s Oil Soap (1 tablespoon). The baking soda reduces the acidic pH, which mildews and fungi love, and the oil soap helps the fluid stick to the plant. Students should spray the plants once a week in the cool of the morning. To discourage insect pests, students can mix 1 tablespoon of ground red pepper with one-half gallon of water, along with a few drops of dishwashing soap. Garlic works, too (one part 99% garlic concentrate, one part fish oil, and 98 parts water). For ease of measuring, use a one-liter bottle or container and add 10 milliliters each of the garlic concentrate and fish oil, then fill with water. Creating this dilution also is an excellent way to incorporate math skills into a science activity. Students should spray either concoction on the plants about once a week. They should also consider using biological insecticides such as Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) to snuff out insect larva such as hornworms and cabbageworms. Students can use plants that encourage beneficial insects and discourage the not-so-beneficial pests. Helpful insects such as aphid midges, ladybugs, lacewings, dragonflies, ichneumon wasps, braconid wasps, and tachinid flies can be attracted to the garden by adding shallow water baths and cultivating pollen-rich plants such as alyssum, dill, cosmos, and yarrow.
b. Select easy-to-grow, colorful plants (preK–8)
For a successful garden, students might want to plant easy-to-grow perennials and bulbs. Below is a list of dependable perennials likely to lead to a garden full of healthy plants.
- April—daffodils, columbines, bleeding hearts
- May—peonies, violets, daisies, geraniums
- June—coreopsis, iris, black-eyed Susans
- July—daylilies, Virginia bluebells
- August—obedient plants, cardinal flowers, steeple bushes
- September—asters, hibiscus, phlox
It is also fun to grow vegetables in a garden, and if they are selected carefully, they can be grown and eaten in their young state (before they mature) before summer vacation. Lettuce is a vegetable that can be raised and picked in a little more than a month. Other vegetables that can be grown in six to eight weeks are beans, beets, carrots, eggplant, and squash. Pumpkins are fun to plant and watch grow over the summer as well, and they require minimum gardening effort. When students return to the schoolyard at summer’s end, they will be greeted with long, twisted vines that can be herded into a small area. Students love to watch the fruits grow during the fall, and they can harvest several pumpkins before Halloween.
c. Creating a mini-greenhouse (preK–8)
Several different types of greenhouses are easy and inexpensive to make for use around a school. All greenhouses follow the same principles in that they allow sunlight and small amounts of air and moisture to get to the plants while retaining the heat from solar energy. This allows students to start seeds early and transplant them when spring arrives.
- The cloche greenhouse. This is one of the simplest schoolyard greenhouses to make. Students cut the neck off a clear, 2 L plastic bottle, and turn the bottle upside-down over small plants. Once this is done, students punch a few pencil-size holes around the middle of the bottle to allow ventilation and stop fungal diseases. *With younger students, the teacher should cut the bottle.
- The porch greenhouse. Another simple greenhouse students can make involves lining a middle-size cardboard box (e.g., office paper box) with a plastic bag and putting two or three inches of garden soil on the plastic. Teams should select the seeds they wish to grow and follow seed package directions to plant them. Students add enough water to get the soil really damp, cover the top of the box with clear plastic wrap, and use duct tape to tape it to the sides of the box. Poke a few holes in the plastic wrap at the top so the seeds can get air, and place the box in a sunny spot outdoors. Be sure to protect the greenhouse from torrential downpours and icy temperatures by making sure it is in a protected location or by bringing it inside temporarily.
- The plastic sheet greenhouse. Students can plant the seeds they wish to grow directly in the garden in early spring, but they must protect the young seeds and shoots from frost while retaining the Sun’s heat. The easiest way to do this is to create a greenhouse with a sheet of transparent plastic that is held a few inches off the ground by a frame made of wood or plastic pipe. The plastic should be taped or tacked firmly to the frame so that it does not sag onto the growing plants; the plastic should also completely cover the ends and sides of the frame.