Planning the Garden with Kids

Over the years, selecting crops for the Blake school food garden has happened in a few different ways. There has been input from parents, teachers, and community members. I’ve also chosen some crops based on growing speed and seasons (trying to maximise spring and fall crops, while kids are in school), ease of growing, and what we can use for in-class cooking activities or curriculum-linked lessons. Until this year, though, the students had not had much say in what we’ve planted. This year, I created some new lessons to get them more involved.

With the grade 3/4 class, we started by going out to the garden in the winter and measuring the plots, and also observing what is in and around the garden that might help or hinder the plants’ growth. The students noticed the big Norway Maples at one end of the garden, and observed that those would create shade – the easternmost plots of the garden definitely get less sun than the other beds. We also talked about how the fence around the garden not only protects the garden, but that we could also grow vining plants along it. While we didn’t directly use the measurements that we took in the garden (I didn’t want to focus too much on exactly how many of each plant we can fit per garden bed), it was a good way to get them thinking about the fact that gardeners and farmers need to think about space when planning their gardens and fields. It was also a real-world measuring lesson. It was interesting to see the different strategies the students came up with to get around the fact that they were using metre sticks, but the garden beds are more than a metre long; some students paired up with another group and put the metre sticks end to end, some had one group member put their finger where the metre stick ended and then measure the rest of the bed from there, and some were a little puzzled at first, but got ideas by observing other groups. It’s neat to see the different ways in which the students think and solve problems.

While I was outside with half of the grade 3/4 class, the teacher worked with the other half to start to think about what crops they would like to plant. They worked with a modified version of the Foodland Ontario Availability Guide. This chart is great for knowing when you can buy Ontario produce (including storage and greenhouse crops), but doesn’t show when different fruits and vegetables can be harvested in the garden. I modified it to show when different crops could be harvested in our garden. Based on this chart, the students started to make lists of what they would like to grow; they took into account the timing of the school year, the size of plants, and, of course, what they would most like to grow and eat. They then surveyed classmates to start looking for the most popular food plants in their class.

I also did this lesson with a grade 1/2 class, a grade 2/3 class, and the grade 4-6 MID class. With these classes, we started by looking at plant parts we eat (e.g. carrots are roots, broccoli is flower buds, peas are seeds, etc.), and then led that into a brainstorm of their favourite fruits and vegetables, and/or what they would most like to grow in the garden. Based on their brainstorm lists, I put together a chart showing which plants need lots of sun, which can handle some shade, and which ones we cannot grow in the Blake school garden. We discussed how bananas and oranges cannot grow here because of the weather, and that apples and peaches would be a challenge to grow because the small size of our garden does not really allow for fruit trees.

DSC_1345

Based on this chart, the students worked on their own or in pairs to map what they would like to grow in the garden. They had a few criteria to follow. They had to write their names and a title for their map (Blake Food Garden 2015) and they had to have a legend or key to explain the symbols they were using. Plants had to be placed in the appropriate beds, whether more sunny or more shady. And to account for the issue of spacing (i.e. avoiding over-crowding), they could have a maximum of two types of plants per garden bed. I was really impressed by how well this went! As I said, this was the first time I had done any garden crop planning with students, so I was a bit nervous going into it, wondering if it would be engaging enough. It definitely was! Lots of thought went into their planning – some students had a big mix of different plants throughout the garden, others wanted to focus on just a few of their favourite crops. One grade 2 boy, who was really focused on the task, was putting just one type of plant per garden bed. When I asked him to tell me about his map, he said “I want everything to be organised in one garden bed so when I go out to harvest I only need to go to one bed.” It was really neat to see him thinking ahead like that!

It was really nice to try these new lessons with teachers with whom I’ve developed a great working relationship over the past 4 years! I had been thinking of doing some sort of lessons about garden planning, but had not been able to find any lesson plans that I was very happy with. After coming up with a list of themes and things I wanted to accomplish with these lessons, I e-mailed the teachers and they really helped me work through the ideas and put them together into a coherent lesson plan. It’s great to have the opportunity to bounce ideas back and forth with these teachers, knowing that I’ll get both support and honest feedback throughout the process. I now feel confident that I can take these lessons to my other schools next year.

Bulletin Board display about garden planning.

Bulletin Board display about garden planning.

It was great to have the students involved in these garden planning conversations and lessons. That said, I will not choose all of the crops based solely on the students’ ideas – if I did, the garden would consist mostly of watermelons and strawberries. 🙂 Though kale proved to be quite popular too, actually. The popularity of kale is really great to see; I know that most of these students were not familiar with kale when I first taught them in Kindergarten, and now they see it as a staple in the food garden. It’s neat to see how the garden has influenced their healthy food choices. (Though one mom said that her grade 2 daughter will now only eat kale which has been harvested in the past few hours. Apparently I’m creating kale connoisseurs.) I’m not excited about their growing love of kale because I have any particular affinity for kale or because I follow any sort of “super-food” trends (though, admittedly, I do love kale, how easy it is to grow, and how versatile it is), but as I said, I find it rewarding to see how this is demonstrating the positive influence that the garden is having on the kids. Based on the kids’ garden plans and maps, I think we will try growing sweet potatoes this year, and will grow a Three Sisters garden again, as many kids wanted to grow corn and pumpkins. When we discussed crop selections at a garden committee meeting, one teacher gave a good justification for not basing crop selections only on the students’ choices; she said that it’s worth growing things that they kids wouldn’t normally eat – in the garden, they’re willing to try different things, so it’s good to introduce new vegetables to them in the garden.

I’m really looking forward to starting my 5th (!) growing season in the Blake Garden!

Happy growing!

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