Education opportunities grow in student gardens

August 23, 2011

By Laura Geggel

Sunny Hills Elementary School first-grader Digant Dash (left) plants flower bulbs in the school’s first-grade garden with fourth-graders Derek Chao and Spencer Bernsten. By Jane Ulrich

Inch by inch, row by row, students are planting lettuce, herbs and broccoli in their school gardens.

This fall, teachers are transforming gardens into outdoor classrooms as students pick up trowels and learn about drip irrigation systems.

Dozens of schools incorporate gardening into their curriculum or have gardening clubs, including Apollo, Cascade Ridge, Challenger, Clark, Creekside, Discovery, Endeavour, Grand Ridge, Issaquah Valley, Maple Hills and Sunny Hills elementary schools; Issaquah and Pine Lake middle schools; and Liberty and Tiger Mountain Community high schools.

“I think the outdoors is just a natural place that kids want to be,” Sunny Hills fourth-grade teacher Jane Ulrich said.

Preschoolers watch seeds grow

“Peter, Peter, pumpkin eater,” goes the nursery rhyme chanted by many a preschool student.

Apollo 3- to 5 year-old preschool students get hands-on experience when it comes to planting seeds. In April, early childhood education teacher Janie Cantwell installed two raised garden beds, one full of flower bulbs and the other polka-dotted with vegetables.

The garden teaches students about “taking care of the environment and learning that what we put in the environment also comes out of the environment,” Cantwell said.

She wanted her preschoolers to see the growing process, so they planted seeds in a Ziploc bag filled with a wet paper towel, “so they could watch the seeds sprout and grow and watch the roots grow,” she said.

When the sprouts matured, she told her students about the importance of the sun, explaining why they needed to plant them outside in the garden.

For the culminating project, students decorated flowerpots and birdhouses — they had learned that birds enjoy worms and bugs living in the garden — and sold them to parents.

The project gave the children a tactile learning experience about how plants grow.

“They really enjoy the actual activity of digging in the dirt and finding worms and bugs,” Cantwell said.

Students eat their greens

Elementary school teachers are taking inside lessons outside into the garden.

At Grand Ridge, teachers connect math and science lessons to nature. After Cedar Grove Composting donated gardening materials to the learning garden, students planted corn, beans and squash.

“They learn that food comes from the ground, not from a box,” parent volunteer Julie Hart said.

Many elementary school students don’t like eating vegetables, but school gardens are changing greens from something gross into something cool.

In June, Issaquah Valley first-grade students ate salads made with vegetables they grew in their school garden.

At Sunny Hills, students not only eat produce — they have entire lessons outside.

Ulrich’s fourth-grade class partners with first-graders and together they explore their respective gardens, measuring plants and entering information into a national data base about ecology and climate change.

Every year, Ulrich’s students adopt a plant and care for it the entire year.

“The ultimate goal is to help them become stewards of natural places,” she said.

When she wasn’t satisfied with her student’s drawings of their plants, she introduced a photography unit. Now, students take black-and-white photos in the garden, and many pay more attention to detail in order to get that winning shot.

Students, especially boys, race through their environments, she said. When they’re carrying cameras, they slow down and look for good photos.

Ulrich said she lives for moments such as “having boys coming to school in the morning and say, ‘Mrs. Ulrich, did you see the sunrise? I took my camera,’ or ‘Mrs. Ulrich, can I go to the garden? I saw a spider web on the shore pine and I want to photograph it.’”

Sunny Hills’ third-grade students learn about geology in the garden. Marenakos Rock Center in Preston donated a pile of rocks to the school’s millennium garden, and students can tour the area, scribbling down notes about rocks and minerals along the way.

The gardens are so popular, Ulrich encourages teachers to post successful lesson plans on a bulletin board so the entire school can excel in the gardens.

Middle school students learn how to irrigate, harvest

Since last year, the Issaquah Middle School Garden Club has focused its efforts on a sustainable school garden.

“We started out by pulling out all of the weeds and by putting in compost,” seventh-grader Julia Cochran said.

“After the planting, we made signs for the different vegetables and we put in worms,” seventh-grader Gaby Creaver said.

They installed three planters and an irrigation drip system connected to rain barrels. In the future, science teacher and club adviser Olga Haider hopes students can use solar panels to power the water pump from the barrels to the drip irrigation.

“They learned a little hard work and working with the land and tools,” Haider said.

Before long, the Issaquah Middle students had planted seeds for radishes, kale, pumpkins, strawberries, peas and onions.

Cascade Water Alliance supplied the club with aerators to lessen the water flow for sinks and water-efficient showerheads.

“The whole idea is if we teach our young people now — because they will be the consumers, the decision-makers of the future — if you have this quiet cultural revolution within the school system, then when these young people grow up, at least they’ll have that knowledge,” Haider said.

Education is key, Cascade Water Alliance Water Resources Manager Michael Brent said.

“Even a small-scale project like ours introduces important concepts that can be applied on a larger scale,” he said. “As the IMS students grow up and become decision-makers, I hope this experience will help guide them in making wise, sustainable choices for their communities and the planet.”

The garden would not have bloomed were it not for a generous community. Triangle Associates, a company working with the King County Solid Waste Division, awarded the school a $500 grant for supplies; Cedar Grove Composting donated the soil; and the Issaquah Home Depot donated bark, tools and strawberries.

High school students gain skills

Tiger Mountain Community High school students are learning how to raise geraniums from cuttings and how to get rid of aphids using soapy water.

The school already has a flourishing greenhouse, and this fall students will install an outdoor, raised-bed garden, thanks to a $500 grant from the Lake Washington Garden Club.

Students at Tiger Mountain tend to favor hands-on activities, and gardening allows them to design, cultivate and harvest, according to science and botany teacher Sanghamitra “Mitra” Kundu.

During one science experiment, she had students care for tulips using hydroponics. Students compared the growth of the soil-less plants to the potted ones. They found that the hydroponics didn’t have pests, like aphids.

The tulips in the dirt pots were not as lucky.

“We don’t use any spray or pesticides in the greenhouse, so we got some ladybugs,” Kundu said. “One of the plants, it was heavily affected by aphids, so they got some soapy water.”

Diluted soapy water kills aphids.

In early summer, after much of their crop had matured, students threw a barbecue for their school, sharing their lettuce, basil and cilantro with their classmates.

The garden helps students learn about the food chain, photosynthesis and the environment, in addition to teaching them about empathy for living things.

“They get a greater concern and willingness to care for living things,” Kundu said. “I can see an improvement of their attitude toward the school and improvement of interpersonal relationships.”

Across the district, at Liberty, special-needs students are growing potatoes, squash, cucumbers and peas in the student greenhouse.

Teacher Denise Vogel said students learn a variety of skills, including following directions, weeding and how to use garden tools, such as a wheelbarrow.

“This also teaches them work skills,” Vogel said. “It can start with the kids taking a handful of weeds to the compost, or it can move up to kids using Weed Eaters, shovels and rakes, so they can be a landscape assistant.”

One student who has cerebral palsy can’t talk but lets out a delighted holler every time she pulls a weed.

At the end of the school year, students take home their crop.

“I said, ‘You can take it home and plant it or take it home and eat it.’” Vogel said.

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