Cross-Grade Buddies Plant Garden Companions

By Eve Pranis

When an ugly portable classroom was removed at Rolling Hills Elementary, an inner-city school with a high at-risk population, kindergarten teacher Karen Redel and fourth grade teacher Laurie Wedewer saw green. After all, their apartment-dwelling students in Orlando, FL, assumed veggies only came in packages. With visions of a cross-grade food garden project that would offer fourth graders a chance to take leadership roles, the teachers established mentoring teams, each consisting of a fourth grade leader and several kindergarten "buddies."

Armed with fiction and nonfiction gardening books and Internet information, each team was challenged to create its vision of an ideal Florida garden. The partners had to design the layout (area and perimeter) of individual raised beds and mark vegetable plant locations. After all teams had presented their designs, the class discussed modifications and voted on a final garden layout.

Buddies Learn About Garden Companions

Through their research, the students discovered that certain vegetables "get along" better with each other, so the class planned its design to feature different arrangements of garden companions. For example, they learned that beans planted near lettuce could shade the heat-sensitive greens. Marigolds, which are said to be a natural pesticide, were partnered with tomatoes. Students relished the idea that onions could be juiced up into an organic bug repellent! "The kids discovered that if they planted watermelon seedlings toward the end of pea season, the pea plants would shade the tender seedlings," explains Karen. "Once the peas were removed, the watermelons used the pea trellis."

The partners learned that this plant buddy system-growing a variety of vegetables with different needs-can even help maintain healthy soil. The nutrient that one plant uses, in some cases, can be replenished by other plants. Corn, for instance, is a glutton for nitrogen, whereas peas and beans (with a little help from bacteria on their roots) can actually make nitrogen in the air available to other plants via the soil.

The teams worked together to clean the garden space, plot and stake the beds, and prepare the soil. Once they'd figured out when to plant each type of seed or seedling, they created and followed planting calendars. "The older kids took their roles very seriously and kept their buddies involved and focused on tasks," says Laurie.

Lunchbox Club Gives Back to the School and Community

Enthusiastic about their partnerships, the garden buddies were dismayed to realize that, come fall, they would move on to different grades and have to part ways. The solution? Creating an after-school Lunchbox Garden Club open to the diverse K-5 student body. (Club dues take the form of canned goods, which are donated to the local food bank.) In addition to maintaining the garden, club members taste-test produce before sending weekly harvests to the school cafeteria for salad bars, brewed mint iced tea, and more. They also use their newfound skills for community service projects, such as re-landscaping a neighboring church property, and for leading garden tours and lessons on seedling care for the school and community. Next, they have their sights set on creating how-to videos and introducing a garden mascot ("Corney"), who will challenge other classrooms with plant science trivia in preparation for spring assessments.

How They Grew

"The garden has helped to blur grade levels by bringing teachers and students together into a group of 'farmers,'" explain Karen and Laurie. "Garden club members continue to brag about their green-thumb efforts, and we receive positive feedback from parents and teachers about the kids' academic and social skills." The teachers attribute improved behaviors to the fact that the youngsters had to work cooperatively to accomplish tasks and to the sense of ownership and responsibility that emerged. "Kids have bloomed from apathetic, reluctant learners to enthusiastic, inquisitive learners eager to reach out to the neighborhood," adds Karen.

"For a campus that has experienced a significant amount of vandalism, our garden seemed to create a level of reverence and respect," she says. "The club members model for a growing number of curious students how to look without touching, investigate without trampling, and smell without destroying."

Rolling Hills Lunchbox Garden Club's garden is one of the many compelling outdoor classrooms highlighted in Schoolyard Mosaics: Designing Gardens and Habitats. The book features brilliant detailed school garden maps - from butterfly oases to history gardens - along with how-to advice and companion stories on how students made decisions, built community support, and achieved learning goals. You'll also find scads of useful resources - Web sites, Listservs, books, articles, videos, and supplies. Visit to learn more or order. (Members save 10%.)

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