Field of Greens

By Eve Pranis, June 23, 2008

"Several years ago, as part of a math unit on grids and measurement, my fourth graders grew grasses right at their desks in mini-greenhouses made from recycled plastic containers," reports Cox's Creek, KY, teacher Fred Siler. As students observed, measured growth, and cared for grasses up close (then moved the plants to the GrowLab for more light), they discussed the roles and importance of grasses to humans and wildlife.

Observing the partnership between grass roots and soil inspired students to convert a hillside near the school into a "grass garden" to protect the hillside soil and serve as an educational exhibit for the community. A conservation district grant yielded enough funds to buy an initial batch of ornamental grass seedlings from local suppliers. (Students later collected their own seeds to plant in the GrowLab and outdoor garden.) Once the students created scale drawings of the proposed garden, parents helped landscape it with railroad ties.

"To create an effective educational site, students needed to do some research," explains Fred. Using the Internet, library, and local resource people, they explored their subject, then used the information to create a "loaner" notebook on grass adaptations and biomes, and informational signs for the garden. "The kids were amazed to find that most of our food either directly or indirectly comes from grasses," says Fred. "So they included relevant questions and tidbits to spark visitors' curiosity."

A "Field of Dreams Day," complete with grass garden tours, was the high point of the school's Earth Week activities, says Fred, and a great boost to students' sense of accomplishment. "The community has shown great interest in the display and appreciation for plants that many people had considered weeds," he explains.

Grass and Soil: A Gripping Partnership

Sure, grass needs soil, but does soil need grass? Dense networks of grass roots bind soil, preventing it from blowing or washing away. The fibrous roots also loosen soil and create air space needed for healthy soil organisms. And they bring up and hold onto important nutrients from deep in the soil. Grasses have relatively short life cycles (compared to trees, for instance), and as their roots and other parts decay, they are consumed by microorganisms and other decomposers who then release the nutrients.

Invite your students to explore the relationship between soil and grasses by pulling up grass plants and closely observing the soil/root relationship, comparing the soil and soil life in areas outdoors with and without grass, or by conducting the "Earthgrippers" activity on page 67 in GrowLab: Activities for Growing Minds.

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