Thematic Gardens Measure Up

By Eve Pranis

Challenges with basic math concepts -- perimeter and area -- dogged many students at a K-5 school in Leeds, AL. On another front, the faculty was looking for inspiration on how to use gardens to enrich learning in different disciplines. "As we considered both challenges, we hit on a solution that might help boost students' grasp of math and engage them in learning across the curriculum," explains enrichment teacher Shirley Farrell. "First, I shared what I knew about the concept of square-foot gardening, then we brainstormed possible growing themes."

A local Eagle Scout in search of a final project offered to build 15 3- by 3-foot boxes (beds), separated by paths, to launch the project. Shirley next worked with individual teachers to plan thematic classroom gardens, then together considered how to use each unique square-foot patch to support curriculum goals. Finally, students and teachers planned, planted, and learned, square by square. "Each grade has at least one 3- by 3-foot bed featuring a different theme," explains Shirley. For instance, cereal bowl and sunflower gardens engage younger grades, while one class of older students creates gardens with fiber and dye plants.

During the planning and planting phase, math concepts -- measurement, perimeter, area -- came to life. Younger students, for instance, used 12-inch straws to mark off each of nine square feet in their garden boxes. "Long before planting the gardens, students in each class conducted research or activities to prompt their thinking and understanding about their chosen theme," says Shirley. They also were charged with figuring out what types of plants their gardens should sport.

Cereal Bowl Discoveries

Cereal boxes set the stage for first grade inquiries. Students tried to find pictures of plants on the cereal boxes they had brought in. With help from the teacher, they read the ingredient lists, then placed signs on the board to indicate which plants they'd discovered in their cereal: corn, wheat, rice, sunflower oil, and so on. A local farm store donated many of those seeds, and others came from a seed catalog. "We conjectured about how tall each plant might grow, then I gave each student a 3- by 3-foot grid on which to map out a vision for the garden," says Shirley. The class reviewed and discussed the designs, then agreed on a final planting map. "Some of the kids were amazed to see grass growing where we had planted our seeds, and they wanted to pull it up," explains Shirley. That prompted a discussion about how vital grasses are to our own nutrition.

Old World to New: People/Plant Connections

"We challenged the fourth graders to choose a vegetable garden plant or agricultural crop, then dig into its past," says Shirley. Each team of students was charged with finding its plant's scientific name and identifying which part(s) are edible. Their ultimate goal was to learn about how the plant was used and perceived in its place of origin, and how it came to this country. Research via encyclopedias, the Internet, and seed catalogs yielded lively visual presentations and intriguing information. "The kids were amazed to discover that tomatoes were once considered poisonous, that potatoes were assumed to be unfit for human consumption, and that many of our favorite food plants came from our own country," Shirley explains. Students also discovered that plants moved around in two main ways: explorers took seeds and plants back to their home countries, and immigrants brought seeds and pieces of their favorite plants to this country. The "ordinary" vegetable plants featured in students' gardens took on a new significance for these plant sleuths. (For more information on "old world/new world" gardens, visit the Seeds of Change Garden Web site at

How Students Grew

"The compact square-foot gardens turned out to be very manageable for teachers and students," Shirley reports. "Once they had gotten comfortable growing things, several classes were inspired to expand to larger-sized plots to create a "three sisters" (Native American) planting system or hummingbird garden, for instance.

"Most students don't really think of plants as living things, nor do they appreciate plants' diversity, histories, and range of purposes," says Shirley. "Their focused explorations linked to our square-foot gardening themes raised their awareness and interest in learning more. It's not uncommon now to hear, 'Hey, this shirt has cotton,' or 'I found corn in this new cereal.' Our real-world challenges, from solving math word problems to troubleshooting plant mysteries, also made learning more relevant," she adds.

Digging into Square-Foot Gardens

A square-foot garden typically consists of a 3- by 3-foot (or 2- by 2-foot) raised bed filled with rich soil, or a moveable box filled with equal parts compost, peat moss, and vermiculite. Each square foot in the grid can be used to grow a different crop, with the number of plants per square varying with individual pl space needs. If you have minimal school gardening space, or simply want to start small, consider using this system.

Thematic Garden Snapshots

Here are some highlights of the other square-foot theme gardens researched, designed, and maintained by students.

Sunflowers. This garden includes six varieties and sizes of sunflowers. Through the winter, students cut up old donated seed catalogs to visually plan their garden. Seeds saved from their own sunflowers, along with new seeds, were started indoors in the spring.

Cloth and Colors. Student research uncovered plants that have been used to make and dye cloth. Cotton and ornamental flax represented fiber plants. Dye plants included brown-eyed Susan, false indigo, and calendula.

Herbs. Students surveyed families to learn about favored herbs and spices, then filled each square foot with an herb: globe basil, purple basil, lemon grass, cilantro, dill, thyme, rosemary, peppermint, parsley, and chive.

Rainbow. Each kindergarten class selected a color of the rainbow. Students cut out catalog pictures of their flowers, then grouped them in three height groups. Kids chose one plant of each size, then marked and laid out square-foot sections in three garden boxes.

Sensory. Each plant in this garden was selected because it appealed (positively or negatively) to at least two senses. Students chose nasturtium, bee balm, lamb's ear, snapdragon, poppy, and sweet pea.

Farm. The farm garden features contemporary local farm crops such as cotton, peanuts, wheat, oats, soybeans, and sweet potatoes, as well as old crops such as broom corn.

Pizza. Wheat, garlic, tomatoes, and peppers grace this second grade garden. A student's question, "Can we grow mushrooms?" inspired class research on how and where these fungi grow.

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