Thematic Gardens

By Eve Pranis

An ordinary mixed vegetable, flower, and herb garden provides endless possibilities for explorations across the curriculum. Many schools have also chosen to create special thematic gardens to focus and inspire garden adventures. Consider the possibilities of a Native American garden, for instance, for making connections to social studies and beyond. Here are some highlights of a few thematic gardens we've discovered.

A Cornucopia of Themes Alphabet Garden. "Our K-6 students found some letters harder than others as we brainstormed and voted on different vegetables, herbs, and flowers for our alphabet garden," reports Smithville, NJ, teacher Carol Ann Margolis. They used seed catalogs and Jerry Paolotta's alphabet books as inspiration, she says, but still needed help with a few letters, such as Xeranthemum (a flower) for the letter X! Nutritional Snack Food Garden. "One of our parents -- a farmer -- was concerned that the students don't seem to have a good understanding of food sources nor an awareness of good food versus junk food," reports Irene Canaris, who teaches a multi-age class in Westminster, VT. With support from the farmer, the class started an indoor/outdoor gardening program with an ambitious goal of supplying healthy snacks to 40 kids every day. To gain a symbolic sense of the garden cycle through the year, says Irene, students first create a calendar of gardening tasks to be done. Based on what students determine they'd like to grow and eventually eat, they decide what and when to start growing seedlings indoors. Younger students work in small groups with older ones to plant, tend, and ultimately harvest the garden bounty. "We are able to create many of our snack foods from our own garden," reports Irene, "and supplement it with healthy foods from local farmers, cheese companies, and orchards." Irene's classroom surely comes to life with the sounds, smells, and tastes of snack preparation-pumpkin bread, fruit muffins, carrot cake, squash baked with local maple syrup, carrots, even 100 pints of dilly beans! "Gardening and creating snacks has provided a wonderful context for interdisciplinary learning," says Irene. "In addition to activities like keeping journals, testing soil temperatures, observing insect preferences, and conducting garden experiments, imagine the opportunities for learning to work with fractions as we multiply recipes for 40 kids!" Irene reports, "Although my students' taste buds haven't exactly been transformed -- they still like to eat twinkies -- they're certainly more aware of where food comes from and how it's produced, and they are more willing to try new things they wouldn't have touched before." Butterfly Gardens. Creating a garden to provide plant food for adult butterflies and their larvae can help students understand basic needs, life cycles, habitats, adaptations and interdependence, and to consider how to make difference in their environment. Search our site using the word "butterfly" for articles and resources. Wildflower Gardens. A transforming patch of wildflowers can help students learn firsthand about plant needs and adaptations. Students can begin to understand the ecological role of wild plants and can learn important history lessons by exploring their folklore and culinary and medicinal uses. Search our site using the word "wildflower" for articles and resources. Native American Gardens. We've spoken with many teachers whose students have raised "The Three Sisters" (corn, beans, and squash) and other crops native to the Americas. Such a garden offers rich opportunities for exploring the stories, customs, and myths associated with these crops, for experimenting with different planting systems, and for trying new foods and recipes our site using the word "native" for articles and resources. Regional or Ethnic Gardens. Consider enriching studies of different cultures or geographic regions by raising appropriate crops -- peanuts, cotton, and kale, for instance -- to tie in with a unit on the South. Search our site using the word "ethnobotany" or "history" for articles and resources. Magic Gardens. "Although there's nothing technically magical in this garden, we call it that because we grow unusual, weird type crops like gigantic carrots and Aztec sweet herb, many of which have odd shapes, sizes, colors, and aromas that entice our students," says Linda Taylor of Ocala, FL. And these are just a handful of the creative theme gardens we've run across. Others include herb gardens, plant family gardens, historical gardens -- even pizza gardens. We'd love to hear about your thematic garden creations. Visit our School Garden Registry and fill us in.

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