PBS in the Classroom

Creating a “Community” Garden with Your Students..and Nature Cat

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It’s that time of year when Daisy starts to feel a little restless. She can almost smell the damp, earthy aroma of spring and when she closes her eyes she can picture the shoots of bright green that will soon be poking up through the soil. Spring is nigh! So what does she do to quell her impatience? She starts to plan her garden!

Garden planning is an exercise in matching creativity with functionality. With young children, you can draw from math, language arts and science curriculums, while providing experiences that impart a host of skills useful throughout life—skills that foster positive habits related to emotional health, nutrition, exercise and community involvement, among others.

To start, it helps to begin at the end: What are your goals for this year’s garden? You’ll plant with your students in the springtime, but will you also want to reward them with a “harvesting” experience before school closes for the summer, or the following school year when children return to school, or both? Are you planning a flower garden for pollinators or a vegetable garden for eating? Choosing a garden focus now helps narrow the task and ensures a more successful, measurable result later.

For example, growing flowers for pollinators requires you to identify species of flowering plants that are typically visited by bugs and other pollinators native to your area. Growing pumpkins for next fall requires you to sort through different varieties of pumpkin seed, identify a type that will produce fruit in time before your first likely frost. You will also have to plant the seeds in a space that allows for vine growth and avoids overcrowding. Each focus offers its own unique curricular opportunities as well. Pumpkin gardening is rich in measurement opportunities, while pollinator gardening might be more focused on scientific investigation and habitat needs.

There are environmental factors to consider next. How will you facilitate watering, should rainfall be scarce? What is the soil, sunlight, and climate like where you live? Just like Goldilocks, different types of plants need different average temperatures that aren’t too hot or too cold, but just right (for them) to thrive. And they need the right temperatures for a long enough period of time to allow them to produce seeds. Some kinds of plants are limited to specific climates; you can’t grow pineapples in New Jersey!

If your school is in an urban center, don’t let that discourage you. In Nature Cat’s season 2, episode Garden Impossible, Nature Cat and friends help a friend design a garden in the middle of the city, showing that gardens can be planted nearly anywhere with a little ingenuity and creativity. If you can’t plant directly into the ground, you can build a raised bed or use containers. If it’s hard to find a spot that receives six plus hours of direct sunlight, you can choose plants that do well with less sun.

For optimal gardening success, we strongly encourage you to choose plants that fall within your region’s hardiness zone, and for pollinator and habitat gardens, to stick with native plants. These plants are more likely to do well, and to attract the local animals you want to support.

For more ideas on gardens, see additional resources below.

Once you have your garden’s focus and an understanding of the space available for it, you’re ready to introduce your project and invite student input. Below are some questions to help you guide this process.

Have you ever helped plant a garden? (Answers will vary, but should give you a starting point for what your students already know, and what they don’t know.)

If so, what did you grow? (Answers will vary, but you might use this discussion to introduce what you have decided is an appropriate garden focus for this year.)

What do plants need to grow? (water, sunshine, adequate space and soil with the proper nutrients.) Help children understand that the amounts of each depend on the types of plant(s) you have in your garden. Talk about the specific requirements your garden will have, and invite children to help you make plans for how to meet them.

The type of garden you and your class have chosen, the local climate and length of growing season, and the amount of space you have will dictate what plants you should attempt to grow. If you are designing a container garden, this will present some additional limitations as well as opportunities.

In the Nature Cat episode Save Our Salad (215B), while the characters explore ways to reduce the damage caused by Japanese beetles without harming other insects and bugs, they also celebrate the delicious appeal of fresh garden vegetables. This is something that young children may need an introduction to through a positive tasting experience. So, for example, let’s say you watch the episode with children and discuss what your salad garden might look like. Lettuces are easy to grow and you can harvest the young leaves singly as they develop. (You don’t have to wait for the lettuce to form a head.) Freshly picked lettuce has a very different, sweeter, more buttery taste than store bought lettuce. You can help children describe the differences as part of a language arts experience.

Perhaps you decide to grow radishes in a container garden. Radishes are quick to sprout and some varieties take only three weeks from seed to maturity! With radishes, it’s fun for children to sample the peppery taste of radish sprouts and describe it.

But regardless of your focus, as March ends and April begins, your garden is on its way to becoming a reality for you to share with your garden helpers while exploiting those “teachable moments” … and having  fun! For our part, we can hardly wait for the ground to thaw so we can get started!

Frances Nankin and Jesse McMahon Content Producers and Writers

Frances Nankin is an award-winning editor, writer and television/Web producer with more than 35 years experience developing content for children’s educational media. Prior to her current role as Content Producer for NATURE CAT with Spiffy Entertainment, she was Executive Producer/Editorial Director for the CYBERCHASE series with Thirteen/WNET, New York. Before that, she was Co-director of Science Content for THE MAGIC SCHOOL BUS TV series with Scholastic Productions. Nankin, a self-taught naturalist who grew up in the Ramapo Mountains of New York, is the author of several science-related books for children, and was the founding editor of a number of children’s magazines, including COBBLESTONE, a history magazine now in its 39th year of publication. 

Jesse McMahon, Content Producer for Nature Cat, holds a master’s degree in journalism, and brings to the team more than a decade of experience in research and writing in print media and educational publishing. She  telecommutes from Maine, where she lives with her husband, two dogs and numerous chickens. McMahon's other TV credits include Content Brief Writer for Cyberchase and Science Consultant for Magic School Bus Rides AgainMcMahon's byline has also appeared in numerous publications, including The Boston Globe, ProPublica and the Investigative Reporting Initiative at Northeastern University. Her commitment to volunteer work in environmental advocacy and deep respect for the natural world is a passion she is delighted to transfer to young viewers.

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