Classroom garden

(Question)

To whom it may concern,

I am a teacher in toronto and would like to start a classroom garden; something I could get kids involved in. I would use pots and would like edibles and flowers that would be ready by the end of the school year (end of June) and are not difficult to grow. There are many windows in the class (all facing east).

Please advise as I know very little about gardening.

Thanks

 

(Answer)

As a volunteer in my children’s classrooms over the years, it never failed to excite me to see the eagerness in the student’s faces when presented with the opportunity to play in dirt and plant seeds.

You can certainly use new pots for this activity, but there are other alternatives that coincide with the curriculum, such as re-use and recycle old pots, yogurt containers or even egg cartons to get you started. The students can bring these in for use. Make sure a drainage hole has been punched into the bottom of things like the yogurt cups. Also, as children like to keep tabs on the seed that they actually planted, make sure their names are either written on the side of the pots with indelible marker, or each student make their own sign using indelible marker on a popsicle stick. (P.S. always plant extra pots, in case of accidents, or non-viable seed.)

You did not say that you are working with primary or middle school students, but the beginning is usually the same, it’s the seed type that may be different. The first thing I usually do is talk about, with posters or picture cards, is what the seed will need to grow into a plant. You can make it as simple or as detailed as necessary, depending on the age of your students. Essentially, a seed needs sun or light, rain or water and good soil.

Light for you will be the east windows – that’s early morning sun, so you might consider some grow lights to extend the amount of light the seeds get. You could do an experiment – some seeds with just the window, others with the grow light – are there growing differences? Water of course will likely be tap water. Often a watering schedule can be made so that all students get a chance to water. When the surface of the soil is dry, watering is needed – but don’t drown the little guys, as they may float away! For starting seeds, it is best to use soil meant for growing seeds, such as potting soil. Any other soil is too heavy for seeds. Potting soil  can be found in any garden centre or even big box home improvement stores. Next, with spread out newspaper or a big tarp, the students can fill their marked pots with soil in preparation for the seeds. It’s messy, but very fun.

Once the pots are ready, it’s time for seeds. Seeds can be ordered from seed companies via the internet, or purchased at garden centres. If organic seeds are wanted, many of these places will carry such. Herbs are very popular, but most of those seeds are quite small, and I usually use those with the older students.

With the younger students, I tend to use either sunflower (Helianthus anuus) or nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus) seeds. Sweet peas (Lathyrus odoratus)  are not the kind you eat, but grows highly scented flowers, are another option. They should be soaked about a day in water before planting. All three are big, easily handled seeds, and produce flowers once grown. As an added bonus, neither the sunflower nor nasturtium require rich soils to grow and flower, in fact nasturtium prefer it. The sweet pea will need a richer soil once planted in the garden. All it takes is for your students to poke a hole in the middle of their pot and put the seed in, and then water it. Place it in a tray, and then by the window.

For the older students, they can certainly plant any of the above, but can handle the smaller seeds of plants such as herbs. Herbs such as basil (Ocimum basilicum), sweet marjoram (Origanum majorana), and  cilantro or coriander (Coriandrum sativum), are three culinary herbs, popular with first time growers as they are main herbs for pizza and tacos. Basil comes in many colours and types, such as Thai basil, which is very different than the Italian basil most commonly grown.  Grow different kinds, see what does best and which passes the taste test.

Lastly, when to plant. Depending on the plant, most need between 4 and 10 weeks before the last frost, which in Toronto, is around the first or second week of May. Since these will be in pots, some stretching can happen. One lesson I learned was not to plant seeds before March Break. That ten days is far too long for the young seedlings to survive without someone to water them. So after March break is recommended. Sunflower seeds need less time than the herbs – these can be planted in late April to be taken home before the end of May. I don’t recommend waiting until the end of school to take things home, as the students have enough to trek home, and it will be a little late to transplant what would turn out to be very gangly plants. End of May would work better, the plants will be young and ready for the garden.

I wish you the best of times with your students. And, even though you are new to gardening, don’t be afraid to experiment.