The Spring Garden Begins

Sarah P – Education Specialist

We kicked off the spring garden season last week at Glen Loch Elementary, where my daughter, Abby, attends school, with the construction of our new light garden (a 3-Tier SunLite® Garden purchased by our PTO thanks to a fundraiser held at our local Chipotle Restaurant – thank you Chipotle and Slow Foods!) and the planting of our tomato seeds. The light garden looks fantastic! Although I realize appearance is not important to functionality, it is a big plus for the principal to think that the unit is an attractive addition to the classroom. It is on wheels, so that we can easily move it as necessary, and its deep, sturdy trays provide enough planting space to allow each third grade class to start their own tray of plants. Since none of our classrooms have exterior windows, having a light garden is critical for giving the students a chance to see the plants grow from seed to seed and truly experience firsthand their full life cycle.

Why tomatoes? The Texas state curriculum specifies that third graders learn about tomatoes (no clue how they decide on this stuff), thus determining our choice of plants. We gathered a large selection of different types of seeds including cherry, grape, Roma, beefsteak and a couple of heirloom varieties, and each student planted 3 seeds in their classroom tray. We want the kids to be able to compare the different types as they are growing and (hopefully) also in taste tests at harvest time.

The spring garden plan is for each class to pick a tomato-based recipe and then grow a theme garden to match. So for instance, if they pick a pizza garden, they will grow tomatoes, basil, and oregano. A salsa garden might include tomatoes, onions, cilantro and peppers. Brainstorming by the kids thus far has resulted in the following ideas: a spaghetti garden, a lasagna garden, a tomato soup garden, a pizza garden, a salsa garden, a salad garden and my favorite…a ketchup garden. Each class has their own raised bed garden to plant and maintain. Our goal is to have the tomato seedlings ready to plant outside in these beds in March.

The students had some amazing questions as we planted. Some I could answer, such as “What happens if we plant more than one seed in each cell?” But they also stumped me with questions like “Why are the seeds so small?” Honestly, although I told them that each kind of plant evolved to best survive in its native environment, I could not come up with a solid reason for the size of the seed. Guess we will have to do some searching on that one.

We planted on Friday and by Monday we already had seedlings poking their little heads out of the soil. I think I am just as anxious as the kids to watch them grow. Although I’ve started plants from seed with my kids many times at home, my attitude has always pretty much been, if they come up and grow well that’s awesome; if they don’t, well, we’ll just go buy some transplants. But between the PTO investment in new equipment and the kids’ excitement about their seeds, I feel a bit more pressure riding on the success of this planting.

Anyone else out there planting seeds with kids indoors right now? Please feel free to use the comment section below to share any relevant stories and helpful tips!

Teaching with Terrariums!

Sarah Pounders – Education Specialist

My daughter has been studying the water cycle at school, so I decided it would be the perfect time to plant a couple of terrariums for our house. What is a terrarium? A terrarium is a container garden that is enclosed within glass or plastic, so that you create its own mini environment. Light and heat exposure result in evaporation and when the vapor hits the sides of the container, it condenses and heads back into the potting soil mix. If you have right moisture balance, your plants do not need watering and will need little care until they grow too large for the space and will either need to be pruned or replaced.

We started our project with a trip to a local garden store in search of small plants that would fit into our chosen containers (a plastic teddy bear that once held animal crackers and an old rice container). This actually turned out to be the biggest challenge in the process. Most of the indoor plants we found were either too large or vigorous vines. Finally we spotted two small indoor plants that would work, a pink nerve plant and a small peace lily. Even though they were small, both needed a little pruning to fit into theIMG_3047-WEB containers. (*A tip from past disasters, avoid plants that appear to have any type of fungal or bacterial problems. The humid environment of a terrarium will foster the growth of any existing disease problems and the terrarium will be short-lived.)

Once home, we gathered the rest of the supplies (the cleaned containers, pea gravel, and potting soil mix) and headed out to our back porch. If you are still knee deep in snow, you can also do this as an indoor gardening activity. On the messiness scale of 1 to 10, it is probably only about  a 4, but you may want to lay down some newspaper underneath your work surface to help catch stray potting soil.

IMG_3053-WEBThe first step was to fill the bottom of the container with pea gravel. Some folks will then put a layer of filtering charcoal on top of the gravel. I usually don’t have it on hand and don’t worry about it. As long as you maintain proper moisture levels, you don’t need it. Next, we carefully moistened the soil. The potting soil mix should feel like a wet sponge – if you can squeeze water out of it, then it is too wet. Then we scooped the soil into the container (we lost my son at this point, he was quite upset about getting his rocks dirty, sigh) and added the plants. Planting took a bit of maneuvering since the openings were pretty small, but that made it a good activity for small hands. After we planted, we used a paper towel to remove soil that ended up stuck along the sides. Finally we put the top on and placed in a sunny window.

The first few weeks, we will watch it to make sure the moisture levels are correct. If the sides of the container are drenched when in full sun, it means we have too much water, which can be solved by leaving the lid off for a while. My daughter has also informed me we need to find a little plastic frog to live in our terrarium… that might end up being a bigger challenge than finding the plants.

Need guidance and inspiration? Check out Building a Terrarium.