Digging into Soil

A couple of years ago, I shared my top tips for school gardens and one of them was “Invest in Your Soil." This was a lesson I learned through personal experience as the original soil placed in our raised bed gardens was of poor quality and had to be completely replaced the following season. Take my word for it, there is nothing like hauling 6 cubic yards of soil out of the tall raised beds and then shoveling 6 yards of soil back into the beds in the 90+ degree Texas August weather (after it had just been done in the spring less than 6 months before) to really drive home a point.

This experience was what I would call an “Aha” moment. I sat through the required soil courses in college and over the years I have attended a wide selection of seminars on soil preparation and composting (and even taught a few myself). I have conducted soil tests both on my home and school garden soil and used the results to develop a best practices management plan. I ‘knew’ all the soil basics, but it was the sweat of the work (including the difficulty of finding and motivating volunteers) and then observing the difference between how our garden grew in the before and after soil that made the importance of soil real to me. We talk about how valuable experiential learning is for kids – never forget that it is just as powerful for adults too!

My new enthusiasm for soil was further enriched by reading the book Teaming with Microbes by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis.  The authors magically explain a very complex topic - how both organic and inorganic matter interact in the soil – in easily to understand terms. I LOVE this book! Read it now!

Recognizing that garden programs offer unique opportunities for hands-on soil education, a little over a year ago, KidsGardening began collaborating with Dr. Steve Apefelbaum and Susan Lehnhart of Applied Ecological Services and The Lower Sugar River Watershed Association to develop a set of lesson plans for high school educators. The result of this work is Digging into Soil: A Garden Practicum.

Digging into Soil includes a set of 10 lessons linked to Next Generation Science Standards that are designed to not only teach students about soil basics, but also to help them understand the important role our soil and soil life plays in our ecosystem and why we must work harder to protect it.  Incorporating hands-on activities and extensive projects linked to current events, just like my “Aha” moment, the goal of this Guide is to make soil real to participating students. The lessons are flexible enough that they could be implemented with or without a garden program, but being able to see the principles presented play out first hand in the garden is extremely beneficial. Students’ sense of ownership and pride in their garden adds to the motivation to learn about soil health. We focused on keeping all activities and experiences hands-on, inquiry-based and practical.

For more detailed information about the lessons including how they are linked to Next Generation Science Standards Performance Expectations and to download a copy, please see Digging into Soil.

Sarah Pounders