Story by Jennifer McFee
From the time they’re just young sprouts, students can cultivate a healthy appreciation for gardening that flourishes in the classroom and beyond.
And gardens are popping up more and more in classrooms across Manitoba through all seasons.
“That’s one of my passions,” says Suzanne Simpson, school garden consultant with Sage Garden Greenhouses. “I know what the research says about best practices for gardening with students and also the pitfalls to avoid so you don’t end up with a garden full of weeds.”
Sage’s school support services are one of the reasons school gardens are a growing business.
Simpson studied education herself. For her master’s thesis, she explored garden use in Manitoba elementary schools.
As one option, they provide consulting services for staff or committees about possible projects they hope to undertake.
“We worked with some schools in the past year that wanted to install a garden, but they weren’t quite sure which plants should be included or what the specific needs for those plants would be,” she says.
“No one wants to invest time, money and effort and then have the garden fail. So we get involved to make sure that the plants are put in the right place for them to thrive and succeed so that your garden is a success.”
Allowing ideas to take root, they also offer professional development days for teachers. Then through their kids’ programming, the students’ interest truly begins to blossom. All programs are available in English and French and they can be delivered in classrooms, at conferences or at the greenhouse.
“Schools can hire us to come in to deliver a program to a specific grade or to a classroom. It’s very customizable,” Simpson says.
“I had one teacher whose kindergarten class was doing an inquiry about bees and they were really interested in plants. We created a program about the type of plants that bees are attracted to, and now we’re able to offer that to other classes too.”
Pre-packaged programs are another option, with a list of themes posted on the Sage Garden website.
“We’ve done one with the medicine wheel garden, not from a cultural perspective but from a botanical perspective,” Simpson says. “We talk about the four plants that are included in the medicine wheel, the sacred herbs, and what they need to live and survive. We also talk about why they’re so representative of Manitoba and this corner of the world.”
In her experience, one of the main pitfalls occurs when someone tries to take on a school garden project without any backup help.
“You really need to have a committee. That’s one of the suggestions of the research. Another recommendation would be to make a plan before you start a garden. Unfortunately, a lot of schools start to think about gardening in the springtime, but the fall is really when you need to be thinking about your space and preparing your garden,” she says.
“I would even encourage the staff to pick it as a PD theme for a year and revisit it through different lenses. Then they can really consciously make decisions about where they are going to place it, how they are going to use it, and who is going to take care of it.”
Summer can pose another challenge for managing gardens since so much growth occurs during the months when school is closed.
“I have a list of 15 or 20 solutions, and I encourage teachers to sit with the committee and decide which one will work for them in their community,” she says.
“In some schools, parents take over the whole thing. Other schools go to different models, like hiring somebody. We have garden nannies at Sage Garden that can come and tend it for the two months that the children are away. Some schools use planters to send plants home with children to care for. In September, they can share their successes or failures. There’s a lot to be learned from plants dying too.”
Although there might be some hurdles to overcome, the benefits far outweigh the challenges of growing a school garden.
“When teachers think of gardens, they always think right away of the science curriculum connection. There are so many fabulous hands-on science applications, but gardening goes way beyond that,” Simpson says.
“When you garden with students, you give them interpersonal benefits. When you bring the kids outside, it changes the dynamics between students and teachers — and between students and themselves. It also allows for intergenerational interaction because all of a sudden you have a very effective way to bring in the community.”
Last year, Simpson helped a school to create a diversity garden to forge intercultural connections that extend beyond the classroom.
“They were really struggling with ways to make school an inviting place for the neighbourhood. In their community, about 90 per cent of their student population spoke English as an additional language, so they wanted parents to feel welcome. But they weren’t involved in the school in the traditional volunteer capacities because language was such a barrier,” she says.
“So they approached us about starting a diversity garden. Gardening is a great way to overcome those language barriers because everyone can plant a seed and tend a seedling and pull a weed. You don’t necessarily need to speak the same language for that.”
In addition to these interpersonal benefits, gardening also promotes positive intrapersonal impacts.
“It gives a really grounding moment for students to connect with nature around them. Some of the research talks about how children with ADHD experience a calming effect by just spending time around plants,” she says.
“It lends to those kind of experiences where you can have a calming oasis in a little corner of your school.”
Of course, gardens also produce environmental benefits that can be a springboard for further learning.
“We talk about students needing to make little changes in their lives. But if all they know of nature is what they hear in the news about West Nile and Lyme disease, they’re not going to think favourably about nature and they’re not going to change any practices to save it,” Simpson says.
“Research says if they have authentic positive interactions with nature before the age of 11, then they will make changes to their lifestyle and they will think about how their actions impact the world — and hopefully those actions will resonate at home as well.”
While there are ample opportunities to plant a spring garden, indoor winter gardens are another way to incorporate nature right in the classroom.
“Thanks to recent technology advances and more efficient lighting, we now have very affordable full-spectrum light. With this light, you can actually grow happy plants from seeds in your classroom, so it opens a world of possibilities for teaching,” Simpson says.
“This opens the door so you don’t need to rely on natural light; you can create greenery in your classroom with artificial light. You also create those interpersonal benefits from having that touchstone of something living and green and calming.”
As a related idea, Simpson encourages teachers to consider starting a salad club at school using veggies that they grow themselves in their indoor garden.
“I can come in and teach them how to start it up. You sow the seeds with the students once a month and it takes 28 days to get a crop of micro-greens. It’s really amazing how you can get such a variety of flavours at such a small stage,” she says.
“So every 28 days, you harvest this crop and you enjoy a little classroom salad together. Everyone shares. They’re eating greens and vegetables. They’re learning about the plant parts and the seeds and the stages of growth. You do it every month, so it becomes part of your classroom routine and a little bit of a celebration too.”
Research shows that if children grow the food themselves, they are more likely to try it — even if they’re fussy eaters.
“If they grow it, their household is also more likely to eat more vegetables and fruits,” Simpson says. “You don’t often see that transfer from school to home life so clearly.”
— This story was originally printed in the March 2019 issue of The Manitoba Teacher Magazine