by Hillary Alamene, Communications Intern

In a conversation with Ms. Tara, a third grade teacher from North Andrews Garden Elementary in Florida, we spoke about how she integrated gardening into her classroom and the impact it has had on her students. 

Ms. Tara first learned about gardening within the classroom through another group of teachers in her district. A friend of hers managed to create a teaching garden where students could plant seeds and witness their growth over time. Feeling intrigued, Ms. Tara's curiosity led her to find a few local workshops where she could learn the fundamentals of gardening. And as her knowledge of the field grew, she felt that she was in a better position to take on the role of starting a garden within her school.

How it Started

To support this lofty initiative, she not only researched local and state grants that would offer about $1,000 to get started, but she also sought the assistance of a Master Gardener—someone who had worked within her school district years’ prior and was already familiar with these kinds of grants.

With the help of her Master Gardener, Mr. Wolinsky, Ms. Tara received the grants and began her project. She began by building two garden beds - beds that were primarily filled with onions, tomatoes, kale, and broccoli. During this first year, she harvested these vegetables with her second grade students, and by the end of the year, Ms. Tara and Mr. Wolinsky hosted a Farm to Table event for parents and students, where they showcased their harvest and allowed attendees to taste all the fruits and vegetables from their garden. With a successful turnout by the end of the year, Ms. Tara decided she would continue her gardening initiative.

Years Two and Three

During the second year, Ms. Tara became a third grade teacher and expanded her program to include other students beyond her classroom. Students of various ages began to participate in the garden. For example, students from two third grade classes began to weed and water the garden, while Kindergarteners frequently visited and made note of their observations. By the third year, Ms. Tara began integrating different technologies into her gardening curriculum. When working with Kindergarten students, she placed QR codes at each of the beds throughout the garden. In doing so, students could use iPads to scan the codes and identify each plant, discover recipes using specific fruits, vegetables, and herbs, and note observations about pollinators or other companion plants nearby.

As more teachers invited their students to visit the garden, Ms. Tara also encouraged faculty members to join Harvest of the Month: an educational program that highlights a different Florida-grown product each month of the school year. Through this program, teachers received packets with produce such as peas, oranges, and tomatoes, in addition to worksheets for students to complete—some of which covered topics related to reading, writing, social studies, science, and math. Because Ms. Tara had been an active participant in years' past, she also had her students keep a garden journal and log to complement the materials they received. When students ventured into the garden, they would observe two or three plants and take note of any physical changes, which included but was not limited to signs of budding and changes in plant height or color.


Taking it Further

But the learning did not stop there! She found more ways to make gardening fun for students. When teachers observed National Poetry Month in April, students wrote garden-related haikus, or Japanese poems known for their 17-syllable structure. For Math, students learned perimeter and area by measuring each of the garden beds, and subsequently designing their own.

To further develop their agricultural literacy, Ms. Tara also had students take on a research project. The premise of this task was to select a specific crop or farm animal and then research a variety of facts about the crop or animal in question. Ms. Tara asked students to find common and uncommon food products made with the selected crop or animal, as well as the nutritional values of the identified foods, regions native to these crops or animals, and any additional interesting facts. After compiling this information, students would create a poster, presentation, or research paper to share their findings with their peers. This allowed all students to create unique connections between their experiences in the garden and the routine experiences of their daily lives.

Ms. Tara has succeeded in creating an enriching learning environment. She has given students the opportunity to learn through observation, "to learn how the weather affects plants, how seeds sprout, how plants grow, how gardeners cope with plant problems, how soil, water and the sun interact, and how butterflies and other insects play a role in crop growth." As Ms. Tara reflects on this three-year long initiative, she shares that “gardens can serve as living laboratories in which students see and experience firsthand what they are learning and, in turn, apply that knowledge to real-world situations. When students engage in hands-on gardening lessons, they show an increase in positive attitudes towards content material and learning, in general.”

All that she has accomplished so far would not have been possible without the support of other teachers and external resources. Most of the funding that Ms.Tara received was local—often coming from Broward County, Florida Agriculture in the Classroom, and the Florida Farm Bureau Federation, but this can be replicated in other states. If you are a teacher who is interested in starting your own school garden, consider looking for state-specific funding or applying for national grants, which can be found here.