By Rachel Waldron, FoodCorps Service Member
Because there are so many great activities to do out in the garden during the springtime, its difficult to get the kids excited about staying inside. But when a substitute teacher does not take the students out to the garden, I try to bring aspects of the garden inside. This week’s lesson, one of my very favorite topics to teach, is about square foot gardening and making seed squares to plant outside later.
The chorus of young voices starts as soon as they see me standing in the classroom: “Are we going outside? Ms. Rachel, are we going outside?” Unfortunately, the fifteenth repetition of the question doesn’t change the answer: we don’t go outside when we have a substitute. My denial of the outdoors is quickly followed by another unvarying statement, “Go ahead and close your laptops; you won’t need them in here.” Not surprisingly, grumbles ensue. Luckily, I’ve already got pictures up on the projector which quickly distract my students from their current inability to play computer games.
I show some examples of square foot gardens, explaining the concept as I go. When I ask students to identify some of the plants they see in the pictures, I am impressed with how much they have learned to recognize—broccoli, kale, collards, tomatoes, beans, spinach, peas, lettuce, peppers, beets, and—the prizewinning response, in my eyes—swiss chard. My students started their own chard plants from seed a few weeks ago, and the information about such a new and unusual plant seems to have stuck in their minds.
The students are perplexed by the strips of wood or string dividing the squares in the garden pictures I’ve shown until I point out that its a great way for them to keep track of which plant is theirs. After that, the dividing lines become a necessity. Probably the third complaint I hear most often while out in the garden (the first two being, indisputably, “my shoes are dirty” and “its cold”) is “but how will I know which plant is mine?” Hallelujah for the coordinate plane. Never again will I let each of my 110 students transplant a swiss chard seedling without making a map of exactly where every student’s plant is.
The lesson continues, and we talk about spacing for edible plants. Which plants need lots of space to grow? Which plants only require a small amount of space? I ask for examples of bigger plants, and the first few answers are inevitable: watermelon… apples, oranges, lemons, avocados (really, anything that grows on a tree). Then, more tentatively, corn, beans, blackberries, pumpkins. Moving on to the smaller plants, examples include carrots, collards, kale, lettuce, peas, onions.
After the students seem comfortable with the concept of the square foot garden, we read some seed packets together as a class to figure out the spacing for our specific seeds. Today, we will be making seed squares for turnips, carrots, radishes and spinach. The students learn to extract all kinds of information from the seed packets and are excited to learn that some of these crops will be ready to harvest just before school gets out in May.
Finally, we make it to the activity — actually creating our seed squares. I used the paper cutter at the office beforehand to make 12 inch squares of newspaper in order to speed up the activity in class. Of course, I realized when I arrived that my students were disappointed not to get to use the scissors. And when I tell them that we will be folding our papers (instead of using rulers to divide the paper into smaller squares), I hear a few groans. Nonetheless, we painstakingly fold our newspaper squares into sixteen smaller squares.
We use a mixture of flour and water to paste the seeds to the newspaper. When my students first enter the classroom and see the jar of paste sitting on the counter next to me, they make funny faces. When I explain the contents of the jar, students scoot forward to smell the concoction which they immediately nickname “pancake batter” because of its similar smell. More than one student asks if they can eat the paste. I explain, “I don’t recommend it since the jar has been used across four classes and with over one hundred students,” which seems to deter them. When their eyes shift to the jar next to the paste (this one a startling shade of red), some of them look curious while others look openly apprehensive. Luckily for them, the second jar is nothing more frightening than raspberry tea.
After the controlled chaos of actually attaching seeds to the newspaper, we sit back to let them dry. I make a stack of the finished squares while a few volunteers enjoy collecting all of the extra seeds. The next time we do an outside lesson, we will plant our seed squares in the garden, another activity I’m looking forward to. But for now, it has been another successful lesson.