Choosing plants for fall school garden lessons

Little cups of soil with seeds sprouting.What should, or can, a teacher plant during the early days of school to support children’s adjustment to school and deepen their understanding of living organisms? The answer to this question depends on many variables, including whether your school is located close to or far away from the equator, how high above sea level it is, how much space you have, how much direct sunlight the space gets, and if water is available.

If you sprout seeds in containers in the classroom and in an outdoor garden, children can observe and measure the root and sprout growth up close, while getting a harvest from the outdoor garden later in the fall. Use a vegetable planting guide and recommended planting dates guide for your area, such as Publication 426-331 by Allen Straw of the Virginia Cooperative Extension to see what crop you can plant and harvest before a winter freeze.

I’m going to have the children plant bush green beans and lettuce, hoping we can harvest before a frost. We’ll also plant a few perennial plants that come back after the winter for more than one year to provide nectar sources for butterflies. To choose perennial plants for your flower garden, Plant Hardiness Zone Maplook on the US Department of Agriculture Plant Hardiness Zone Map to find out what zone you live in. The map uses the average annual extreme minimum temperatures from 1976-2005 to determine the zones. Once you know your zone, you can choose plants that are hardy throughout the year in your zone. (Look at the plant labels or descriptions in a gardening book.) The boundaries of these zones may have changed since your childhood and will continue to change in coming years as the climate changes.

Read Sid Perkins’ column in the June 30th, 2012 Science News on how observations made by citizen scientists track climate changes to their local environments at

Lilac bush flower buds in the snow.You can be part of a network of citizens who document temperature or other natural phenomena—see the Citizen Science Central’s list of projects.  Project BudBurst is one such project, a network of people across the United States who monitor plants, including lilacs, as the seasons change.

By sprouting seeds, children are busy taking care of another living organism, and can help the seed survive by meeting its needs. Discussion and close observation can reveal the children’s needs—perhaps a longer rest time, a different color for their nametag, or a job to do to make them feel valued and part of the class.


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  1. Gail Laubenthal
    Posted August 9, 2012 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    I, too, have been thinking about the Ladybug Sprout Scout Children’s Garden! The fall garden yields the best results in the Austin area. I begin our year off by asking the children where their food comes from. It always amazes me that the answers to this question is the same: the store, my mom, the fridge, etc. Only a few children might mention that it comes from a garden. One year, I remember a little girl said, “My grandma grows tomatoes in her garden.” I always hope that one of the children mention the garden or a farmer, but it usually does not happen.

    The next step would be to put on our Sprout Scout t-shirts and head to the garden. In the fall, we have lots of work to do before planting. The children soon learn that there is more to growing veggies than just planting. WORK, lots of WORK! It takes a lot of work to clean up last years garden. I purposely don’t do the cleaning myself, as I feel that the children need to feel connected to their Square Food Gardening gardens by putting in the prep time. Pulling weeds, digging in the soil, amending the soil, laying the 1 foot x 1 foot beds out, planning what to plant, and finally planting the seeds and sprouts. It takes several weeks at the beginning of the year, but when we do plant, the rewards (the harvest) are only a few months away.

    In the fall in Austin, we plant lettuce, cabbage, kale, chard, broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, herbs (dill, fennel, and parsley for the butterflies). Harvest begins around Thanksgiving, just in time for our Stone Soup! I always check with our Travis County Extension Agency to see their recommendations for fall and spring planting.

    Thanks so much for encouraging teachers to connect children with living organisms through planting. Not only will they learn about living things, like plants, but other organisms that frequent the garden: ladybugs, butterflies, worms, bees, and more!

  2. Posted August 9, 2012 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    Gardening with kids is a great way to introduce a wide variety of science standards at the beginning of the school year. Consider using lessons in the plant chapter of Bringing Outdoor Science In from NSTA Press.

  3. Peggy Ashbrook
    Posted August 9, 2012 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

    Many of us wish we had your long growing season Gail. The process of planting and harvesting from the class’s Square Foot Garden would make an interesting class book. Readers can visit the NSTA Publications Store and read the Rocks and Soil chapter of Steve Rich’s book,Bringing Outdoor Science In at no cost. Most gardening begins with working and getting to know the soil. I love that he dedicated it to his mother–parents are our first teachers.

  4. Gail Laubenthal
    Posted August 9, 2012 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

    I wanted to mention that in the January 2011 issue of Science and Children, Ingrid Weiland documented her 3rd graders problem based learning project entitled Where Does Our Food Come From. In this scenario, the students came back from eating lunch in the school cafeteria and asked her where the food had come from. The teacher took advantage of this student initiated question and allowed her students to do the work of a scientist, as they took on the challenges of finding the answer.

    In working with younger children, the teacher has got to listen to her children as they wonder about their world, too. If the teacher has set up a safe classroom environment where wondering aloud is O.K., the children will begin to ask questions more freely. It makes me wonder what questions this years 4-year olds will have.

  5. Todd Trobaugh
    Posted August 10, 2012 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    At the 2012 NSTA convention in Indianapolis, I saw a company named steadyGROWpro that had growing media that is great for the classroom. They also had Butterfly Gardens with lesson plans for science teachers.

  6. Peggy Ashbrook
    Posted August 10, 2012 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    Intriguing product, Todd. The soil-less steadyGROWpro growing medium/product might be a good product for programs with children who have compromised immune systems. I waver between those who never have children wash their hands before eating and those who use hand sanitizer every time a child goes past. In my own home we washed hands before meals but my children played in the dirt. At school I have the children wash their hands after using potting soil. I wish there was more information on how safe to be, for best health.

    Gail, thanks for the link to the article on food source investigation.
    I wonder if you could add to your observation about creating a classroom where wondering is safe to do and encouraged. Any specific techniques that promote wonderings? What should a teacher say and do?

  7. Gail Laubenthal
    Posted August 10, 2012 at 8:44 pm | Permalink

    In my opinion, a teacher who purposefully “wonders” out loud while the children are listening, encourages the children to wonder aloud, too. A gardening example might be: ” I wonder what would happen if we cut these stems off instead of pulling the the plant out?” Some children might think that the plant would die, but others might think that the plant would grow back. The teacher could then turn that “wondering” into an investigation. I like to wonder and I think children can learn to wonder about their world, too. So, go out and wonder about the world we live in!

  8. Peggy Ashbrook
    Posted September 9, 2012 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

    The Nutrients for Life Foundation has a free 5E curriculum for grades 3-5 and a blog by agricultural educator and parent, Dee McKenna, about establishing a school garden for grades K-5. The goal of the Foundation is to provide science-based information that helps educate people about the benefits of fertilizer.

    The Edible SchoolYard Project , which began with one middle school, has a searchable database of lesson plans and resources for creating and maintaining a school garden.

  9. Peggy Ashbrook
    Posted October 23, 2012 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    Apply for the Subaru Healthy Sprouts Award to win funding for a school garden. 50 winners will be selected to win:
    $400 gift certificate to the Gardening with Kids catalog
    National Gardening Assciation’s Eat a Rainbow Kit
    Hand tools and three pairs of child-sized gloves
    Curriculum package from NGA
    Applications due by Wednesday, October 31, 2012!

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