Kids and Horticulture: Gardening in the Classroom

Many adults have memories of planting a marigold seed in a pot at school and proudly bringing it home to present to their mom, usually around Mother’s Day. There is something exciting about planting a seed, watering it, and watching it grow that just does not compare to anything else. Many teachers are expanding on that seed of an idea and involving students in school gardening projects. An outdoor school garden is a huge undertaking and can be a wonderful school-wide project, but if time, space and resources does not make that possible, indoor container gardening provides a great way to share much of the same gardening experience with your class and it doesn’t have to involve a lot of money to get things going.

Gardens are possible in a wide variety of containers so they easily adapt to the space and resources of each class. Container gardens offer endless lesson opportunities in biology, science, agriculture, design, English, math, and social studies. Container gardening involves students in creative planning, social interaction, and sharpening their observation skills as they consider the choices for their container garden and work together to take care of their growing plants. There are many resources available through local county extension offices, but container gardening doesn't have to follow a set structure. With attention to a few basic considerations such as light, water, and fertilization, container gardens can hold herbs, vegetables, flowers, or even a combination of plants. Containers can be as simple or as decorative as your students desire. Preparing and decorating containers for their gardens offers an opportunity to explore creative design and color choices.

Learning about composting to provide organic materials used in container gardens brings in even more opportunities for lessons. There are small compost bins suitable for indoor use and even vermicomposting that uses worms to compost recycled food scraps from the lunchroom! Composting recycled materials does not get smelly as long as you choose the right types of compost. Vegetable scraps and even recycled shredded newspaper can all become compost within a classroom without the smell you might expect. If your class uses worm compost, you do not even have to worry about school holidays, as the worms will keep on working even without day-to-day attention. How many weird ways to compost can your class discover?

Making decisions and keeping records of plant growth from seed choice, germination, the growing processes, and other observations along the way to harvesting herbs and vegetables encourages English skills, writing, and record keeping. Seeing a flower bloom and die, then adding the dead plants to the compost used to start the process over again offers countless lessons about life on a level many students do not have the opportunity to experience. Insects, both pests and the beneficial types found among plants and soil, can offer opportunities to investigate environmental factors affecting plant growth. Lessons on caring for the environment can include organic gardening ideas, pest control methods, and sustainable resources. Lesson opportunities really are endless and a great reason to make container gardening part of your class curriculum this school year.

For helpful information, lesson plans, and container gardening resources, dig into the following links.

  • Gems from the Garden: Digging up Activities for All Ages – This Education World site is a good starting point for digging into the possibilities of classroom gardening projects! Think beyond the usual marigold in a Dixie cup project you are most likely to recall. How about edible sprouts? Hosting a plant show? Why not plan a garden design with a Virtual Gardener planner tool!
  • Kids Gardening: Helping Young Minds Grow – The mission of this website is to enhance all areas of a child’s physical, social, and educational development using hands-on gardening experience. Here you can find kids' gardening news and tips as well as much welcomed information on getting started with school gardening projects. Some how-to guides you can find on this site include container gardening, plant propagation, a school greenhouse guide, and many more interesting projects.
  • Bringing the Garden into the Classroom – Though the main focus of this site is to encourage outdoor school gardens, it also offers great tips for container gardening for those schools or classes unable to put in the time and resources to a full garden. They also have resource lists for supplies, gardening lesson ideas, and a listing of children’s garden books that will be useful for container or full-size gardens.
  • School Composting: Worm Bins – Vermicomposting uses worms to compost food waste into rich compost used in classroom gardening projects. This site offers a downloadable copy of The Worm Guide as well a link to a PDF of a classroom composting activity guide. A worm bin is easy to start and maintain within the classroom and is a resource for many garden-related lessons.
  • Composting in Schools – With a teacher's page of project and topic ideas and resources with titles such as, Weird and Unusual Composting, this webpage written by Cornell University is a must-read for ways to use compost as a resource for numerous lessons. According to information found on this site, lack of space is not a problem. You can compost in something as small as a recycled soda bottle!
  • How to Compost in the Classroom – Step-by-step instructions for using a five-gallon container as a classroom compost bin are listed here along with a list of needed materials.
  • No ground? Use containers! – This webpage has a variety of resource tips and ideas for container gardening as well as articles and links to growing a surprising variety for vegetables in containers. Many of these ideas can be adapted to the classroom and the articles are a source of discussion for lessons plans.
  • Growing Classroom Herbs – Herbs make a great introduction to classroom gardening. Easy to grow, fragrant, edible, and they can be harvested and used in lessons in preserving or cooking. There is an Indoor Herb Growing Chart found here that lists the herbs, days it takes to germinate, and best way to start it.
  • Container Gardening Manual (PDF) – Published by the University of Wisconsin-School of Medicine and Public Health, this PDF document is illustrated and a great hands on resource to container gardening for classroom projects! A resource list as well as a question and answer section gives information needed by first time container gardeners young and old!
  • Container Garden Lesson Outlines and Assignment Ideas (PDF) – This document cultivates inquiries about container gardening, and plants tips and lesson outlines you can nurture and grow to the size you desire. From the first step of planning what each container will hold, to keeping field notes observing the stages of growth, here you will find a great start to growing your own topic ideas and discussions. There is also a chart of possible container vegetables and their soil depth, and light and water requirements to help jump-start your container gardening project.
  • Virginia AITC Garden Lessons: Objectives & SOL Correlations (PDF) – Another great lesson outline resource. This selection of lesson ideas shows that gardening lessons are used in a variety of subjects. Though many of these lessons are based on outdoor gardening, they are easily adaptable to container gardens. This resource is useful in understanding how to incorporate gardening lessons into Social Studies, Language Arts, Math, Science, and English class lessons.
  • 4-H Collaborating Classrooms: About Gardens and Nutrition – A great place to collaborate ideas, lessons, resource guides, and more is here on this 4-H site.
  • Starting an Indoor Container Garden from Seed – Middle grade lessons based on container gardening. Involves science, language arts, and math in a project where students plant, observe, and record the growth process. A material list and teacher overview is included.
  • Colorado State University: Container Gardens - This is an easy-to-understand introduction to container gardening showing how adaptable container gardening is to space and resources available. Find discussion on everything from water and soil or soil-free potting mix choices to tips for choosing and combining plants.
  • Sprouting Seeds at Home – Not your usual classroom gardening project! Sprouting seeds can be used to discuss seed biology and germination and the edible sprouts give students a chance to harvest and experience a new food that many have not been exposed to previously. This site gives basic information, sprouting tips, and answers frequently asked questions.
  • Sprouting Seeds - This webpage has a useful Sprouting Times chart that includes the best length of time to allow sprouts to grow before harvesting. Sprouting tips and suggestions provide further ideas for choices in healthy sprouts and uses.
  • Sprouting Seeds - Fresh and Simple All Year Round – This is a basic easy to use method of using trays and paper towels to sprout seeds. If you are looking for an easy classroom project that does not require the expense of special equipment, this is it.
  • Exploring Classroom Hydroponics: What, No Soil?! – A resource guide from the National Gardening Association, this webpage introduces the concept of growing plants without soil. Surprising as it may be, this type of growing with water may date back as far as the hanging gardens of the Babylonian Empire. The modern science we now know as hydroponics began in the 1930s at the University of California. Hydroponics is a surprising change from the usual bean seed planted in a peat pot many of us remember from our middle school classroom days.
  • Lesson Plan: Let It Grow: An Inquiry-Based Organic Gardening Research Project – Lesson plan based on the development of a classroom garden space either indoors or out. This is a complete project list including a materials-needed list, resource guide, lesson topics, and outcome goals.
  • Junior Master Gardeners – You can register your class here as a group of Junior Master Gardeners and receive a free Junior Master Gardeners newsletter, special notifications concerning youth gardening events in your area, and be eligible for free monthly give-away drawings.
  • Kids Gardening Projects – Some simple tried-and-true gardening projects you may remember doing when you were in school! Quick and easy, these projects use easy-to-obtain materials and provide a quick reward in terms of being able to see progress from their efforts.
  • Planting and Caring for Your Container Vegetables –Growing their own vegetables gives an opportunity for children to learn about plants and gardening. An added bonus of growing vegetables in containers is the children can grow it and eat their ‘own’ vegetables. Children may try a new vegetable or even eat a vegetable they normally refuse to eat if they grew it themselves! Many vegetables do well in containers.
  • The Micro Gardener – This website is for the urban gardener who has limited space for a garden. This section contains ideas that could be useful in container garden projects. The gardening tips and ideas here can also be adapted for indoor gardens.
  • Green Kids: Edible Container Gardens – This Audubon Naturalist Society site shares how-to information for setting up edible container gardens. This site has links to other container garden resources as well as a (PDF) slideshow.
  • Building a Terrarium  – This webpage provides instructions for planting a miniature garden that your students can take home. Any container that is big enough for little hands to get into to plant and arrange will work fine. Suggestions for suitable containers as well as a list of small slow-growing plants to choose from will help get container gardens off to a good start.