Now that students have researched the rainbow of plants available to eat, and also learned about their amazing nutritional properties, they will get a chance to actually begin to make changes in their diet by growing and eating their own produce. Students will apply their knowledge about plants and nutrition to plan and carry out a class indoor garden, which will provide us the opportunity to sample these healthy foods.
Because some of the fruits and vegetables studied by the students are more conducive to indoor/container planting than others, students will work in groups to choose one plant from a specific color group, with the goal being that as a class, all four color groups will be represented. Each group of five students will be responsible for prepping their part of the indoor garden, researching the care needed for their specific plant, planting the seeds/seedlings, caring for the plants, and harvesting the plants when grown.
The following plants (taken from those listed in the before mentioned color groups) should be conducive to container/indoor planting.
1 Red Group - Tomatoes, Red Peppers
2 Orange Group - Carrots, Squash
3 Green Group - Spinach
4 Blue/Purple Group - Eggplant
Getting Started with Indoor Gardening
Being new to indoor gardening, I have found there is quite a lot to learn and think about! There are several important things to keep in mind when starting an indoor garden. However, my first concern is that I choose plants that my students will be most successful in caring for and achieving the ultimate goal: a crop of plants to eat. So, although it would be nice to give my students a wide variety of plants to choose from, it will be necessary to limit their choices to those listed above in order to give the garden the best chance for success. The fruits and vegetables not covered in the planting session can most certainly be purchased at the store for sampling. But it is still important, in my opinion, to give my students the chance to grow some plants on their own. This will not only help them feel successful, but also open them up to a new hobby (one that they may be able to continue in their urban home settings where space is often limited) and allow them to realize that healthy, delicious food can come from nature.
Starting the Seeds
In an ideal situation, the easiest way to start the garden with my students would be to purchase seedlings at a local nursery and then plant them immediately. However, because my students will not be in school during the ideal months for gardening, we will have to adjust. My solution, then, is to actually have students start those seeds themselves by using an indoor greenhouse system. This will allow us to start planting in late winter or early spring and hopefully harvest some fruits and vegetables before school ends in June.
When starting seeds, it is important to know generally how long it will take for the seeds to germinate and be ready to transplant to an outside container. Again, transplanting outside may be a bit tricky for my students, as the weather may not be cooperative. However, there are a few tricks that can help with this issue, or else we may just have to keep the plants inside. Regardless, we should be aware of the germination time so we can generally do any necessary transplanting around the same time.
The following are general germination times for the plants we may be using:
1 Tomatoes - 50-70 days
2 Peppers - 50-70 days
3 Carrots - 50-75 days
4 Squash - 30 days
5 Spinach - 30-45 days
6 Eggplant - 50-70 days (6)
A great reference book for such gardening needs has been
The Bountiful Container
, by Rose Marie Nichols McGee and Maggie Stuckey. This book is great for teachers to use and easy to understand for the beginner gardener, like myself. Although is it not at a third grade reading level, I do feel I can also use it with my students as a reference for some of their plant care.
According to McGee and Stuckey, a good idea when starting seeds is to buy specific seed starting potting mix. Small containers (which are made specifically for starting seeds) will also be needed. A drip tray will be necessary to catch excess water, and labels will keep things organized. When planting the seeds, be sure the potting mix is damp but not dripping. Fill each pot with soil, then add the seeds and cover with a little bit more soil (6). The seed trays can then be placed in the indoor greenhouse.
An indoor greenhouse will be a good choice for the needs of the class, as the weather will more than likely not be conducive to outside planting right when we need it. Greenhouses come in all shapes, sizes, and prices, but I plan to use a relatively inexpensive, simple version. You can also make your own greenhouse if you are so inclined, as they are not that difficult to construct.
"A greenhouse is a structure with a glass or plastic roof and frequently glass or plastic walls; it heats up because incoming solar [or in our case, fluorescent light] radiation . . .warms plants, soil, and other things inside the building" (7). For the classroom, we will use a greenhouse with plastic walls and roof and an artificial light source hanging from the top. This will allow the seedling to germinate and also support the plants in their younger stages before they can go outside. The plants will need to be kept moist with a mister, or water poured into the drip tray that will be absorbed into the soil from the bottom of the pots (6).
Once seeds have germinated, it may be necessary to thin out some of the seedling to allow some of them to have more room. The best way to do this to avoid damage to the plants is to snip off the extra seedlings at the soil line. At some point, the seedling may also need to be transferred to larger pots if it is not time for them to go outside. When the seedlings have three sets of leaves, they are probably ready to be transplanted (6).
If and when seedlings do make it outside, covering them with plastic (such as a milk jug with the bottom cut out) at night will help protect them from the chilly air. Being new to this process, I suspect I will be learning as I go with the students and will only be able to judge if the plants can go outside when that time comes. If they will be transplanted outside, they can be placed in larger containers and maintained from there.
If everything goes according to plan, the ultimate goal will be to have some vegetables to harvest. We can end our unit of study with a fruit and vegetable tasting party that will allow my students to try some new healthy foods. Our crops will be supplemented with some other fruits and vegetables from the store, but this will still serve my ultimate goal. I want my students to have a better understanding of how healthy foods can improve the way they feel and also open their eyes to some foods they may have shied away from in the past. They can bring this information back to their families and maybe even influence what is bought at the store in the future.