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A Recipe for Success: Kids, Dirt, and Gardening

Bonnie Bracey Sutton

Teacher Agent of Change, Power of US Foundation
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On warm spring days, instead of leaving their hearts and minds in the classroom, my students often turned to the outdoors.

The study of plant life is a staple in biology curricula -- children explore seeds and how plants grow, young adolescents focus on cells, and teenagers continue their studies with more in-depth investigations of botany and plant physiology.

Reading about plants is usual in the traditional school curriculum, but working with the soil, growing different varieties of plants, and eating the plants you grow is uncommon.

However, my plant lessons rarely required a textbook. The scope and sequence of my lessons on plants ranged from learning about soils (undertaking a soil profile) to studying seeds ("What is a seed?"), digging in the dirt (good for building strong bodies and minds), and making a classroom garden.


I had a lot of help from the local 4-H agent, who conducted soil profiles for me and provided eggs for our chick-hatching observations. From time to time, the agent would stop by the classroom to share and to see how things were going.

The local 4-H Club did professional soil samples for the class garden and other gardens in our community. We learned about soil layers, textural classes, color, water-holding capacity, organic content, and pH balance. We also discovered how to alter the soil in order to make it better for our work.

All this made my students think more about the dirt beneath our feet. Soil is one of our most important natural resources, and it's important that students know about this aspect of the natural world and apply their knowledge to important factors such as land use, erosion, pollution, and urban planning.

School Gardens

There is no salad in the world as wonderful as the one you grow yourself, especially for students who have never tasted a homegrown tomato or pulled lettuce and other salad fixings from the rich earth. I remember being on a farm in the summertime with a saltshaker in my pocket, sampling the soil's tasty bounty. But my students didn't know where their food came from.

At another school where I worked, however, there were strawberry gardens. During recess, we would check on the progress of the strawberries, and, later in the season, we'd eat them -- so delicious!

A parent then convinced me to do a gardening project. He brought his little tractor and plowed the land, bought us tools and seeds, and contributed his know-how. An important learning was to plant only varieties of crops that are harvested early in the area so that we could collect and eat our lessons before school got out for the summer. We found out about the National Gardening Association and applied for and received a Youth Garden Grants award.

Let me direct you to some resources for ideas about gardening lessons and activities. Start planning now for the next school year so you can cultivate a more interesting way to learn about plants! And please add your own advice and thoughts about how to enrich learning about gardening.

Edutopia.org Resources

Down & Dirty: Getting a Handle on Mother Nature

Garden of Eating: Middle Schoolers Grow Their Own Lunch

That's Soil, Folks!: Garden Gear That's Not Garden Variety

Play with Food: A Game Teaches Healthy Diets

Veggies to the People: The People's Grocery Store

Other Resources

A Soil Profile (U.S. Department of Agriculture)

The Great Plant Escape: What Is a Seed? (University of Illinois Extension)

Planting Science (Botanical Society of America)

Fast Plants (University of Wisconsin at Madison)

Bottle Biology (University of Wisconsin at Madison)

Bonnie Bracey Sutton

Teacher Agent of Change, Power of US Foundation

Comments (22)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Bonnie Bracey-Sutton's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Children love to dig in the dirt. They may not understand "perennial" or "alkaline," but they're curious about worms and beetles and colorful flowers, fruits, and vegetables. Gardening is a great way to get kids outside, active, and interested in the natural world, no matter whether your garden is a few deck planters or a backyard or community plot.

You can learn about worms, soil, get involved with thinking about the weather, and sharing information with others.

The educational garden is a means of exploring a range of ideas inside and outside the elementary school curriculum. The garden can be integrated into one subject area, such as science, or it can be interdisciplinary, incorporating, for example, science, art, language arts, and music. The project can be limited to one grade, or it can be an opportunity for cooperative learning among several grades. An interdisciplinary, inter-grade approach maximizes the garden's influence, but these goals can be met gradually, over several years of gardening experience. Be sure the goals of the garden complement the needs of the school community.

What is a seed?
Say what?

There used to be a study of seeds that gave students the task of classifying things as seeds or not. On their desk they would have several types of corn seeds, a red hot, a lima bean, a stone, a grass seed,
a good assortment of things to decide if it was a seed or not.
Well the red hot ( a candy) was always the first thing they wanted to claim not a seed, but they had to give the definition of a seed to declassify this candy treat. You can gather your own examples.

There is an online initiative by the University of Illinois that helps kids to learn about seeds and plants.

It is called the Great Plant Escape.

The Smithsonian also had lots of great information on seeds of change. We created web pages to celebrate the history corn, tomato, the potato
seeds of change..

We actually had a garden on the mall in Washington.
We had a lot of help it was near the Gazebo on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Our project is archived but it has a lot of information that can be hepful to teachers. parents and students. Don't miss the recipes.

This was our recipe for success

Great Garden


Lots of different children, leave no one out
Loving parents from many backgrounds and cultures
Dedicated staff and teachers

Mix above ingredients together with leadership and season with community support, time, and money. Add one garden and stir vigorously with many volunteers. Cook with hard work and love until done.

These were some of our favorite plants

Dwarf sunflower (Helianthus annuus cultivars) -- large seeds; quick germination; drought tolerant; bright flowers

'Sungold' tomato (Lycopersicon 'Sun Gold') -- easy care; lush growth; fragrant leaves; plentiful, cherry-sized, sweet, orange fruits

'Chilly Chili' pepper (Capsicum 'Chilly Chili') -- easy care; drought tolerant; colorful, mild chile peppers

Purple bush bean (Phaseolus vulgaris cultivars) -- large seeds; quick germination; colorful bean pods

Mini pumpkin (Cucurbita pepo cultivars) -- large seeds; quick germination; decorative fruits; edible fruit and seeds

Dill (Anethum graveolens) -- quick germination; airy, yellow flowers; edible; food source for swallowtail butterflies

Spearmint (Mentha spicata) -- easy care; shade tolerant; drought tolerant; fragrant leaves; flavorful in drinks

Basil (Ocimum basilicum)(buh-sill) of the Family Lamiaceae is also known as Sweet Basil. It is a tender low-growing herb that is grown as a perennial
I was fortunate to teach this course at the Smithsonian. We had help with the garden in two ways. There was a gardener who helped us create the seeds of change garden. In that garden we had squash, corn, beans, tomatoes , cucumbers and some herbs.

On the weekends, homeless people would come and eat the tomatoes and the corn. We didn't fence it. We knew how great those tomatoes tasted.
We still got a few tomatoes from time to tme.

Later we did the garden again on the school property.
This is a good time to think about planting bulbs and organizing for a
spring garden at school.

Bonnie Bracey Sutton

elm's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thanks for the awesome information provided, especially the list of the favorite plants. As a mother of two small children, I'm always searching for educational activities that not only help them develop strong bodies and minds, but also that create an awareness of good environmental living. I believe that we as parents have the responsibility to guide and encourage our children to care for our environment and the future health of our planet. Gardening is a simple and fun activity to capture kid's interest in nature and help them grow a sense of respect for the enviroment. I also want to add that the little ones obtain great benefits from this activity, from creating a sense of pride for their accomplishments, to being willing to eat the fruits of their labor (those veggies!)
Again, thanks for posting the recipe for success!!


kerryGowan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thanks, this site is great im studying primary teacher traing at college this helped me for an assignment giving me great ideas. thank you.

Danielle Mehl's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a primary teacher, this is a fantastic idea to encourage students to learn and be involved in the learning process. Setting aside the book is something that we do not always have time for, as we still need to teach specific information. Yet by studying while participating in this hands-on project, students will be more likely to learn and retain the information. In addition, it is something they will enjoy and can do outside of the classroom as well. Great idea!

Andrea's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thanks for the great idea and resources. Kids learn so much more by doing. One activity I do is have the students plant grass in plastic bags. I have them water and we watch it grow. Then students can see the roots grow. We talk about what plants need to live and we can identify different parts. The students love it.

A.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Earlier in the year, my second graders learned about the basic parts of a plant and essentials for growth and survival. At the time, I was lucky enough to have MANY "babies" on my Spider plant. I allowed each of the students to pluck off a "baby." They then planted them in container and watched them take root in the soil. The kids were able to keep the plants on their desks as long as they didn't fool with them. A few kids got their plants taken away. Those poor plants were put outside and almost died from the cold. However, I rescued them just before freezing to death. Now the kids have been able to watch the plant come back from their near death experience. They think it is so cool things can appear dead, but really aren't.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thanks for providing some of the resources I can use when I teach a unit on plants/planting. I teach in Ohio, and I usually try to do some things with my students that involves planting and growing different seeds and plants. Last year, we planted sunflower seeds, and one of the kids came in at the beginning of this year and told me how much hers had grown over the summer, and she was so excited about it! It was exciting to hear about her excitement from growing her own flower. Thanks for some of the new ideas you provide here...I can't wait to start growing again this year!

lyndsay144's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really apreciate this information!!! thank you I need some help in order to build up my garden

Sharon Fishman's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you very much for the information I really appreciate it!!

I found this useful site for gardening landscape

Miriam Bracey's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

How excited I was to see the press release about the First Lady's Garden at the White House. Alice Waters suggested it , and it is a great idea. A parent at my school got me started in Kid's Gardening. Not that I knew that much about gardening, but I had vague memory of my mother's gardens. She always had a strip of herbs, she considered them too expensive in the stores and not of good flavor, She had a kitchen garden as well, and sometimes a medicine garden. We would tour various places to get a snip of a plant. She had a green thumb. My mother was a florist but her dad was a farmer. I don't think he could read and write much, but he could coax most anything to grow. We got shipments of truck garden vegetables from the farm on a regular basis when a cousin came to Washington DC. The vegetables were excellent.


When Mr Haithcock came with the tractor and plowed our little garden, it was exciting. We had a garden, were raising butterflies, and frogs . and hatching chickens. I mention these because the 4-H Club has specialized ways of letting you test the soil. Who knew? We got our soil sample so we would know whether or not we needed to supplement the soil. You can do this too. THe 4H Club is a great resource.

Then we found Kid's Gardening on the Internet. We got free tools. maybe the hardest part of that was to figure out where to store the tools in the classroom. http://www.kidsgardening.com/grants.asp. This is a site you should visit early in the teaching year so that you can plan what you will raise, vegetables or flowers You apply for a grant.


The local museum for me is the Smithsonian. THere are things about food that are so interesting in their collection of resources.
I never did a garden at the White House, but I had a garden at the Smithsonian. There was a Seeds oF Change Carden. We are talking history and cultures. Dr. Herman Viola was teaching about the way that the two new worlds came together during the time of Columbus. We learned a lot. the archived lessons are here.

Long ago, people could eat only what they grew or what they could catch. They couldn't just go to the grocery store and buy whatever was on the shelf! In 1492, when Christopher Columbus came to America, he saw plants and animals he had never seen before. He took them back with him to Europe. Columbus' trips were the beginning of an exciting time in the history of food. People would be able to taste different foods; foods with flavors, shapes, and textures they had never experienced before!

The Smithsonian says".Come and explore the world of 1492 with us! Find out what the world was like 500 years ago! Find out how you can move both forwards and backwards in history at the same time. You can do it all, and along the way, you will learn about yourself, your family, your friends, and the earth! "

Ever heard of flint corn, dent corn, popcorn, sweet corn, horse corn?

When tomato met spaghetti, fascinating tale. It's all here.


We found the garden to be a community event. Parents, and residents came to our garden and it was maintained over the summer by thoughtful friends. We even had a pumpkinc crop.

I learned to eat vegetables I did not know anything about Kolrabi? I learned to harden plants, and seedlings before putting them out. There are also marvelous stories that go with these adventures in the library. We read a lot of stories about curcubita.. squash and melons and how people eat them in various cultures and why. The geography of a candy bar from the National Geographic was fun to do. We even got a cacao pod from the local Amazonia exhibit in the zoo.

There are the Wisconsin Fast Plants. Brassica plants that went into space.

The garden is a beginning for lots of studies. Cookbooks often get started. I am working on a cookbook from the south.

Bonnie Bracey Sutton

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