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Cultivating Student Engagement and Wellness with Gardening

June 6, 2019

By: Kendall Hunt RPD with contributions from the writing team of By Design Science grades 1-8

Today, June 6, is National Gardening Exercise Day, a perfect day to remember the benefits that gardens offer students. From physical exercise to fresh produce, gardens promote a healthy lifestyle— and, according to Dan Wyrick, K-8 Elementary Program Consultant and Director of Nature by Design, gardening provides “an opportunity to be outside and interact with nature.”

“Many students do not spend their time outdoors,” he explains. “Gardens increase student engagement and curiosity… [and] students will develop a connection with the outdoors from an early age. This enriching experience will be something that they will keep with them for the rest of their lives.”

Wyrick, and many other educators, encourage teachers to implement classroom or school gardening projects. Here are three options for how to plan your plot, whether you’d like your garden to bloom in spring, early summer, or fall.


Spring-blooming garden: Flower power

For novice gardeners, a spring-blooming garden is an easy starting point, since many flowers and bulbs are planted in the fall and left dormant during the winter, to bloom on their own in the spring. Teachers can reference the garden and the life cycle of seeds and bulbs during science lessons throughout the winter, in preparation for spring blooms.

When to plant: fall, just after students return to school

When to expect blooms: weather-dependent, April-May

What to plant: Tulips, daffodils and garlic are good low-maintenance bulb options. They won’t bloom until spring, but pansies enjoy the cool weather and will bloom immediately in the fall. Over the winter, they’ll strengthen their roots to bloom again even more prominently in the spring.


Summer-blooming garden: Birds and butterflies

Wyrick states that summer-blooming gardens provide a habitat for birds and butterflies, offering a chance to teach students about these pollinators. Students will discover what living things need for survival (food, water, and shelter) and will see connections between their own needs and the animals’. A summer garden reinforces students’ place as a member of the natural world and God’s creation!

When to plant: spring, after danger of late spring frost (late April-May)

When to expect blooms: late May-early June, continuing into summer

What to plant: Wyrick recommends sun-loving, brightly colored native flowers, including both annuals and perennials. Possibilities include aster, purple cone flower, sunflower, lupine, daisy, goldenrod, salvia, sage, butterfly bush (Buddleia), hollyhock, milkweed, honeysuckle, lantana, and star jasmine. You should also provide birds with additional food options (thistle seeds, suet blocks, and commercial seed mixes work well), as well as a source of fresh water no more than two or three inches deep.


Fall-blooming garden: Nature’s bounty

If you want to have your garden and eat it too, a fall-blooming garden is your best chance. Teachers can introduce students to new vegetables and reinforce the importance of locally-grown produce (perhaps a field trip to a local farmers’ market would be appropriate). Fall-blooming gardens’ one disadvantage is that they do most of their actual growing during the summer. However, kids can still be involved in the planting and harvesting, and can help put the garden “to bed” for the winter.

When to plant: just as school gets out (late May-early June)

When to expect produce: early to mid-September to October

What to plant: Tomatoes, peppers, sweet potatoes, winter squash, and onions are all long-growing plants which take between 80 and 100 days to mature. If you get them in the ground in May, they’ll be ready for your harvest in the fall.

What will you plant in your classroom garden this fall?