Gardening as a Tool for Teaching Science
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Many of us have probably kept a garden at one time or another. My parents had a large vegetable garden when I was growing up and after they gave it up, I kept a small herb garden in the back yard. I liked to dry and decorate with herbs. When our kids were younger, we tried small themed gardens and participate in the garden club with our county 4-H. We tried simple plants and sunflower patches. It wasn’t until we moved to our new house four years ago that we inherited a large deer fenced raised bed garden that we became more serious. Now it’s a fertile ground for not only growing plants, but for learning about plants and plant needs. Gardening as a Tool for Teaching Science will go beyond the idea of planting and caring for a garden and will offer ideas on how to dig in to the science of botany and ecology.
All knowledge is grown in wonder, and what better place to cultivate wonder than in our own gardens? – Sharon Lovejoy
Why Keep a Garden
We all have busy families- activities, homeschooling, and other commitments. Our instinct might be to declare there’s no time for a garden. It’s also a pretty daunting thought if you didn’t grow up with your own garden. So why invest the time?
- Learn about Locally Growing Plants– You’ll grow what grows best and it will give you the opportunity to learn what those native plants are.
- Provides Healthy Food & Snacks– You and your kids will love running out to the garden for lettuce for burgers, sandwiches, and salads along with tomatoes to snack on or herbs for the spaghetti sauce.
- Study Your Own Hands On Botany Lab– You’ll be able to set up and watch the growing process and learn about all kinds of things along the way.
- Learning Lab Potential– Besides botany, your students will learn about soil, pests, disease and other factors affecting their garden plants.
- Family Focus– Kids can be an integral part of the planning and process along the way.
Science Activities in the Garden
There are so many ways to focus on the science of gardening! Below I’m going to list some ideas (in no particular order) with a few details and perhaps some of them will make good subjects for their own posts.
- Seed Viability– Test whether or not old stored seeds are still viable by doing a germination test. Put ten seeds in the fold of a paper towel, dampen the paper towel, and keep it warm in a baggie. Check each day to see if the seeds have germinated. You can find the percentage of seeds which are viable over a week or so.
- Diffusion– How do plants move water from their roots? You can demonstrate diffusion in a number of ways. Place food coloring in water and place white carnations in the water. Watch what happens! You can choose beans that will swell or celery stalks.
- Soil pH– Discover the optimum pH for various plants and test your soil to see if it is a habitable choice.
- Soil Types– Plants thrive in different kinds of soil. What kind do you have? You can use a two liter bottle to demonstrate the permeability of your soil.
- Seed Germination– Observe the germination of seeds. Beans seeds are nice and large and allow you to see things easily.
- Pollination– What is pollination? Why is it necessary for plant reproduction? How does it happen? This is a great moment to talk about all the creatures that are beneficial to our gardens and how they pollinate.
- Propagation– You can grow plants from other plants! Research different ways to practice plant propagation and try them out. Start a root top garden, start a plant from a bulb, or plant some cuttings and see what happens. We’ve even done some plant grafting with hibiscus plants.
- Soil Critters– Organisms in the soil play an important role in the life of plants. Find out about those organisms and how they get their job done. You might even meet some new words like symbiosis.
- Roots with a View– Plant a little garden in a box with a window so you can observe the roots growing. Talk about the job of plant roots and the different types of roots found on plants. Be sure to discuss the roots we eat!
- Decomposition– Decomposers are found in the soil. Find out what kinds of organisms participate. Why do we need decomposers?
- Compost– It’s good for plants and good for the planet. If you don’t already compost, think about starting! Even if you don’t garden, composting cuts down on solid waste in landfills. Find out why it’s good for gardening and what sorts of things you can compost.
- Fungi– We are growing shiitake mushrooms! Find out about the different types of fungi and whether they are friend or foe. Talk about mushroom safety- most are not edible.
- Photosynthesis– Plants make their own food, but how do they do it? Learn about the process of photosynthesis. Where on a plant are the food making factories? What are they called? What do plants need to make their own food? Observe a leaf and look at it under a microscope. Cover up a section of grass for a week and compare the place you covered to the grass around it. What’s the difference? Is the color important to the function of the plant?
- Growing Space– Does it matter how closely you plant things? Set up three pots- one with just one plant, one with several, and the last with many. Which plants are thriving? Why is spacing important? This is a great moment to talk about why we weed gardens.
- Seed Dispersion– How do seeds get around? Why do seeds need to travel? In our garden, when we let things go to seed, sometimes we’ll see new plants the next year though we don’t have control over where they pop up.
- Seed Comparison– As you prepare to plant, take a few minutes to observe the variety of seeds. Put them out on the table and look at the different sizes and shapes. Make a seed collection!
- Gravity & Geotropism– There are a lot of ways to test how gravity affects plants. Dark rooms, upside down seeds, try experimenting with this concept after you learn a bit about it.
- Light & Growth– Have your kids seen how plants will grow to the light? Try placing your potted plants in different locations and see what happens.
Tips for Gardening Success
If you’ve never had a garden before or you have and it didn’t last long, I hope these hints will be helpful in keeping the garden a low key affair so you’ll want to stick with it! Gardening is probably a lot like exercise. You know it’s a good thing to do so you jump in with both feet only to get sore and decide it isn’t for you. Start slow and build up!
- Start Small– Gardening is hard work. Try something small like a few container gardens . You want success and then interest will grow.
- Learn What Grows Best in Your Space– Some of this you might end up learning after the first season, but pay attention to your space and grow plants which thrive there. If you have a full sun garden, grow plants that need full sun. Conversely, if you have a fairly shady garden (ours is in the woods!), then stick with species that can handle the shade. Save the sunniest spots for the plants that need full sun.
- Weed Frequently– Especially to start. Weeds will hinder the new plants from growing by stealing much needed nutrients and eventually even the sunlight.
- Plant Enough to Enjoy– But not so many that you are overwhelmed with a harvest. There are only a few plants I make sure I have enough to store for the winter. The rest we enjoy as they come out of the garden.
- Observe Your Garden Daily– You’ll want to weed and water and see any problems right away. Plus, you’ll want to keep track of your plants so you are ready to harvest when it’s time.
- Plant What You Know Your Kids Will Enjoy– There’s a lot of joy in going out to the garden and picking something tasty. Make sure your kids have a favorite (if it will grow well). You want to take advantage of this perk so they want to repeat the process!
- Be Prepare to Harvest– This includes knowing when it is time. Make sure you know what the mature fruit or leaf looks like so they don’t go by the way! Many plants have an ideal time for harvesting and waiting too long can change the texture or taste of the plant.
Resources for Gardening with Kids
We have enjoyed many different books and resources as we learned to garden. Here are some of our favorites:
- Gardening with Children– This is a fantastic source of garden projects that involve botany. Kids will see things grow, learning about seeds and soil, and the activities are clearly outlined. There’s a lot of great science in this book!
- Roots, Shoots, Buckets, and Boots– A fun garden project book full of ideas on special gardens to grow with kids and how to take care of them. You’ll also find the Top 20 Best Plants for Children in this book!
- Ready, Set, Grow– A guide to gardening with children. Colorful with activities for young children just getting started.
- How a Seed Grows– Let’s Read and Find Out Science series is a lovely trade book on science for young children. If you are working with preschoolers or your kids are new to seeds, this is a good introduction.
- Square Foot Gardening– a method of gardening which dictates planting in square foot sections. Our garden is an SFG garden and it’s easy to set up and maintain particularly if you are short on space.
- Green Thumb: A Kid’s Activity Guide to Indoor & Outdoor Gardening– These are wonderful for first time gardeners and require little beyond what you have on hand.
- Plants– This is a Janice VanCleave experiments to science fair projects book. Following the simple experiments in this book will teach your students about plant basics and you’ll get to observe things first hand.
- Science with Plants– from the Usborne Book of Science ActivitiesI love this series by Usborne because it’s written so children can follow the directions themselves and do the activities with little help needed from adults. The reading level is accessible for early readers as well.
Other Plant Activities at Blog, She Wrote
Another great way to experience your garden is to keep track of what’s happening there. You can also keep a scientific notebook with all these activities in it.
How to Make a Plant Journal– This journal is a horticulture journal. Find out how Rebecca keeps her journal and what she puts in it.
Tips for Botanical Illustration– If you want to draw your plants, how do you go about it for the best results?
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