You walk into a school yard in the fall and see a well-planned garden filled with dead weeds. You walk a bit further and see an arrangement of planters filled with herb plants, but most of the leaves have been picked off, leaving ugly stems. You continue your journey and see dried, brown corn stalks still standing long after the harvest, and dying squash vines in a willy-nilly maze among the raised bed planters — some even stretching through the school yard fence heading west toward the sunset. And in those raised beds, a few vegetables have been left to go to seed, never to grace a lunchroom plate. What do you think of this garden?
You may see a mess in need of a commercial landscape maintenance crew. You may have the urge to pull out the dead weeds and till the earth in hopes of more attractive plantings in the spring. You may want to remove the herb planters all together. And the vegetable garden — clearly a failed experiment by a lazy group of well-meaning parents and teachers. Someone needs to teach these children proper garden maintenance.
Or … you see a series of living laboratories.
You see a butterfly garden full of native plants (commonly called “weeds”) functioning as a nursery for the delicate butterfly eggs that need the protection of the perennial plants’ natural winter form. It is a laboratory where students are learning which plants properly support the native butterfly population, and how the life cycles of the butterfly and the plant work together. They will witness the full life cycle of a native perennial and learn how that full cycle, including death and decay — uninterrupted by a human desire for a tidy garden — supports the native insect population, particularly those whose eggs enter a diapause stage for winter.
You see a successful attempt to teach children that those green flecks they sometimes see in food, called herbs, are actually very tasty seasonings, and that using herbs to flavor food is far more interesting and healthier than heaping on loads of sugars and salts. Herbs are very attractive landscape plants, and there is a place for a more pristine approach to growing herbs for cooking. But if you create with the students a themed herb garden, where the plants are known to be safe to eat and are clearly labelled, and if you put it in their daily environment and allow them to own it, an exciting form of discovery and learning takes place organically. Not only will you find the children tasting and trying the herbs on their own, challenging each other to “try it,” but when it comes time to use herbs in a cooking lesson, the children who already have an intimate knowledge of the plant and how it tastes will be far more willing chefs and taste testers. And when a favored plant loses all of its leaves and fails to thrive, the children remember the classroom lesson about the function of leaves in plant life. The students learn more from their vital mistake than they would have had they only read about this fact in a book. You can and will say to the children, “Don’t pick all the leaves or the plant will die.” Then they pick off and taste the sweet stevia leaves until none are left, and none grow back, and the plant dies. They are sad, upset even, and miss the plant and want more. But the adult observer should not be angry. The children know why the plant died, watched it happen, maybe even helped cause its demise themselves. At what point did true learning happen? When did they really understand? What part of this lesson will remain in the child’s memory? Now, let them plan next year’s herb garden and listen to them try to teach the younger students not to pick too many leaves.
In the vegetable garden, the corn stalks are now a part of the play yard – allowed to be touched, used as a maze, even pulled down and examined, or reused to build a fort. The long vines become jump ropes, or are used for tug-o-war. Without fear of damaging the squash, the students can now explore the long length of vine the way a child will. Eventually, they will help put the battered remains in the compost and it will be easier to do so, the children themselves having played a role in decomposition. And while it might have been more attractive to control the growth of the vine with yard staples, how much more was learned by watching the plant grow its own way — reaching southwest, even climbing over other plants and up the school yard fence to get as much sunlight in the day as possible? They may not get the best pumpkins for market from these vines, but that wasn’t the purpose, was it? Next year, ask the students to think of a way to manage the vine growth. Let them experiment. See if they even want the vine to be “managed.” And what about the carrots left in the garden long after harvest? A carrot is a biennial, of course, but how many people have seen it bloom and set seed? It takes two years, a long slow process, and children have the time to wait and watch. There is no sense in rushing this lesson. In the same way, lettuce and spinach that bolt, bloom, and set seed have an important place in the school garden that is not shared in most food-producing gardens. Should you tell children that lettuce tastes better before it blooms, or let them taste it both ways and decide for themselves? Let them plan for a desired result the next time. “Accidents” and impromptu experiments in the garden may not produce the best food, but they can produce fantastic teachable moments.
A “garden” is generally defined as a plot of earth used for plant cultivation; cultivation meaning no longer in the natural state, but developed by human work for human use. In the school yard, students will learn far more by being allowed to observe uncultivated nature. First they learn what the plant naturally wants to do (and which bugs will eat it). With that experience, they can better understand the changes humans force upon plants through the techniques used in gardening and farming to get better yields, bigger fruits, and healthier plants — or better yet, they will learn to use their own genius to innovate and cultivate to reach their own desired result.