From my little bag of tricks

Perhaps it’s a sign you’ve been doing something a while when you’ve collected your own little bag of tricks for doing things.  Here’s a peek at a few garden educator tips.

When you don’t have a lot of time to plant, and you want things to be relatively well spaced, I’ve discovered the beauty of plastic cutlery.  These little knives (very unsharp) were put in the bed before kids arrived.  Then kids were told to take a knife, swirl it around to make the correct planting depth, drop in the seed, and cover it back up with soil.  Then they discarded the knife in a pot.  Then we remember that a particular spot was already planted.


A bag of old shoelaces on hand!   Used for tying watering cans to the fence, and everything else.


One day I got really tired of saying “Take this shovel to the raised bed that used to have the snapdragons and is now sown with peas.”  It was then I hit upon (!) nailing a garden variety (!) house number to each raised bed.  Instructions are now much easier.  “You, take this to bed 3.  You, wait for me over at 6.”


The secret to my success, both professionally and personally?  The clipboard.  I know, I know. I get asked all the time if I’m taking the census or training to be a camp counselor. But I love clipping lots of notes together, the moveable writing surface, etc.  In the garden, they are indispensable.  I clip together notes for volunteers, pass them out with guided activities for kids, you name it.


Wreaths!  I have wire and forms in a box, ready to go at all times.  Making wreaths is such a great way to have student work with (touch, smell, see) seasonal foliage.  We make wreaths to go home, but I also have a few larger grapevine forms stored that we switch out every couple weeks and hang them on doors around campus.  Here students made wreaths to pass out at a school board meeting to thank them for all they do!


Not every project has to go home with the students!  I tied all of these bird feeders up in the plum tree, and it made a beautiful display.


Finally, get students to touch as many things in the garden as possible.  Impossible to take a whole class out to harvest kale for cooking later in the day?  Ask a teacher to “borrow”two students at a good point during the day to do the harvest.  Result?  Skyrocketing ownership.



Almost 200 children, in the garden, every week

Parents started the elementary school garden 4.5 years ago.  We started by cleaning the space up, followed by more cleaning up of the space.  We built structures, renovated a gazebo, added raised beds, commissioned a table, put the compost bins in place and began fundraising and grant writing.  Every year we push the project forward—adding wildlife habitat, fruit trees, a solar fountain, works of art, native plants, a rainwater harvesting system….  Three years ago we launched Garden Ambassadors..and then two years ago I began teaching a formal garden class every Wednesday afternoon during our enrichment classes.  Last year we dove head first into Farm to School.

This February our garden education program took a big leap forward.  Every class now goes to the garden, every week, for a 30-40 minute class which I am honored to teach.  Children are in the garden all day long, doing more than we’ve ever done before–learning vocabulary, writing, singing, planting, harvesting, cooking, eating, mapping, creating, exploring.  It has been thrilling.  Thank you to everyone whose vision, hard work and love for “kids in gardens” has brought us to this point!  Extra special thanks to Julian Pathways (our on-campus family and student support center which I will write more about soon)  for making this phase of garden instruction possible!


With the ESK class, ready to sing and hunt for letter of the week in the garden

Mint, mum, mulch…

Garden educators know that it is challenging to work with a full class in the garden.  Most garden tasks just don’t lend themselves to 25 (or more) kids.  As such, I am experimenting with creating “discovery-based” activities that spread the kids out independently, with the teacher giving content and instruction up front and then acting as a resource to the kids as they complete the task.  Yesterday’s lesson confirmed to me that this is a good way to go, with dozens of opportunities to teach words and concepts one on one.

I enjoyed the alphabet scavenger hunt with first grade so much that I decided to adapt it to fourth grade.  To begin, students gathered at the table.  I told them that the day’s lesson was paying attention when we’re in the garden, for two reasons. One, there is always something going, and you’ll miss it if you’re checked out.  Two, Mrs. Elisara is sneaky.

I then gave a ten minute talk on what’s current in the garden.  As I spoke, I referenced a list of vocabulary words on the white board behind me: cool season vegetables, annuals, perennials, solar fountain, photovoltaic cell, etc.  At the end we repeated all the words together.  Then I erased them.

I explained that there were 26 clipboards with crayons placed around the perimeter of the garden in alphabetical order, clock-wise.  Students could go up to any clipboard and write down a word they “saw, heard or felt” in the garden.  If the word was already on the sheet, they couldn’t repeat it.  The clipboard had to be put back in the same place.  It was perfectly OK to ask an adult for the names of things.  (We had four volunteers on hand to teach vocabulary to every child who really paid attention to this rule!)  Every word used the first time was one worth one point. Every time a child had to be asked not to run—minus one point.  Every word that was on the board that I talked about earlier:  worth three points!  (Sneaky!)

Points would be awarded for creative words but not silly ones, and the top five point-earners would be invited to have lunch in the garden the following day with me, with a special garden treat (zucchini bread).

Read the “M” list, with special attention on the last word!

University of Wednesday

University of Wednesday is a new program at out school.  After lunch on Wednesday all of the classes go to an enrichment class: art, garden, natural history, etc.  Every week they rotate.  This is a great development for the garden as it allows me to be a true “garden educator,” creating a lesson plan tailored to each grade.

Photo courtesy of Marisa McFedries

Last week I divided the group in half.  One half played Garden Bingo with me.  I don’t simply call out the words—I give examples of them in our garden and the kids have to come up with the words.  It was windy so I had to tape down the boards.  And the plastic bingo chips were too lightweight so I finally hit upon this idea.  (Easy clean up–just flick these chips off the table.)

The other half did this scavenger hunt.  It’s an exercise in observation, with a few  academic standards thrown in.  I usually have adult volunteers with me, so they walk around the garden, helping kids who are stumped or seizing teachable moments.  This “scavenger hunt” format works really well, as kids are self-directed, working in pairs with the questions below on a clipboard. And it’s easy to adapt to the grade and the season.


1)  How many varieties (different types) of tomatoes are currently growing in our garden?

2)   We are currently growing yellow snapdragon flowers.  Examine the flowers.  Why do you think they have this name?

3)   Draw the most beautiful thing in the garden:

4)   Cite one example of insect damage or plant disease in the garden.  (Look closely at leaves.)

5)   Write three words that come to mind when you see the Hubbell Gate.  (The new colorful one at the end of the garden).  Now use the thesaurus on the main table and fine a synonym for each of these words.

Your word                                                Word from thesaurus

__________________________                        _________________________________

__________________________                        _________________________________

__________________________                        _________________________________

6)   Smell at least three herbs in the herb garden.  Draw the leaf of the one you like most.  Do you know its name?

7)   We are a “certified wildlife habitat.”  What are the four things needed for a habitat?  (This is printed somewhere in the garden.)  Pick two elements and give an example of both.

8) Watch the 4 minute video on tendrils.  What did scientists recently learn?  Where are there tendrils in our garden?  Do you notice the phenomenon pointed out in the video?

(We couldn’t get this excellent Science Friday clip to play out in the garden, so I explained it and the kids watched it later in class.)

Then the kids switch so they both have a chance at each activity.  We end by gathering together at the table to share our answers and questions, and I try to always have something from the garden prepped to eat as we talk together.  The containers get passed around until all the food is gone!