The Winter Classroom - by Barbara Percival
When much of the curriculum is built around growing vegetables and working in the garden, winter presents quite a challenge. In DC we can count on going out to the garden and harvesting through late November, and will resume planting (and harvesting the over-wintered kale) in late March. Several winters ago we had a mild enough winter to be harvesting collards in January, but that is the exception. On the plus side, we have plenty of time in the FoodLab for cooking, learning, and eating.
To compensate for the lack of outdoor activities, we try to make sure that each lesson includes some in-depth hands-on experiences with plants in some form. With some classes we can plant seeds or germinate sprouts that they can take back to the classroom and observe while the weather is cold outside. In a few weeks we will be able to start plants indoors under the grow-lights for eventual planting in the garden when the soil warms up.
For example, this week the fourth graders continued their exploration of the ecosystem by uncovering the mysteries of germination. The main question we posed was why can a plant grow from a seed, bulb or tuber, but not from a stem with leaves? The students were tasked with dissecting some seeds (soaked lima beans), bulbs (garlic) and tubers (potatoes) to discover that each is a "survival packet" to start a new plant. Common to all three is that they have some sort of protection (seed coat, skin); a baby plant; and a source of food for the baby plant to begin growing. To reinforce the concept of germination, we set up two jars of seeds to sprout and sent them back to the classrooms. There, the students can observe the process of germination up close, and can later enjoy eating the sprouts.
Upcoming this week is a second grade lesson about how to plant and what plants need to grow. As part of this lesson the students will plant beans in cups and lettuce in a flat, and take them back to the classroom to tend and watch. In past years (when we have done this lesson with first graders), we found that having growing plants in the classroom is exciting for the children, and provides a great opportunity for them to hone observational skills. Letting each child have his or her own cup increases that excitement, because each child gets to watch "my" plant grow. If watered and kept in a sunny windowsill, we have actually been able to grow bean plants that produce beans -- a wonderful real world example of the cycle of life.
Before long we will be able to start seeds indoors for spring planting. Usually we start several varieties of lettuce and spinach in trays under the grow lights in the FoodLab. In general we start head lettuces, which transplant better and have a longer growing time. (Once the soil heats up, we will also plant leaf varieties from seed to supplement the harvest.) Rather than plant in flats, we use trays with individual cells to make it easier to distribute the plants to the children in the garden. This way, the classes that come to FoodPrints can monitor the progress of the plants and look forward to getting back out into the garden to plant!
Written by Barbara Percival, Master Gardener at Watkins