Weeding and Writing Your Plant

Avid gardeners have always known that growing a garden is not only fun for children, but also teaches them skills such as patience, caring for something other than themselves, and the value of regular work, among other things.

The virtues of gardening have been expanded and taken into school classrooms around the country through a joint program by the National Science Foundation, the National Gardening Association, and the National Garden Bureau. Children in grades kindergarten through 8 learn not only simple growing methods, but also use their indoor gardens to study history, business, sociology, math, science, environmental concepts, and gain personal enhancements such as greater self-confidence and self-esteem. Who would have thought that a small garden could open a whole world of social and educational growth?


The program centers around an indoor growth chamber called a GrowLab®, a commercially produced indoor lighted garden. Through funding from its members, the National Garden Bureau donates GrowLabs to schools and organizes for materials such as growing media, seeds and other supplies to be donated as well. The National Garden Bureau also arranges for a nearby horticultural professional to “adopt” the class and work with the classroom teacher to set up the indoor garden correctly, answer questions from the students and teachers, and periodically visit the classroom. “These kids ask good, intelligent questions,” commented Nona Koivula, Executive Director of the National Garden Bureau, and one of the professionals who has adopted a class. “They want to know how cross-breeding and hybridization is done. And they want detailed answers, not simple explanations. The kids love it!”

The National Science Foundation is involved in funding this program because it wanted to get kids interested in science projects, and hopefully nurture future scientists. By being a student-centered project where the students learn by actually seeing and doing rather than just reading about concepts, students get a better grasp on what they are doing, and gain a lifelong understanding of the concepts they explore.

According to Eve Pranis, Associate Director of Education at The National Gardening Association, the GrowLab® program initially began with outdoor gardens in Cleveland, Ohio in the inner city. The positive aspects of using a garden to teach a variety of subjects was well recognized, but it was also recognized that an indoor program would overcome concerns such as safety, so the indoor gardening program was launched.

The National Gardening Association also annually awards $500 worth of outdoor gardening supplies to each of 300 schools through its Youth Garden Grants Program.

Weeding and Writing

So how does a garden teach more than botany? “It’s really quite easy to tie the garden in with other subjects,” said Eve. “Take potatoes. Kids plant potatoes and watch them grow, and then they study the history of the potato, learn its importance as a commercial crop, and also learn how it affected history such as the great potato famine in Ireland. They can study the effects of acid rain on crops in classroom science projects using the garden, and that opens many other doors about our environment.”

In Rochester, New York, Monroe Middle School teacher Jose Veras has his students using the garden to learn about business. They grow herbs that they sell to local restaurants. Students therefore learn about planning ahead (crop scheduling), selling, accounting and marketing, as well as learning about the herbs and how to grow them.

Eve pointed out that there are a variety of teaching materials available, and teachers can fashion an indoor growing program in an infinite number of ways. “They can pick and choose what they want to do,” she said, “but of course they have to have a garden.”

Equipping The Classroom

The GrowLab® units National Garden Bureau donates are 52 inches wide by 23 inches deep and 39 inches tall, and fit on a table top. The metal frame of the unit holds two 4-foot light fixtures with four special grow lights, and also has plastic trays to hold plants, a 24-hour timer for the lights, and a climate control tent to help control humidity. Up to 72, 3 1/2-inch pots can be grown on the plastic trays.

The indoor garden also comes with a guidebook produced by the National Gardening Association to help teachers set up the unit in the classroom, along with practical advice on choosing plants and supplies, and basic growing information.

And going beyond the basics is another National Gardening Association guide with a variety of classroom-tested activities and extensive teacher background information. The activities range from 2-week projects to year-long studies, so they are adaptable to virtually any classroom situation.

The activities follow a step-by-step inquiry-based cycle that promotes teamwork among the students and encourages children to think for themselves along the way. A distinctive aspect of the program is the way it is designed to teach a variety of subjects that spring from the garden. Subjects as widely ranging as language arts and drama are woven into the plant-based explorations.

There are also video tapes available that show teachers additional ways to use the indoor garden to capture students’ minds and help them to grow in knowledge.

To further support teaching efforts, there is a three-times-a-year newsletter that includes tips and advice from other educators, along with additional growing information and a variety of fresh ideas. There is also an extensive database of “partners” such as garden clubs, gardening professionals, educators and consultants that teachers can use as a resource for solving problems and getting advice.

Getting Straight A’s

What do teachers think of the program? Comments received by the National Gardening Association are highly enthusiastic. One high school teacher wrote: “I can’t say enough about how good the GrowLab®curriculum is. I’m using it with environmental units. The activity ‘PlantAcid’ was a great motivator. It spurred my class to further investigate problems from acid rain and other pollutants.”

Another teacher wrote of the program’s social benefits: “GrowLab® has provided a means to get to otherwise unreachable troublemakers. Their academic grades have improved as a result of the garden. We use it not only to teach communication skills, science and gardening, but also as a therapeutic model.”

Are the benefits of the program truly measurable? Yes, said Eve, mentioning a past evaluation study that showed that students who were involved in indoor gardening projects were scoring higher than before on understanding science and environmental concepts, and had greater confidence in their abilities to tackle difficult subjects. “After a while,” said Eve, “they say to themselves, ‘Gee, I can do this.'”

Parents or others who would like to support the program can purchase a series of informative plant posters from the National Gardening Association that can be donated to a class (see address below).

Educators wishing to learn more about the GrowLab® program and other educational programs should write to: National Gardening Association, 180 Flynn Avenue, Burlington, VT 05401. Phone 1-800-LETSGRO.

There has always been a lot of wisdom to be found in a garden, and The National Garden Bureau’s participation in this indoor gardening program is helping to bring even more wisdom and learning to young people around the country.

National Garden Bureau is a not-for-profit organization funded by 48 seed companies. Part of its mission is to encourage gardening among children. National Garden Bureau is proud of its participation in the GrowLab® program, and plans to place six additional GrowLabs in schools in 1996.