Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Gift of Gold Begins with Quarters and Eyes to the Sky!!!

Be it in a pot or bed, a potato planting can offer many curriculum opportunities. From an adjective lesson to an art project, mass and volume, to fractions,using the ubiquitous tater as a lesson prompt is valuable for any age. Did you know, the average American consumes 140 pounds of potatoes a year; mashed, baked, fried, chipped, or flaked? The list goes on!  But yet, most of our kiddos do not know from where a spud comes.
    “A tree?”  
    “I know, they come from a potato bush.” 
    “The store!”
Each year, the fourth grade students at my school give the gift of gold, Yukon Gold that is, to the next years class. It’s a great end of year project for students as well as a team building activity in the fall. Worried about a planting container? A bed, pot, bag, or earthly plot all work well. The local farm stores have the contemporary “potato bag” that will hold enough soil and potato “seeds” to get you started. Or, using chicken wire, you can make a potato tower by bending it around a trash can, cramping the ends to secure the circle shape. 
Potato Tower
You can also plant in a raised bed of well amended soil or if you have ground that doesn't like to grow rocks, plant directly in the soil. An internet search for“potato towers” will direct you to lots of planting ideas that are most appropriate for your space.Taters are tough, but they like rich, loose, well-drained, but moisture retentive soil that is slightly acidic (pH of 5.8-6.5) is best. Being very adaptable makes them one of my favorite full proof kid crops. According to Organic Gardening-101  “a month to 6 weeks before you plan to plant (2 to 3 weeks before the last expected frost date),loosen up the soil to a depth of 8 to 12 inches. Since potato plants are heavy feeders add at  least 3 to 4 inches of well-rotted compost and complete organic fertilizer". The kids will love the heavy work of shoveling and turning the soil. Don’t forget to give your students REAL tools rather than the plastic kids tool. Younger children can use hand trowels if you don’t want them using short shovels.

Now, what kind of potato should be planted?  With fourth graders, I would offer it up to the class to decide. Let students explore the attributes of the potatoes and their required growing season. They might choose by color, season of readiness, or a combination. The The Maine Potato Lady  offers a great selection of organic potatoes and fantastic descriptions for the students to research. The Yukon Gold, with its yellow-flesh and great flavor, offers a medium sized plant with light violet flowers, stores well,and is a favorite! Or, you might try a patriotic potato bed; planting red, white and blue potato seeds. Rule of thumb: One pound of potato seed will plant 5-8 foot row feet. For our 4 x 10 foot beds, I usually proved three pounds of potatoes. 

So you have your potatoes and are nearly ready to plant. The soil temp has finally warmed to 50-70 degrees. But first, why not have your students explore their taters. With magnifying lenses, kids can really see the potato eyes that will look to the skies and provide green shoots of leaves. Let them count and compare eyes. How about those adjectives? How do they feel, smell, and look?  A poem you say?  A haiku or limerick?  Research the history of the potato chip or share a favorite recipe. How about just a fun read?

Students can cut (plastic knives will work) their potato into quarters making sure there are 3-4 eyes in each. Then out to the bed you go, precious potatoes in hand, with the good will of gift and hope for what will come. You can make rows, but our students are a little less exact and find the perfect “home” for their seed, dig the hole 4-6 inches deep, drop the seed with "eyes to the sky", and cover with 2-4 inches of soil. They carefully tuck the seed into the soil, then offer some words of wisdom and water and realize they have just planted a gift . It doesn't really look like much now, but by the end of summer you will be looking at a crop of gold!.

The tater seeds are planted. Letters of welcome to the next class of students have been written. Books like Tommie DePaola’s Jamie O’Rourke and the Big Potato have been shared and the satisfaction of doing hard work is evident through dirty hands. With a little tending, next year’s students will be digging for gold 60 days after your plants blossom all the way to the dying back of the last stem.

So this year,may the Leprechauns bring a bit of gold to your students!


Monday, March 9, 2015


PWS Student Drawing 
Planning is the key to a successful and sustainable garden, at home or at a school. There are many factors that need to be considered in the process of starting a garden at your school or childcare center. The first question you should ask is WHY. 
Write a mission statement with the stakeholders involved in moving this project forward. There are varied reasons why to make a garden that will ultimately impact the design, use and management. Your committee of stakeholders in the planning process should include the administrator, be it a principal or executive director. Without their support you will surely be fighting the tide. My experience is that when the decision makers (those who allocate funds,resources,policy,etc.) are on board and enthusiastic you will have quicker results and a much better chance of success. Also include staff that represent different age groups or grades, a parent or two, and, if available, the librarian and art teacher to be part of your planning team. Most importantly, the children should be involved in expressing their ideas and vision for the garden. It goes without saying that the garden is for them anyway!

PWS Garden
If the season permits, visit other school gardens to see for yourself the scope and breadth of varying approaches. I highly recommend visiting the Peter Woodbury School  (PWS) in Bedford, NH. If that is not possible you can see what they have accomplished by checking the school's websiteI was fortunate to be involved with this school yard design with my students from NHTI- Concord's Community College. We worked with the school to develop a Master Plan that transformed a playground into a school yard that includes an outdoor classroom, sand play area, dry river bed with bridge, meadow and an extensive school garden. My colleague and associate at Naturally Rooted LLC , Mindy Beltramo, is the school librarian and champion who took an idea and turned it into a reality! 
For more information about this project, ideas and how to make your vision a reality feel free to contact Mindy

Mindy will be contributing to the next post on WHY adding a garden provides an important connection to nature and hands on learning opportunities and experiences that would otherwise not occur for children. Be sure to check out the next post!

An upcoming conference on March 17th

In Bloom Boston: Nature-based Early Childhood Education

Sponsored by Antioch University,Mass Audubon & The George B. Storer Foundation, this conference will focus on the educational and health benefits of being outside with children. More on that latter as I will be there!