Outdoor Classroom: Tending School Gardens Through Changing Seasons

Summer & fall crops (and creatures) welcome us back!

by Ellyn Einhorn

“The corn is as high as an elephant’s eye / And it looks like it’s climbing clear up to the sky.” – Oklahoma!, Rodgers and Hammerstein

Have you seen how high our corn plants are in the garden up on Sunflower Hill?

This progress didn’t happen overnight. As our students have learned, gardening takes hard work and advance planning. Last spring, working in our Outdoor Classroom up on Sunflower Hill, we thought ahead about our corn crop and mapped out a plan. We planted during the Earth Day celebration in April and observed the first sprouts during the warmth of May. Friends in the Summer at Inly program tended the Sunflower Hill garden, watering and weeding with care. How exciting it is to come back to campus this fall and see such tremendous growth! Ears have formed with tassels (male) and silk (female) — and if raccoons or birds don’t get to them first, there will soon be corn for our students to harvest.

School Gardens: Science, Ecology and Strategic Planning

The abundant Inly garden this summer.

Look closely and you’ll see that the corn has been planted strategically. These big members of the grass family sway over the fenced-in garden, while pole beans climb up the corn stalks, pumpkin and other squash varieties spread themselves over the soil to conserve water and control weeds. Following a Native American method of companion planting known as the Three Sisters, we deliberately planted these crops together and are now witnessing their symbiotic relationship first-hand.

Advance planning went into our garlic crop as well. Last November, with assistance from Holly Hill staff, LE students planted single cloves, separated from the bulb, one by one. Next they mulched the beds with seaweed from local beaches. The garlic cloves (relatives of the Lily) rested under a nutrient-filled blanket until April, when strong, green sprouts pushed up through the seaweed.

In the spring, LE students measured and recorded the growth of the garlic plants that they planted in the winter.

This is when our observational study began. Working in pairs, LE students measured and recorded the  growth patterns of their garlic plants with detailed drawings and notations in their science notebooks until the end of school.

What happened next? The flower stalks appeared in early summer and the tasty “scapes” were cut (most likely cooked and eaten), allowing the plant to devote energy to the developing bulb. Children participating in the Summer at Inly programs observed more changes. The study came full circle in July when the bulbs were harvested by Inly family volunteers.

Inly students harvested garlic over the summer, which was then sold at the Scituate Farmer’s Market or donated to the Scituate Food Pantry.

Learning About Bees, Butterflies and Healthy Benefactors

Besides growing food plants for the Inly community, the Scituate Food Pantry and to sell at the Scituate Farmer’s Market, our school gardens also grow plants that attract and benefit pollinators. Vegetable and flower gardens on Sunflower Hill, as well as those outside Children’s House and the Middle School, provide a variety of resources for native insects and birds.

Here’s just one example: We observe a healthy bed of fennel plants on Sunflower Hill that has been re-seeding itself for many years. In September the caterpillars of the Black Swallowtail butterfly begin their life feeding on the fennel as our students return to school.

It’s quite amazing that the butterflies return to our garden each summer. This is a second brood. Over winter the chrysalis will attach to a plant and emerge as a striking black, blue and yellow butterfly in the spring, too early to lay eggs on our fennel. Where does it go?  What does it eat? We wonder and we wait.

The eggs that hatch in late August and early September are laid by a second-generation butterfly. The cycle continues and we are lucky enough to observe a good part of it. Last spring, as an experiment, students planted parsley and dill (relatives of fennel), to determine if the caterpillars would diversify their food choices. We will see in the months to come. The bed has been labeled “Black Swallowtail Nursery.”

Areas thick with milkweed plants have also been labeled by students as special places for the Monarch butterflies to lay their eggs and provide food for the caterpillars. We will observe those plants this fall. Once the caterpillars are finished using the milkweed and the seed pods have dried, students will help transport the parachute-like seeds around the edges of the upper field.

Much of Inly’s harvested produce is sold at the Scituate Farmer’s Market or donated to the Scituate Food Pantry.

“What is a weed but a plant out of place?

Milkweed is not a favorite of some gardeners and landscapers, given that they have so many “good” and “bad” weeds to manage. Here on the Inly campus, we try to do our part to manage weeds. In a continuous study we will be looking at what makes the unwanted weeds so successful. We will collect and germinate wild seeds, learn how they travel via animals, wind or water, examine the roots and conduct experiments.

Another experiment in the making: observing and harvesting the nutrient-rich purslane plant that carpets the vegetable gardens. The naturalist and writer Henry David Thoreau discovered the tastiness of purslane: “I have made a satisfactory dinner, satisfactory on several accounts, simply off a dish of purslane,” he wrote, “…which I gathered in my cornfield, boiled and salted.” We will try the tiny green leaves raw with our fresh salad greens this month.

As student and lifelong naturalists, this is all part of what we enjoy best: Observing and tracking changes in the natural world around us. We are ready for discovery! Welcome back!

A nature lover and wildlife enthusiast, Ellyn Einhorn is the Science/Outdoor Classroom teacher for Lower Elementary and Children’s House and an instructor in Inly’s After School Program. Before becoming a Montessori teacher, she worked as the Education Coordinator/Teacher Naturalist at Mass Audubon in Marshfield for 23 years. Learn more about Ellyn here.

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