The Shelby County Farm Bureau helped students at Central Elementary School in Sidney learn about the origins of what they eat through a school gardening project.

Watching the Seeds Grow

Eyes wide with excitement, the third grade student raced to tell his teacher the news. The vegetable seedlings had grown what seemed like inches in just a day.

“Look how big they are!” the student exclaimed in wonder. The rapid growth of the plants became an instant lesson for Vickie Peltier’s 20 students at Central Elementary School in Sidney. After several days of rain, the green seedlings were healthy but had grown little. But all that changed after just one day of sunshine. Now it made sense to the students why sunshine was vital for plants’ growth.

“This is the first time they have experienced seeing food go from the seed all the way to the table. The greatest part of this project is seeing their connection to the land and their food,” said Lynda Adams, an education coordinator with the Shelby Soil and Water Conservation District.

Both Peltier and Adams worked for three months with the third-graders on the “Watching the Seeds Grow” project. Funded by grants from the American Farm Bureau Federation and the local chamber of commerce, the project involved having elementary school students plant a garden on school property and learn about agriculture, nutrition, the life cycle of plants and the importance of proper amounts of soil, water and sunshine.

“For many, food just comes from a store and their home life is very urban. I’m not sure if some of the kids have had food cooked at home that wasn’t microwaved,” said Peltier, who has been a teacher for 34 years. “I don’t think any have ever done a garden, and some I don’t think have eaten much fresh produce.”

The idea for having the students grow a salad came last summer while Peltier was researching environmental science ideas that could be done in an urban school setting.

“I wanted to grow something and beautify the area and give the kids a chance to grow something,” she said. What started out as a little gardening project grew into a multi-layered, hands-on learning experience that included a trip to the high school where the students learned about composting and hydroponic tomatoes.

To prepare the students for the planting project, Peltier used books and videos donated by  Shelby County Farm Bureau to teach about how plants grow and how to take care of them. An extra lesson on measuring was created when she realized that the students wouldn’t know how deep to bury the seeds or how to plant them in a straight line.

On planting day, Peltier and volunteers took advantage of a break in the rainy weather to march the students outside to the four raised gardening beds in front of the school. Using pencils showing the proper depths, the third-graders then planted the seeds, amazed by their tiny size.

Back in the classroom the students worked on their special gardening journals provided by the county Farm Bureau. Later in the day, brightly colored pieces of paper were stapled on each planter with a poem: “A garden of green will soon be seen. Please view with your eyes and not your touch. We’d appreciate your help very much! Mrs. Peltier’s Third Grade Class.”

“They’re so excited. Every day they go and look at their garden. It’s given them a real sense of ownership,” Peltier said. “I think they understand now that there is a process for growing food and that it takes time and hard work to get there.”

Because of abundant rainfall, the students had to thin out the garden once and did an early cutting of the lettuce, which they gave to teachers. Besides the occasional bug or worm in the garden, the students were fascinated by the radishes, said Jill Smith, organization director for Shelby County Farm Bureau.

“Radishes were the first plant to look like what you buy in the store. They didn’t recognize the lettuce because it was loose leaf and not a round head (of iceberg),” she said.

Peltier made the garden the centerpiece for lessons on everything from science to responsibility to nutrition.

“Some of the students asked ‘What if I don’t like the lettuce.’ I told them that with all the hard work they put in to grow this, I hoped they would taste it,” she said.

On harvest day, the kids made their own dressing, plucked the produce from the garden and used salad spinners where “they tossed the salad to the point that it was almost mush,” Peltier laughed. The classroom tables were decorated with tablecloths, and the county Farm Bureau provided pasta with marinara sauce, a vegetable plate and frozen yogurt parfaits with fruit to go with the salad. Every student tried the salad that they had put so much time and effort in growing with many surprised how much they liked it.

“The amazing part of this project is that things we take for granted are new and fascinating to children,” Peltier said. “When you think of how growing something has enriched their lives and that you’ve created a memory that they have never have had before … there’s nothing like that.”

Amy Beth Graves is a freelance writer from Columbus.