MEMS students learn how their garden grows

MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. - -- Busy little workers at Maxwell Elementary/Middle School inspect their growing garden beds, watching for friends or warding off foes outside Katie O'Connor's classroom window.

Working daily in their garden, students in O'Connor's second- grade class are given firsthand lessons on the lifecycles of both plants and animals who live there year-round.

"Look at what I found!" exclaimed Kyle Davis, a student. Cupped in his hand is a moth he had found on one of the sweet pea plants. He eagerly shows his discovery to his peers.

Students like Kyle research the differences between friendly creatures like ladybugs, bees, butterflies and other pollinators and creatures that may be a threat such as moths, caterpillars and fire ants.

"Part of the second grade standards is for children to understand the complete life cycle of not only animals, but of plants," O'Connor explained. "What's the best way to understand about a plant's lifecycle than to grow?"

Mitongo Bella-Bella has learned much about the growth of the plants in their garden.

"The sweet peas have tendrils that look like baby fingers that climb up, and once it's ripe we can eat it. We also learned that if you cut the broccoli head off, it will grow back. Did you know radishes are actually a root?" she asked.

The class' favorite part of gardening is the chance to harvest and eat what they have grown.

"We like eating lettuce; we make salads out of it," said Nadya Cline, another second grader. Students also have made kale smoothies from their garden.

O'Connor began using a garden to teach her students 20 years ago. It began as small cups of dirt in which the class would plant their seeds and measure their growth.

Realizing she required more space, O'Connor moved their miniature gardens outside to a larger garden bed. This year, their garden acquired two new raised wooden beds from her husband. Bricks and concrete were recycled from demolished base housing to use as borders and stepping stones.

"Because the land slopes, we had a lot of weeds and things that would be washed this way," O'Connor said of their garden bed of past years. "The benefits of having a raised bed are less weeding, more sunlight gets to the plants and it's easier to access instead of bending over."

One garden bed this year was grown from seeds for sweet peas, radishes, kale and rutabaga. The other bed includes more cool weather plants like broccoli, cauliflower, collards, cabbage and lettuce, which all began as small plants.

Since students grow and care for their garden year-round, they must research and select the type of vegetables that will grow best during a season and prepare for different weather conditions.

"They learn that what we can plant, not everyone else can plant, depending on the climate so, again, going back to the standards for them to understand their environment and what they can plant," O'Connor said.

Students are instructed in the technology and science of farming and harvesting and the different careers available. They learn to use compost from the base compost site and the dangers of using pesticides.

Last month, students harvested several bushels of their leafy green vegetables for the Bell Street Salvation Army soup kitchen and their school cafeteria.

The class also took a trip to the base greenhouses for a scavenger hunt and to talk with base horticulturist Jane McCarthy about healthy soil, the greenhouse environment and ways to recycle.

"Gardening with children helps expose them to many basic skills and life experiences," McCarthy said. "All bugs are not bad, all soil is not dirty, and there are consequences in all we do."

"Among many other things," she explained, "they need to learn where their food comes from, why we pull weeds rather than spray them, what compost is and what happens when you forget to water."