By Molly Burke, FoodCorps service member
Outside the Litwin cafeteria windows, the school garden beds hibernate, sometimes under an icy blanket. But that isn’t stopping the fifth-graders from honing their green thumbs; throughout January and February, they will seed herbs in mini planters made from from recycled water bottles collected by the Litwin kitchen staff. Working in teams, students will learn what a seed needs to grow, assemble their indoor garden, and observe its progress daily as they pass through the lunch line, past the planters hanging in the sunny windows. In the spring, they’ll harvest enough herbs to brighten up their scratch-made school lunches with savory basil, fragrant rosemary, and bright thyme.
Indoor herb planters are a fun and healthy way to keep antsy kids busy at home during the long winter. Research shows that engaging children in gardening yields a wealth of benefits ranging from enhanced social and emotional skills to an interest in healthy eating, positive attitudes toward learning, and a dedication to environmental stewardship, according to a report by the University of Colorado Children, Youth and Environments Center for Community Engagement. The article, which sourced nearly three dozen studies on the effects of gardening on youth, also cites that children who have participated in gardening activities show significantly improved abilities to work in groups, are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables, score significantly higher on scientific achievement tests, and exhibit “proenvironmental attitudes (Robinson & Zajicek, 2005; Canaris, 1995; Klemmer, Waliczek, & Zajicek, 2005; Skelly & Zajicek, 1998).” Now may be a more expedient time than ever to foster the skills gardening helps build. Speaking from experience, teaching kids to work in the garden can be a deeply rewarding exercise, all about stepping away from our overstimulated digital lives in favor of some old-school nature exploration. Who doesn’t like getting their hands dirty in the name of delicious, home-grown food?
Many herbs grow well indoors (watch out for finicky cilantro), though your plants will need a well-lit window or a grow light to simulate the sun’s rays. A good way to keep a kiddo engaged from seed to sprout is to create long-range goals or rewards; for instance, you can plant a “pizza garden” with basil, parsley, rosemary, and chives, and within a few months you should have enough yield for homemade pizza! Have your child keep a weekly garden photo and data log to monitor inches of growth, watering frequency, and sunlight conditions. Later, your child can make a graph of their plant’s progress to show off their gardening skills!
Below is the lesson plan I’ll be using with the fifth graders at Litwin as they build their own indoor garden. You can adapt it as you see fit for your home. As this activity is designed for groups of 4 kids, I’ve broken up the planter assembly steps into specific roles, assigned randomly by selecting different-colored cards that denote gardening materials such as soil and water. These cards tell how each material is to be added, as well as their purpose and some fun facts. For improved soil drainage, I’m using horticultural charcoal in the bottoms of these planters, but since the planters have drainage holes, this step isn’t necessary and can be omitted at home.
Planters need between 4 and 8 hours of direct sunlight and should be watered when the soil feels dry to the touch. Herb varieties like basil, thyme, and chives sprout from seed between one and three weeks and can be harvested after two to three months. Happy planting!
Share your planter creations with us at ChicopeeFRESH by tagging @chicopeefresh on Instagram or emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Photos below were taken by Kelly Zimmerhanzel.
Empty plastic bottles
Masking tape + permanent marker for labeling bottles
Spray bottles with water
Making the bottle planters:
Collect empty plastic water bottles or soda bottles with their caps. They can be as small as 16 oz water bottles or 2L party soda bottles--really any plastic bottle will do. Cut the bottle horizontally, starting about a centimeter or two below where the top of the bottle begins to taper into the spout. You should now have two pieces, with the cap piece shorter than the other. Poke several holes in the bottom of the bottle with a knife, scissors, or nails. Flip the cap piece upside down, make sure the bottom piece fits into the top piece, and secure with super glue. You should now have one piece again, with an opening at the top and a cap at the bottom. Let dry for at least an hour before using. Punch two holes in the top of the planter and loop string through for hanging. With a permanent marker, draw a line an inch below these holes; this is the soil fill line.
Setting up the activity:
Set up a planter-making station. You can do this indoors or outdoors. You’ll need a clear counter surface or space on the floor with a garbage bag, towel, or drop cloth spread out to catch stray soil. Assemble the soil, planter, labeling materials, seeds, spray bottles, and optional charcoal.
Print the Procedures and separate the steps into 4 cards. Give each child a card--that is their role for the activity. Have each child read their card aloud to the group so everyone learns why we need each material in the planter.
Warm up questions:
Label each planter with the seed type and gardeners’ names using masking tape and a marker. Decorate your planters with stickers, paint, or Sharpie doodles, hang in a sunny window and watch them grow!
The ChicopeeFRESH team is a group of creative individuals who are working to feed Chicopee students healthy, local and FRESH foods each day.