Every growing space in the school garden contains precious soil, plants, and opportunities for learning. Often our dreams of bountiful harvests clash with the reality of the finite growing space in front of us – there’s never enough! However, with thoughtful planning we can grow a garden full of interesting, sensory, delicious, colourful, productive, and edible plants for children and staff to enjoy.
Consider the following desirable characteristics of plants in any school garden:
Learning / Activity rich:
- Is this plant edible or interesting at multiple points of its life cycle? Can you eat the flowers? The sprouts? The seeds? Does it have notable flowers on which you can observe pollinators? Is it easy to collect the seeds for sowing again? This principle may rule out…I hesitate to say, but less interesting plants like celery, silverbeet, and spinach.
- Will this plant produce enough for every child in a group (or multiple groups) to get a chance to harvest and taste? Unless you are planting en masse – I would vote against growing sweet corn, large tomatoes, broccoli, and cauliflower.
- Can you eat this plant straight out of the garden without cooking it or needing a cutting board and knife? Do you have access to a kitchen or the ability to cook it in the time that you have? If cooking or chopping is out, then it’s best to avoid beets, onions, winter squash, pumpkins, parsnips, potatoes and leeks.
- Does this plant take up a lot of space in the garden? Unless it’s a big producer, I personally steer clear of plants that require 60-80 centimeters of spacing like cabbage and pumpkins.
- Children will be more excited about gardening if the fruits of their labour are more palatable than not. They should venture outside of their flavour comfort zone, but don’t fill the garden up with mostly strong and/or bitter plants like oregano, sage, radishes, silverbeet, spinach, kale, onions, garlic, and cabbage.
- Is this plant super soft, strong smelling or unusually colourful? Any of those qualities is a reason to grow it! If you want to find students lingering in the garden, introduce them to a plant that tingles multiple senses – maybe you can even convince them to weed around it.
There are creative ways around all of my “vetoed” veggies and truly, no plant is off limits.
Here are my tried and true favourites to grow with students from preschool to year 12:
1. Lemon sorrel (Rumex acetosa):
Delightfully tangy, lemony taste. It is the #1 favourite garden plant of almost every student! Students are typically satisfied to eat one or two leaves, so there’s always plenty of sorrel to go around. It’s one of the first plants ready to taste in the spring and stays mostly leafy year round – later producing stalks with small seeds. You can save the seeds with older students (or young students with magnifying glasses) – they are teeny tiny.
2. Cucamelon (Melothria scabra):
They look like watermelons, are the size of a grape, and taste like cucumbers – does it get any more fun?! They grow on vines, making harvesting a game of hide and seek. Vines can be trellised up creative structures or cascade down the side of the garden bed walls and into the path. Seeds are fun to save as it involves squeezing the mini cuke juice into jars.
3. Husk cherries / Ground cherries (Physalis peruviana):
These cousins of tomatillos prolifically produce sweet golden grape-sized fruits (anything grape-sized is a kid-winner!). These fruits are ready to eat when they fall to the ground – this is why they’re also called “ground cherries.” Before eating, children unwrap the protective papery husk from around the fruit. Saving the seeds involves the same method as the cucamelons – husk cherry explosions into jars! And on their shirts! Maybe on their face too!
4. Peas (Pisum sativum):
Shelling, snow, or sugar snap – peas provide an entire life cycle of interest for children. They are fast growing, make delicious pea shoots, delicious pea flowers, and delicious full grown peas. Small hands find these very easy to plant. I’d recommend keeping a continuous supply of pea shoots going at all times. Growing all three types of peas provides an occasion for observation and comparison. Peas require a trellis, so there’s an opportunity for creative structure building. Saving the large seeds is a breeze.
5. Chives (Allium schoenoprasum):
You might be surprised at the amount of action chives get in the garden. Kids are nonstop hovering over them, asking me if they can eat them, and even…daring to sneak chives when I’m not looking. Something about this onion flavoured friend is quite enticing. It’s easy to pick the grass-like leaves for a taste. Each flower globe holds about 30-50 purple or white, onion-tasting mini blossoms. Seeds are enjoyable to save – the globes dry and the seeds can be shaken out.
6. Baby carrots (Daucus carota):
All the carrots I grow become baby carrots because kids / I get impatient watching those feathery leaves just sitting there. We mercilessly pull up “test” carrots to see if they’re ready yet. I eventually give in and there we are enjoying sweet, delicious carrots that never had a chance to mature fully in the first place. Carrots are enjoyed by most students and if not the taste, then the harvest itself. Let them wash them till they shine and encourage students to taste the leaves as well. Seeds are small, but good to save if you can bear to leave any roots in the ground.
7. Nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus):
Big brain-looking seeds are great for small hands to plant. The leaves and flowers are “spicy” (like a radish) and fun to try. Nasturtium flowers come in a variety of colors – creamy white, bright pink, cheery yellow, deep red, and fiery orange. The leaves are pause for observation as they appear like little lily pads or umbrellas. Their vining habit is great for cascading over beds or training up trellising. Good for pots and containers as well. Seeds are large and easy to save.
8. Beans (Phaseolus):
There are many varieties of beans, both for fresh eating and for drying. Consider growing many colours of beans and a few varieties of dry beans that produce spectacular patterns and colours. Bean seed processing is great for busy little hands and an indoor garden activity for rainy days. Massaging dry beans in a bowl is a satisfying sensory experience for most children. They are quick to sprout and it is exciting to hunt around bean plants for the ready to harvest beans.
9. Sunflowers (Helianthus annus):
This cheery common plant is a friendly face children can recognise and use to feel more comfortable in the garden. The life cycle from seed to seed is interesting at all stages. Sunflower sprouts, petals, and seeds are tasty and provide opportunity for a range of recipes. I recommend growing an array of colourful sunflower varieties for comparison. The flowers attract multiple species of pollinators for observation. The seeds heads are fun to save and keep whole in the classroom for up close investigation.
10. Leaf Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) / Dill (Anethum graveolens):
I’m lumping these two together because I like to grow them side by side and because they’re in the same family (Umbelliferae). The fennel tastes like licorice – leaves, flowers, and seeds – just as the dill tastes like pickles – leaves, flowers, and seeds. Children experiment with tasting both and attempt to differentiate them – their feathery leaves and umbel flowers appear very similar. Pollinators can be seen visiting the umbrella-like flowers. The seeds are simple to save and sow.
11. Baby lettuce / salad greens (Lactuca sativa):
Growing mats of salad mix in varying colours and shapes offers an opportunity for comparing their tastes and appearances (I like the purple ones. I prefer the ones with little dots. These frilly ones are disgusting!) Lettuce gains extra appeal when children harvest it themselves, eating as many or as few as they’d like – many come back for more. Seeds are small, but little hands manage to sprinkle them reasonably well. The seeds grow quickly, taking only about 22-30 days, and don’t require a lot of room, making lettuce mix rewarding to grow, even if it is lettuce!
12. Malabar spinach / Red vine spinach (Basella alba):
This shiny red vining spinach will grab hold of trellises and plants alike for support. The robust heart-shaped leaves taste spinach-y and are worth a try. The flower buds and flowers are interesting pinkish white orbs. The seeds turn juicy jet black before drying and becoming ready to save. It’s a beautiful conversation starter that peaks interest.
13. Peppermint (Mentha x piperita) + Spearmint (Mentha spicata):
Both mints should be grown in containers, separately, to avoid cross-pollinating with each other and to curb escape and weedy infiltration of the entire garden. Most kids love tasting mint, multiple varieties can be tasted and compared (there’s also chocolate mint, applemint, ginger mint, Moroccan mint, mountain mint, pineapple mint…I can go on!). Leaves can be harvested to dry for tea. Flowers are pleasantly minty as well.
14. Cherry tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum var. cerasiforme):
Lovely sweet cherry tomatoes in a variety of colours are perfect for small children to eat, compare, and develop their own favourite – of which they will be very proud to share. Tomatoes require more work, trellising, and monitoring for pests and disease, but they are worth it! Seeds can be saved in the same manner as cucamelons and husk cherries – squeeze and try not to get the innards in your eyes!
15. Mini sweet capiscums (Capsicum annum):
Watch the capiscums grow slowly from sprouts, develop flowers, and eventually fruits (the peppers). Mini is recommended, in order to have plenty to share. Harvest and break in half to see and save the seeds, then share the crisp bites with a friend. Make a dip like humus to taste with it, or eat them raw. Saving seeds is straightforward and rewarding.