An Organic Garden Bed Redesign by Fourth Graders

By:  Priscilla Hayes

One of the things I love the most about being a school garden educator is the classroom teachers, with whom I try to have an “organic” relationship.  When they suggest things, or make comments, I can run with their ideas and turn them into whole new lessons.  Because I present the same lesson to multiple classes, I can refine the lesson as I go and incorporate more teacher suggestions.

Our garden beds are limited in size out of necessity.  Putting an entire class of kids in one all at once generally leads to crowding—or worse, what I think of as the butt bumping problem.  Picture 20 fourth graders in a hexagonal bed about 11 feet in diameter.  Now, think of them all in one row of mounds in that garden, not even the whole bed!  So, when one of my fourth grade teachers suggested that we have the kids plan the reconfiguration of our “Three Sisters” bed, I was enthusiastic.

The Three Sisters—corn, beans and squash—were interplanted in the garden plots of Native Americans, including our native Lenape, all across the Americas.  Corn served as a support for bean vines, beans fixed nitrogen from the air and provided nutrients to the corn, and squash spread across the ground, both keeping weeds out and keeping animal pests from crossing to get to the corn and beans with their semi-prickly leaves.

Russian scientist Nikolai Vavilov has determined that corn, beans, and squash have all have originated in southern Mexico/Central America.  Native Americans there bred them over many generations into something approximating the forms they take today.  Then the crops were spread up to the United States, New Jersey and beyond, without, as I point out to the kids, the advantage of trucks, planes, trains or even horses (which were then extinct in the New World, until reintroduced by Europeans).

This year, inspired by an interview with Rowen White, a Mohawk who I found on Margaret Roach’s A Way to Garden (, I added two more “Sisters”:  the sunflower, a plant which most Native Americans grew along with the Three Sisters, and Mexican spinach, another common Native American crop.  While it is clear the Lenape generally grew sunflowers along with their Three Sisters, I can’t say it is quite so clear that they grew Mexican spinach.  It is likely, however, that they grew something similar.  I added that plant in hopes that we will have something for a fourth grade spring salad, since all the other Sisters take until the fall to be ready for consumption.

After discussion with the teachers, I started the students on a redesign project for the newly renamed “Five Sisters” bed.  During the first session with each class, I introduced not only the reasons behind the plants selected, but also how the geographic origins of the plants were determined, their growth habits and the “likes/dislikes” of the plants.  I built on lessons we had previously done with the classes about soil health, emphasizing that we wanted to minimize paths in the redesigned bed, but that those paths would be the only place feet were ever allowed in order to minimize disruption to the soil ecology.

Fourth graders were challenged to use the parameters I had introduced to create their plan, using what they had learned of the habits of the five plants.  They also needed to minimize the amount of the bed set up as paths and make sure no one stepped on the planting parts of the bed, so as not to compact the soil or crush the plants.

In the second design sessions, students presented and explained their proposed redesign plans, either individually or in groups.  I used the proposed redesigns submitted by students to create two possible composite redesigns, shown here (forgive the quality of the photos; my scanner wasn’t working).  I sent my two designs, each with questions about possible additional elements, to the students for them to vote on the final design.

Redesign 1
Redesign #1
Redesign #2
Redesign #2

I have the student votes in my bag, but haven’t had the time to tally.  It looks really close, though.  Will the students have picked the design that divided the bed into three equal pie slices, with a circular path in the middle to contain the bean-hating sunflowers?  Or will they have chosen the one with paths in a modified “smiley face” design?  Which would you pick?


Finding the Lost Ladybugs

By:  Priscilla Hayes

Children participating in the Lost Ladybug Search in Ithaca, NY, 2008-2009.  Photo by Dr. Rebecca Rice Smyth.
Children participating in the Lost Ladybug Search in Ithaca, NY, 2008-2009. Photo by Dr. Rebecca Rice Smyth of the Lost Ladybug Project.

A week or so ago, as snow fell outside the window, I spoke with Dr. Rebecca Rice Smyth of the Lost Ladybug Project, which was started in 2008 to coordinate efforts to survey ladybug populations, first in New York State, and then, across the country.  This blog post, as promised, will have lots of information on this wonderful resource, meant to help track the various ladybug species, and give a sense of which ones are losing ground and which are more dominant.  The website,, has step by step directions about how to look for, observe, document, and submit data and photos for ladybugs.  The site contains links to two 4-H Science Toolkits designed to help teachers and others guide children in grades K-2 and 3-6 respectively in learning about, observing, and collecting data on ladybugs in their local area.  The website and the toolkits both contain loads of fascinating information about ladybugs, including the interactions between native ladybugs and introduced Asian ladybugs.  The website also includes a number of free-standing curricular units, besides those in the two toolkits.

Ladybugs, both native and introduced, eat the same range of things.  Ladybugs eat aphids, of course, and lots of soft-bodied insects and insect eggs smaller than themselves.  Since many, if not all, ladybugs eat pollen as well, they may be found on flowers and corn plants, eating pollen.  While on a corn plant, they may eat a tiny just-hatched corn borer larva (or the egg that preceded it), but only if it is accessible.  They wouldn’t be digging in after corn borer larvae which have themselves bored into an ear of corn, so ladybugs aren’t a predator humans can count on to keep this pest from eating fields of sweet corn, so this essentially confirms what Dr. George Hamilton had told me for the preceding ladybug post.

Ladybugs even eat ladybug larvae, since these are also soft-bodied insects smaller than themselves

All species are capable of having multiple hatchings of eggs in a year, but the reproductive cycle gets interrupted more often and for longer periods of time in colder and dryer parts of the country and world.  In other words, in New Jersey and other parts of the country/world where we have a true winter, a ladybug will go into diapause—remember, that is ladybug hibernation—and won’t begin to reproduce again until leaving diapause.

There are many native species of ladybugs, but of the natives, Dr. Smyth says that three species have “suddenly practically disappeared.”  Dr. Smyth indicated that their disappearance is dramatic, since these three were once virtually ubiquitous.

Since crops attract and promote populations of the insect or animal species that ladybugs eat, they are often found in agricultural settings.  The ladybugs help control those species, especially aphids.  Asked about whether ladybugs are disappearing overall, Dr. Smyth indicated that agricultural surveys of ladybugs do not seem to indicate an overall decline across all ladybug populations.  As to ladybugs in non-agricultural settings, the Lost Ladybug Project hears primarily—or perhaps only—from those who have seen ladybugs.  Dr. Smyth agreed it would be hard to determine whether there has been any overall population decline based on those reported—and necessarily—positive observations.  Moreover, ladybug populations, like those of any other creature (except perhaps humans), vary somewhat based on yearly weather and other variable yearly conditions, so that it would be hard to say whether any observed decline in one year meant an overall decline.  All of this makes it very important to assist the Lost Ladybug Project by reporting ladybug sightings, in order to increase the data available to them and to other researchers.

Cycloneda munda found by Shelly Cox in Savannah, Missouri, October 5th, 2009.  Shared with permission of the Lost Ladybug Project.
Cycloneda munda found by Shelly Cox in Savannah, Missouri, October 5th, 2009. Shared with permission of the Lost Ladybug Project.

Each species of ladybugs has its own “specialties” in terms of the habitat and microclimates which it prefers—and where it is most well-adapted.  Some like high trees, some prefer lower areas.  Even what the aphids are eating goes into ladybug location preferences—after all, the juice of each plant being sucked by aphids has a different chemical composition and each ladybug species tolerates a certain range of chemicals more easily.  Since the presence of native plants is generally correlated to native ladybug development, planting native species which support ladybug food sources can help encourage native ladybug population growth.

The chief reasons introduced Asian ladybugs have been more successful than natives is that, generally, the Asians eat faster and more of the ladybug foods and grow faster and better than their native counterparts.

When asked to explain why I—and my local area of New Jersey with me—had crowds of Asian ladybugs invading our homes in 1993 and only a very few now, Dr. Smyth explained that when first introduced, a species like the Asian ladybugs experience fast population growth, then, over time, that growth and population itself subsides.  She indicated that since 2008, the percentage of the Asian ladybugs and another currently dominant species, the seven spotted ladybugs, which was introduced from Europe, have not changed that much.  Still, none of the ladybug species native to the Eastern United States was ever as dominant as these two have become.

Humans appreciate ladybugs for their eating of various critters that eat our crops.  I asked Dr. Smyth why humans should care about some species disappearing, if Asian ladybugs are eating aphids and the other soft-bodied insects that we want to see gone.  Dr. Smyth pointed out that while current conditions support the dominance of the Asian and seven spotted ladybugs, conditions could easily change.  In changed conditions, the species which have disappeared will likely not be able to rebound to pick up the slack.  Moreover, even in the absence of changed conditions, when individual native species begin to disappear, their “specialties” in terms of where and what they ate as well as what plants they favored for finding food disappear, and, again, there may be no one available to perform the same ecosystem functions that they performed.

More importantly, as one or two species become so dominant at the expense of others, the stability of the entire system is weakened.  Likely, as the book A Gap in Nature indicates, we can expect the ladybug disappearances to cascade—or, as Ray Archuleta stated it, “there are no hardy species” (see the blog post “Connecting the Gap Between Humans and Nature” for more on the project behind the book, as well as Ray’s work as a soil scientist).  When one species is threatened or eliminated, others begin to disappear as well.

So what should we do?  Should we all buy mass quantities of ladybugs and release them?

Harmonia axyridis, found by Shelly Cox in Savannah, Missouri, August 17th, 2009.  Shared with permission of the Lost Ladybug Project.
Harmonia axyridis found by Shelly Cox in Savannah, Missouri, August 17th, 2009. Shared with permission of the Lost Ladybug Project.

The ladybugs currently being sold are generally of the Hippodamia convergens variety (although web research suggests that Asian ladybugs, Harmonia axyridis, may be for sale as well).  These ladybugs are collected from the wild, and the collection, mailing, and release processes all seem to impact survival negatively.  Reported sightings of these ladybugs in the release areas reflect far fewer ladybugs than those reported released, which could, of course, also reflect a shortage of ladybug food.  It is possible that released ladybugs are leaving the release area to find better food sources elsewhere.

Dr. Smyth indicated that all this has led the Lost Ladybug Project to begin thinking about raising selected native species, and making these available to be released.  In the meantime, she agreed with me that you need to look at the problem “at the landscape level,” and promote landscape in your yard which will, in turn, promote ladybug population growth and retention.  So, the homeowner or school garden educator needs to be able to tolerate a certain level of continued aphid populations, and probably continued populations of other things we think of as “pests,” which serve as food sources for ladybugs—or other insects, birds, and other animals that we humans consider beneficial.  In order to promote the continued existence of these food sources, we need to make sure we have plants for them to eat, which might include “trap crops” for aphids.  We need to make space in our landscapes for a whole ecosystem, if we want any part of that ecosystem to be successful.

This is the idea behind one of my new favorite books, The Living Landscape, by Rick Darke and Doug Tallamy.  I will be reviewing the book in one or more future posts.

Seed Saving–So Old and So New

By:  Priscilla Hayes

I have been teaching the basics of seed saving for years, without actually doing a lot of it.  Dorothy Mullen, one of the co-founders of the Princeton School Gardens Cooperative, introduced me to Nikolai Vavilov, the Russian scientist who developed a theory and map of eight crop centers in the world.  More specifically, Vavilov, in the course of collecting 250,000 or more types of crop seeds from around the globe, did research in each location to determine which wild precursors of each type of crop existed in that location.

I discovered that Vavilov is a great subject for lessons to students in any grade because there are so many great stories that come with the science he perfected.  One of the greatest is the value of seeds; his scientists so believed that the seeds Vavilov collected would save the world that twelve of them starved themselves to death protecting them when Hitler and starving Russians threatened to overrun the seed bank in St. Petersburg.

Ancient Native Americans in Central America, one of the eight crop centers, carefully took a wild grass, teosinte, to something like our modern crop corn, just by saving the “best” seeds over multiple generations.  Native Americans carried those seeds from Central America to New Jersey and even further without trucks, planes, trains or even horses, as I teach my fourth graders.

So now I am taking up seed saving—this art form that is at once ancient and modern.  I let radishes and lettuce in our school garden go to seed, and had the Kindergartners collect the seed this fall.  I had first graders collect spent marigolds.

So, having started, I went to an expert to get better in what I do, and what I teach the kids.  Jeff Quattrone is the founder of the organization Library Seed Bank, which has already established three community-based seed banks in South Jersey.  He is also a member of the Community Seed Resource Program for the Seed Savers Exchange, in partnership with Seed Matters.  He will be speaking at the NJ Audubon Plainsboro Preserve on April 15, 2015 at 7 p.m. about seed saving and starting the seed libraries.  I hope I will learn how to best treat those radish and lettuce seeds, how to have the kids save even more challenging seeds in the future, and to learn how we can take our own version of teosinte into vegetables suited for our local conditions.

More information on the event, meant particularly for school garden educators and community gardeners, is found at