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?


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