“If we want children to flourish, to become truly empowered, then let us allow them to love the Earth before we ask them to save it.” David Sobel
Being a kid today is tough. On a personal level, many kids have to deal with anxiety, bullying, peer acceptance, Snapchat and incredibly busy schedules, sometimes jammed to overflowing by parents trying to push them ahead of their peers, to find an advantage. Then there is the small problem of a planet on fire and the hope that our children will rise up to save our living world. Yup, being a kid is hard these days!
The good news is that our kids are resilient and they want to be part of solutions and to have a voice in their own issues as well as planetary issues. They may feel like the mice in their children’s’ books, small observers without a voice, but they actually have great power: the power of love. To empower a child and tap into their innate goodness is to create an army of protectors for our living world. If an education is the passport to the future, then shouldn’t students be immersed in dreaming, designing and building the very infrastructure of their future? To get our students to move mountains—or at least soil—they must get out of their desks, get outside, get dirty and dream.
As a middle school science teacher, I’m in the midst of the action. Fortunately, 7th graders at Chisago Lakes Middle school in Lindstrom, Minnesota like getting their hands dirty. They love getting outside and planting pollinator gardens. These kids like doing good things for our living world and they like being part of the solutions necessary to make the world a better place for all creatures. They plant with enthusiasm and are good at creating habitat as well as beauty, as you can see in the following photos taken 10 months apart.
Our 7th graders have been planting flower gardens for about 15 years, starting when a new addition to the school left a vacant green space. We plant native species and add an occasional annual to discuss the difference between cultivars and natives as well as annual versus perennial. We buy some seeds from Prairie Moon Nursery in Winona and collect wild seeds locally as well. Anise hyssop, meadow blazing star and butterfly weed are favorites of students as well as our pollinators. Students like plants that have unique names like rattlesnake master or joe-pye weed. Funding began with the teacher digging into his pockets and now we get some support from the local Rotary Club and the school. I do the summer care (watering and weeding), and a couple of other teachers help out when they can.
Each year, our pollinator garden dreams begin in the fall, with 7th grade students going outside to our four existing gardens and collecting seeds from plants that were planted by other students in previous years. They label the seeds and prepare them for stratification to meet their winter needs so we can wake them up in the spring when it is time to plant. We take some seeds and sow them in plastic milk jugs or seed flats and let them sit outside in the frigid temperatures of winter that Mother Nature provides. Others are stored in refrigerators.
In late March, we pull the seeds that we stored in our refrigerators and start seeding additional flats that will be grown indoors. It doesn’t take students very long to feel the healing power of soil as they run their fingers through the growing mix. We talk about mental health and the power of nature to help ease our anxieties. We talk about gardening as something that can be done by families or communities or even alone. I think it is important to teach our children to enjoy being alone or they may forever be lonely.
We seed about 35 seed flats that each have 50-72 cells and then it is time to set up our grow lights and let miracles begin. Students will water, mist and move the growing plants from indoors to outside to give the new plants a chance to get accustomed to the power of sunlight and then back in again as they continue to grow. I can’t honestly say our custodians love me or the dirty floors in Room 158 but they always say that as long as kids are learning and having fun, they are okay with the mess.
The growing process continues as plants move from the school to my driveway at the end of the school year, where I do my best to nurture them in the heat of summer. In the fall, the next crop of 7th graders jump into the cycle, getting a lesson on designing a pollinator garden as part of their ecology unit. We get outside to observe bees and other pollinators in our existing gardens and see which flower or location that these insects prefer. We study the scientific names, duration of blooms, heights of plants, pollen and nectar and the importance of insects. Students learn about native plants, co-evolution, and plant reproduction.
The big day finally arrives, when it is time to plant the newest pollinator garden. We try to plant in the early days of October, in between the warmth of September and the snows of late October. There is a lot of prep work to be done. The last garden we built, we moved 8 yards of soil in a day with kids, buckets and wheelbarrows to create a mound to plant on! When the students have planted about 500-1,000 native plants in the gardens, we mulch the plants with free wood chips delivered to our site by a former student who runs a tree service. Leftover plants are sometimes taken home by students who have told me they want to plant a garden at home with their families.
Our students get a better understanding of how everything is connected ecologically when they plant flowers and trees. Learning how to plant and grow empowers children to plant their own gardens and to live symbiotically with our living world. They see the value of their hard work and understand that other creatures have needs just as they do, and that they are as much a part of the food web as is the flower and the bee. Planting flowers with children is a bit like watching an artist as they start a painting. You aren’t quite sure where this is going, what it will inspire or how it will turn out, but if you come back years later, you can see and feel the beauty of what cannot be said in words.
I do run into former students at nurseries who tell me they found the love of horticulture in 7th grade, which always makes this old teacher happy.
Readers, teachers or lovers of the Earth can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information on how to grow gardens in your community or school, or even if you want to donate to our garden fund!
Pat Collins is a 7th grade life science teacher at Chisago Lakes Middle School. He started teaching in 1984 in Sleepy Eye, MN and this fall will be year 39 in the classroom, the last 35 in Chisago Lakes. His students are known in Minnesota for fully funding an effort to put 44 solar panels on their school in 2008 with zero financial support from the school district. That project (Project Independence) morphed into the school owning or leasing 15,000 solar panels and saving 3-6 million dollars over the course of 30 years. He is a lucky guy to have worked with so many amazing students in his career.