Early fall can be as busy and exciting as spring in the garden. Warm season crops are bursting with fruits, it’s the last chance to complete and clean up summer garden projects, and maintenance tasks like deadheading and removing dying plants demand your attention .
In the school garden, September can be even busier, if not hectic, for educators and school administrators. Without some summer preparation integrating the garden into the classroom early in the school year may be difficult to swing. Despite a full September, making an effort to get students into the garden and outdoor classroom is worth it, as students will have a richer experience seeing the full cycle of plant and earth systems present in the garden throughout the year. Below are some early fall garden activities that you can do with your students, followed by an early fall lesson for a more involved outdoor experience.
September Garden Activities
Don’t let your produce go to waste! Try and use garden veggies in taste tests in the classroom for snack time, or in the garden during or after an activity. Using produce within a classroom group is a good strategy if your school has a small garden, or if your garden had a low yield.
If this isn’t possible or desirable for your classroom, or you have more than a taste tests worth of produce, offer that food to the nutrition services director at your school! Nutrition services chefs are often able to incorporate small amounts of donated produce into a school meal. The Oregon Department of Education has written a fantastic manual for food safety in the school garden. Using the methods in the manual will help get garden produce into the cafeteria.
If you still have more produce in your garden, local food banks, soup kitchens, food pantries/ shelves, and other free food access points in your community will take even small donations. In Bend, the High Desert Food and Farm Alliance takes donations of produce for their Grow and Give program at the Wednesday Farmers Market. Kids are compassionate and growing food to feed others can give them a sense of pride in their gardening. Creating a goal of produce donation early on can give garden activities a real world purpose and create motivation amongst students.
Dead Heading and Cleaning
As the month wears on, food production and harvest slows, especially due to our cold high desert nights. Dry and spent plants and flowers make the garden less visually appealing, and leaving clean, well prepared, and organized garden beds can make for a prepared spring. Dead heading flowers opens a great opportunity for seed saving activities. Here is a great how-to on seed saving in the school garden from Life Lab, as well as many educator resources for seed related garden activities!
While cleaning out the garden in the fall has many benefits, taking a messier approach might fit your outdoor classroom better. Leaving heads on flowers and withering plants in the ground, while creating more volunteer sunflowers than you desire, can attract birds and other wildlife and create learning and curriculum opportunities beyond growing food. Observing birds and wildlife can continue throughout the winter with those resources left in the garden. A happy medium can exist as well: Clean out and do seed exploring and saving activities in some garden beds, leave others wild for animals to use!
One of the few crops that produces better if allowed to grow through winter, is garlic. Garlic can be planted either in the spring or the fall, both should be harvested from late July to mid August. Spring garlic will yield smaller heads and cloves. With some luck, fall garlic will grow to the size of grocery store garlic cloves! Aside from a little winter mulching, garlic is a relatively low maintenance crop that will not be pillaged by wildlife.
Unlike most cultivated plants, garlic cannot be propagated by seed. Through millennia of plant breeding humans have unintentionally selected for infertility in garlic seeds. Thus garlic can only be propagated by planting garlic cloves directly in the ground. It is best to order garlic cloves from a seed catalog that will grow well in your region, but you can buy a head from your local supermarket and try that out too! There are lots of good seed companies out there. I recommend High Mowing and FedCo because they supply 100% organic seed. Seed Savers Exchange is a non-profit dedicated to preserving our food crops genetic diversity check them out as well! Additionally, reach out to seed companies in your region, as many seed companies have community and school garden donation programs.
September 30 minute Lesson
Want to facilitate a more involved lesson in the garden? Soil is a great place to start, no matter what your focus will be in the outdoor classroom. This lesson from Life Lab introduces students to the complexities and importance of healthy soil.
Sensory Soil Space Travelers Grades 2-5
In this garden based Life Lab lesson,Students work in small groups as space travelers trying to decipher the composition of soil.
To explore the composition of various soils.
Soil is something all of us take for granted. However, it is one of the necessary life-sustaining ingredients of our planet. And soil is exciting! It varies dramatically within a small area. When students explore the surface soil (topsoil) they will discover many living things, including roots, earthworms, and insects. In addition, the topsoil contains humus (the high nutrient component of the soil that is formed by decayed organic matter) and rock particles. As students dig deeper, the soil composition changes. Soil formation is a very slow process. Each inch (2.5 cm) of topsoil requires more than 100 years to form, by the processes of weathering and decomposition. Weathering, caused by rain, wind, freezing and thawing, glaciers, and plants, breaks down rocks into tiny particles — the inorganic part of the soil. Bacteria, fungi, and other living things slowly decompose nutrients, such as leaves and twigs, recycling them into humus — the organic matter in soil. Soil is alive: More than 100 billion microorganisms live in a pound (0.45 kg) of soil.
❀ Two trowels per team of three
❀ One hand lens per team
❀ Science journals
Ask students to close their eyes. Read the following in your most alien voice: Imagine that we are scientists from the planet Zog, journeying to planet Earth on the Starship Zogma. We have been chosen to make an important journey. The people of Zog are growing tired of raiding other planets for food, and want to find out how to grow our own food. Our astronomers have detected a faraway planet called Earth, which appears to be covered in green plants. Our computers have analyzed the reason for this and it appears to be a combination of sun, water, air, and a brownish-gray substance called “soil.” On Zog we have plenty of sun, water, and air, but no soil covering the rocky ground. It is difficult for us to believe that all their food comes from this substance. Our mission as scientists is to find this material called “soil,” dissect it, and record each and every ingredient for our computer. This will allow us to learn the secret of this material so we can make soil back on planet Zog. Upon landing we will break into groups of three scientists, with two soil dissectors and a recorder in each team. Each team will use the specially designed tools that our engineers have created just for this purpose. Remember: It is crucial to the success of our mission that each and every substance found in the soil be recorded. Good luck to all of you. Long Live Planet Zog!
- Divide students into groups of three and give each team a trowel, some newspaper, and a hand lens. Have them explore soil in different areas of the garden and schoolyard by digging up a trowel full and placing it on the newspaper. Have two students in each group dissect the soil, identifying each substance found. Have the third student in each group record the soil ingredients in his or her journal.
- Upon completion of the task, ask teams to compare and contrast the soils they investigated. Ask them to report for the class the ingredients of their soil. Have the groups discuss the ingredients they found: crushed rocks, crumpled leaves, twigs, bugs, sand, and so on. Many groups will list among their ingredients “dirt” or “brown stuff.” Challenge them to figure out what the brown stuff is. The simplest answer: It’s just smaller pieces of all the other ingredients.
- Assign some of the listed ingredients to each team and ask them to return with a small quantity of each ingredient.
- Upon their return, challenge teams to use the raw ingredients to manufacture soil by scraping rocks together, breaking twigs apart, and so on. When the frustration level of the students is reached, ask them whether or not soil can be made by hand. Why not? Explain that each inch (2.5 cm) of topsoil requires more than 100 years to form, by the processes of weathering and decomposition. Our hands and tools cannot equal the power of weathering and decomposers! Also, soil is alive, with more than 100 billion microorganisms living in a pound (0.45 kg) of soil, in addition to the roots, insects, worms, and other living things we can see in the soil. There is no recipe that could duplicate this substance so full of life and so necessary for life!
Will the supercomputer on planet Zog be able to manufacture soil? How is soil important to Earthlings’ lives? Could Earthlings make more soil if we lose what we have to erosion or pollution? Is soil alive? How? Do all materials in soil decompose at the same rate? What do earthworms do for the soil?