Read THE SCHOOL GARDEN of Construction Work for Rural and Elementary Schools , free online book, by Virginia McGaw, on ReadCentral.com.

INTRODUCTORY REMARKS

In the spring of 1906, at the request of President R. W. Silvester of the Maryland Agricultural College, I wrote, for publication as a College Bulletin, my experience of one year’s work in a city school garden. The introduction of school gardens as a factor in the school curriculums was then in its infancy. Three years have shown great advancement along this line, though the main issue is the same to-day as it was then. This paper is a revised edition of the M. A. C. Bulletin. That President Silvester was a pioneer in the thought that “agriculture should enter into education” is shown by the following quotation from his introduction to my article of 1906:-

“The time must come when the child of rural environment must find in the only school which ninety per cent will ever attend, a training which will give it an intelligent adjustment to its environment. With this adjustment, the future work of the child cannot reasonably expect to escape the state of drudgery. When a life’s work degenerates into this condition, then contentment with it, or happiness as a result of it, becomes an idle dream. Can the accuracy of this statement be questioned? If so, it would be a great privilege for the writer to receive from some teacher a letter setting forth the particulars in which he is wrong.

“Let all who are interested in the child from the country, and every one should be, take this as a motto in this great work before us: ’The country is entitled from its state and from its county, to that consideration which will give him every opportunity to secure an education as well suited to his conditions, as is enjoyed by his city brothers and sisters.’”

A CITY SCHOOL GARDEN

If a country boy were to hear his little city brother say, “Our class has a garden and I have a share in the working of it,” the country chap would “non plus” him by quickly exclaiming, “What’s that! I work in my father’s garden every year and know all about raising and gathering vegetables.”

But to the city child, who sees only cobblestones beneath his feet, whose view is contracted by rows of dingy houses, or who plays on a lot used both as a dump-pile and as a baseball ground, the privilege of working in a garden plat is a great one and the products of its soil a revelation.

The aim here is to give an account of one season’s work in such a garden-a garden treasured by children whose only knowledge of vegetable foods was that mother got them in the market.

Through the courtesy of the City Park Superintendent of Baltimore, sections of ground in some of the parks are placed at the disposal of the Board of Education for school gardens, and the privilege of cultivating these gardens is granted to teachers in an adjacent building.

It is of the section in Riverside Park that I am writing, and the accompanying illustrations are pictures of this garden, taken at various times through the season.

These sections are not in prominent places, but for the most part in undesirable corners that the park gardener is willing to relinquish for the good of the cause. In Riverside Park the plat is adjacent to the summer playground, and the second year that I had the garden, at the end of June when school closed, a few of the children volunteered to attend to it during vacation.

The interest of these children attracted the attention of the director of the playground and she offered to oversee the work while the playground was in session if some of her children might have the privilege of working in the garden.

This proved to be an amicable arrangement, as by it the garden was kept in good condition all summer. When school opened in September I took charge again, that the children might have the full experience. In my memory lingers a most vivid picture of a cold November afternoon when we gathered what remained of the crops, cleaned off the beds, heaped the refuse in the center of the garden, and had a most glorious bonfire, though it was not election day. We watched the last spark die out, closed the gate, and with regretful steps wended our way back to the schoolroom, to await the coming of another spring.

Our plat measures fifty by twenty-five feet and is enclosed by a fence. The park gardener became interested in the children’s effort and added to the success of the work by giving the necessary top soil, lending wheelbarrows, and offering occasional suggestions.

As a preparation for the outside work we made a thorough study of soil composition and seed germination early in the winter. The children brought pieces of rock, pebbles, shells, wood, and leaves as concrete illustrations and with these before us the following lessons were developed:-

I That soil is made from the wasting away of all kinds of rock. II That soil is made by decaying wood. III That soil is made by decaying leaves. IV That the above composites combine to form productive soil.

The object of the first lesson was to teach that soil is made from rock.

The pupils examined stones, pebbles, and shells. They found some rough, some smooth. Through the teacher’s questions-“Why are some rough?” “Why are some smooth?” “If those having a smooth surface now were once rough, what has become of the particles which must have broken away?”-the class was led to express opinions until the final generalization was made: Soil may be formed from the breaking up of rocks and shells.

Each topic was treated in a similar manner, the specific qualities of the specimen being brought out, until we were able to make the summary:-

“Soil is made from decayed rocks and shells; soil is made from decayed leaves; the rocks make a coarse soil called sand; the wood and leaves make finer soil called loam; the mixture of these soils makes productive soil.”

This summary led to the next lesson, “The Productive Qualities of Soil.” The question was asked, “How can we determine the productive quality of soil?”

“We can plant some seeds in each kind of soil,” said a child. Several pupils volunteered to bring pots of earth.

Ready for the experiment, we proceeded to analyze as follows the soil brought by the children:-

“Take some of the soil in your hands, powder it as finely as possible.-John, what do you find in yours?”

“I can feel grains of sand,” said John.

“Do you think there is more sand or more loam?”

“I think there is more loam,” said another child.

“Why do you think there is more loam?”

“Because, when I rub it between my fingers there seems to be more soft material than grains,” came the answer.

“Can any one suggest a means of proving that there is some of each kind of soil in what we have here?”

Various suggestions were made, but none directly to the point.

“Mary, fill that glass jar three parts full of water. We will now drop into the water some of this soil and mix it well. What do you think will happen when we stop stirring?”

“The sand will settle at the bottom of the jar,” was the ready reply from a bright child.

“The coarse loam will settle next,” was a second answer; and then came the statement that the finest loam would remain on top.

We waited a few days and were rewarded by seeing the soil in distinct layers in the jar.

“Now we will try to discover which kind will produce the best plant. How shall we determine this?”

“Plant some seeds,” was the immediate suggestion.

One pot was filled with the original soil, and one each with the kinds of soil that we had gotten from our experiment. A seed bean was placed in each pot, and all pots subjected to the same conditions and watched by anxious eyes.

“I see a bean pushing up,” came the statement one morning and every child wished for a peep at the tiny plant.

“In which soil did the plant appear?”

Another look was taken and answer given that the plant came from the mixed soil.

The second plant to appear came from the bed of coarse loam; the one in the pot of fine loam came third; and last the one in the sand struggled to a small shoot, then died of starvation.

After this the life of one plant was studied. Thus slowly and cautiously the study of seed germination was made, the teacher getting all from the child possible, and aiming to have him cull his information from the plant before his eyes.

Now that we were familiar with the facts concerning soil composition and seed germination, we felt prepared to take up the outside work.

Between the first and the fifteenth of April our first visit to the garden was made. The ground was so saturated with water that it was impossible to think of working it in that condition. After taking a view of the surroundings we discovered that the plat was on low ground and that the water from the rising slopes at the back ran down and settled upon it.

The question which naturally arose was, “How may this water be gotten rid of?” A short talk on drainage solved this problem. The children decided that ditches, ten feet apart, should be dug crosswise in the garden. They were dug, and, as the weather was favorable, in a week’s time the soil was in condition to be worked.

Meanwhile interest did not flag, though it was impossible to accomplish any outside work. Writing letters to an imaginary hardware dealer, stating what tools we needed and inquiring the price, became an all-absorbing exercise. Next, we turned dealers ourselves and rendered itemized bills and receipts to purchasers of garden materials. In this way two forms of letter-writing were taught and the children derived both pleasure and profit from the work.

In the construction period were made the labels they would need when the planting-time came. These were cut from small pieces of wood with penknives and marked ready for use.

A plan by which to landscape this same plat had been drawn the year before by the supervisor of our city school gardens. This plan suggested a talk on landscape gardening and intense interest was at once aroused. The talk developed such questions as these:-

“Is the plan before us a good one?”

“Can we improve on it?”

“Is there any waste space which we should utilize?”

“Is the plan artistic in its arrangement?”

“Suppose we work out some plans to see what is possible.”

A lesson such as this followed:-

A rectangle was drawn on the board to represent the plat. Beside it was a statement of the number of beds to be laid off and the width of the paths between. In the arrangement of these beds and paths there must be artistic effect.

Each child then drew a rectangle on paper and made an original plan for landscaping. Those showing most thought were placed before the class and their good points commended. The children decided that not one met every requirement. The supervisor’s plan was again shown, discussed, and adopted.

This plan called for twenty rectangular beds 3x11 feet in area, four shorter rectangular beds with a triangular section marked off from the end of each toward the center of the garden; and a circular bed, four feet in diameter, in the middle of the plat. It also allowed for one three-foot path running through the center the entire length of the garden, and a one-foot path separating the beds. There was to be a 1-1/2-foot path around the middle circle.

In a further study of this plan the following arithmetic problems were developed:-

“What is the area of a garden plat fifty feet long and twenty-five feet wide?”

“What would be the cost of this plat at one dollar and twenty-five cents a square foot?”

“How many feet of fence will be required to enclose this plat?”

“If the posts are set five feet apart, how many posts will be required?”

“There are two rows of cross beams, and each beam is ten feet long; how many will be needed for the fence?”

“How much will it cost to fence this garden at twelve cents a foot?”

“What is the area of a garden bed three feet by eleven feet? the perimeter?”

“What is the circumference of a circular flower bed four feet in diameter?”

By this time the ground was in condition to be worked. Which should we do first, spade it up, or lay it off? We decided that we would first dig up the entire plat and level it. Now, in spacing off, should we begin at the center or from opposite ends? The advantages of each method were strongly advocated, and finally, the children themselves concluded that it would be easier to measure for the center and space off from that point.

Stakes and cord had been brought. Children stood at the sides and ends of the garden. The middle points of the sides were determined and connected with a cord, and likewise the two ends. The intersection of the cords was the center of the plat and here a stake was driven. Attaching a cord to this stake two feet along the cord was measured and a small stick tied there. Using the cord as a radius, a circle was made and the middle bed staked off. Next the three-foot path to opposite ends was marked off, then the center one-foot path to opposite sides. This much accomplished, spacing the rest of the plat was easy. Two small boys, with lines and stakes, marked off the remaining portion and when the ends were reached the measurements were found to be accurate. The paths between the beds were next made and the ground prepared for planting.

After spading, leveling, and thoroughly pulverizing the native soil, we added a top layer of foreign soil as a fertilizer. The latter came from a compost heap of street sweepings which had been standing two years and was supposed to be nutritious. As it turned out, however, this soil contained little nutriment and was productive of more fine weeds than fine vegetables, and it required much labor to fight these enemies.

Now came the seed-planting, which was intensely interesting to the children. Rows twelve inches apart were marked off across the beds and the seeds planted according to the relative height of the plants which they would produce, those that would grow tallest being placed next to the fence, and the rest graduating to the center; thus:-

Fence Corn Pole Beans Peas String Beans Lettuce Radishes Lettuce Parsley Flowers

First came corn, three grains to a hill, the hills twelve inches apart. Then pole beans, three beans to a hill and these hills separated twelve inches. Next we planted two peas in a hill and made the hills six inches apart. The string beans were planted just as the peas had been. Then came a row of lettuce, next radishes, a second row of lettuce, and last parsley. The end of the bed was left for flowers. On Arbor Day, in the classroom, we had sown tomato and lettuce seeds in boxes, that we might have the plants ready for transplanting when our outside soil was in condition. The lettuce plants turned out satisfactorily, but, for some unaccountable reason, the tomatoes were a failure. To replace the latter, we took a corner bed in the garden, divided it into three sections and planted tomato, onion, and cabbage seeds. In five weeks the tomato and cabbage plants were large enough to transplant, and, as the radishes and lettuce matured and were used, tomato and cabbage plants were put in the vacant places.

Two pumpkin seeds were planted in each bed, but if they both came up, after the plants had reached a good size, the weaker one of the two was weeded out (as the bed was too small to support both) and the stronger one left to bear fruit.

Why had we planted onion seed? One of the boys had brought an onion and asked if he might plant it in his bed, and if it would produce other onions. I explained to him and then allowed him to plant the seeds in the supply bed at the same time that he planted the onion in his own bed. The onion planted produced seed, while the seeds sown yielded the small sets for the next year’s planting. Thus by the act of one child the fact was clearly demonstrated to the class that fruit produces seed, and seed produces fruit.

The supervisor had given us a wren-box, made by a child in a more advanced class as manual work. The children were delighted with the gift; they built a framework around a stout pole in the center bed and set the wren-box on the pole. They then suggested that a vine should cover this framework. Consequently, Japanese morning glories were chosen as the vine and the remaining space in the bed was filled with marigolds, nasturtiums and coleus.

The seeds being planted, the work in the garden was at a standstill until the plants appeared, then systematic visits began. The class was divided into three groups and two children were assigned to a plat. We worked in the garden on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays for half an hour each day. Thus, each group had its day once a week regularly. Finding that it was impossible to direct satisfactorily more than twelve children at a time, I devised the above plan, which worked admirably. To go to and come from the garden took a half-hour, and with half an hour’s work there the child was away from the classroom one hour a week. This allowed ample time to keep the beds in order, for two children were apportioned to a bed, and these two went on separate days, so that each plat was worked twice a week.

The first crop of peas and of beans were gathered as vegetables. When the plants ceased to bear a second planting was made and the yield from this was left to mature as seedlings. When ripe, the seeds were gathered and carefully put away in the sectional seed-boxes which the children had constructed for the purpose.

The children took care of the garden during vacation, gathered the vegetables as they ripened, and with pardonable pride carried them home to their parents. The parents, in turn, were gratified and as much interested as the children. Several of the boys had individual appliances made by their fathers for use in the garden. Often on Monday mornings would come the account of the Sunday walk with mother and father, the visit to the garden and how much the parents admired it.

One instance occurred which proved the value of this garden work and showed how devoid of a knowledge of vegetable growth many city children are. I noticed a boy digging around the root of his tomato vine as though he were searching for something. I asked what he was doing.

“I want to see if there are any small tomatoes there,” he replied. As the fruit of the radish had come from under the ground he expected to find the tomato there, too.

The value of educating the child through his self-activity was proved in several instances, one of which I will mention. A large boy of the fourth grade, though a poor student, was placed on the list of garden children and proved to be the most industrious and active child of the group. Why? His father was a baker; the boy worked in the bakery until eleven every night; slept until four, then arose and delivered goods until eight, and was in the classroom at nine. Is there any wonder that this child lacked energy as a student? When he was removed from the confinement of the classroom the pure outside air acted as a tonic, his interest was awakened and his work well done.

This same child, whenever relieved of home duties out of school hours, spent the time in the garden instead of devoting it to play. He hauled a quantity of shells with which to pave the paths, and brought all the sod we needed to form a firm edge around the center bed. Can there be any doubt that this boy was benefited?

There is a social side to this industrial outside work which is superior to that of the classroom.

First: The teacher has but a small number of children under her care at one time; consequently, she is enabled to learn more of each individual nature.

Secondly: The child is under no apparent restraint, so expresses himself freely and shows his natural self.

Thirdly: The boys and girls mingle with one another with the same freedom that they have on their own playground.

In the two months spent in the garden not a single child took undue advantage of the privileges allowed, and the opportunity afforded the teacher for the study of child-nature was of great value.

Some one might ask, “While garden work is being done, does not the work of the classroom suffer?” No, it does not. When classes are taught in sections, this outside work may be fitted in as a sectional part and the routine be kept intact.

In summarizing, the lessons developed from garden work were these: Science (soil physics and seed germination); geography; arithmetic; spelling; English; drawing, and construction. The greatest benefit to the teacher was the chance to study the child under natural conditions. The greatest benefit to the child was his awakening to a knowledge of things by personal contact. I sincerely believe that the after-life of each one of these children will be the richer for this experience of outdoor study.

In some of the school yards the pavement near the fence has been removed, and the space divided into small beds for gardening. Many of these gardens make a fine showing and you will find here three pictures of such a yard, illustrating what may be done within the limits of the playground of a city school. When you consider that between six and eight hundred children play in this yard at the same recess time every day, you can appreciate what it means to yield a portion of the limited space to vegetables and flowers; and, since these plants are never molested, how much the children are pleased to have their playground so decorated.

Nearly all the garden products may be correlated with the classroom work. The kindergarten children use peas in construction. The peas raised in the garden may be applied here. The first-grade children use lentils in construction. Why not as well use pumpkin seed and grains of corn-the product of the garden? Every class enjoys having a Jack-o’-lantern at Hallowe’en, so here again the pumpkin from the garden comes into play. In the construction of miniature wagons and wheelbarrows of paper, peas may be soaked and used as axles for the wheels. Both peas and beans may be soaked and given to the small children to string for chains, thus teaching number and spacing. Every layer of husk (beneath the outside one) from the ear of corn may be dried and made into a basket by the more advanced pupil.

If a city teacher, with opportunities so limited and numberless disadvantages, can accomplish even a little in this line for the children in her charge, how much more should the teacher of the rural school accomplish when she has space at her command, children in the environment of country life, and seemingly all things that tend to work together to produce good results!

So much interest is shown in this phase of industrial work all over the country that I doubt that there is anywhere a teacher who does not wish to add the study of it to the curriculum, unless she is already working along these lines. Feeling sure of the sympathy aroused in every teacher’s heart, I have included among the illustrations of this article three scenes from rural school life. (See pages 113, 115, and 117.)

In connection with these pictures let me say a few more words to the rural teacher. You may think yourself much poorer than your city co-worker, but the fact is that you are the one of affluence, she is the struggler. You have all about you the materials that a city teacher can secure only at second hand. All the riches of nature are at your command-the birds that nest at your door, the fishes that swim in the brook, the grasses that grow by the roadside, the trees of the forest, and the flowers that spring up everywhere; the ground space for your garden; the intelligent child of country environment who does not need to work the garden to learn how vegetables grow, but who does need to work it for the education, the aim and object of school gardens. If you are not interested in such work, try doing it once because you should. Next year there will be no should; love will lead you on.

I have the same feeling in my heart about the school garden that the poet who wrote “The Little Fir Trees” must have had about them. Each stanza winds up with

And so, Little evergreens, grow! Grow, grow! Grow, little evergreens, grow!

I would say:

And so, Grow, school gardens, grow! Grow, grow! Grow, school gardens, grow!

The three pictures, “Studying Nature,” “A Flower from the Country” and “A Suggestion for Recess Hour,” came to me from a country school. They speak so vividly for themselves that I feel that each one carries with it its own message and appeals so strongly in behalf of the deepest love of nature in even the youngest child as to point to the possibilities of what might be when this love is fed and made to grow with the physical nature of the child.