Planting Peas @ Northeast Elementary

Last Thursday at Northeast Elementary, Healthy Waltham invited the entire first-grade class to help us plant hundreds of snap peas in the school’s expanding garden space.

We were first assisted by Ms. Lockwood’s forth and fifth-grade class in preparing one of the garden beds for the planting. Kids dug in with trowels and hand cultivators, loosening up clods of compacted (pressed together) soil so that our future pea plants’ roots can more easily reach further and further into the ground. These deep roots will not only help the plants find important nutrients and water in the bed, but will also help them to grow up nice and tall while better stabilizing (to make secure) the pea shoots so that they will not blow over (or worse, blow away!) in windy conditions.

Once the soil had been loosened, our first-grade assistants began to make their way into the courtyard for the planting. But first, as with all of the peas we’ve planted around town, we had to inoculate our peas with that powdery bacteria called rhizobium (see this post to learn more about inoculation and rhizobium) that will help put nitrogen in the ground, helping both the peas and the other seeds we plant there this summer. After inoculating the peas, we dug furrows (shallow trenches in which to plant seeds; also called drills) and began planting our seeds, one-by-one.

As each student took their turn planting, those waiting around the bed turned their attention to the bug life in the freshly-cultivated soil. What exactly did they find? Loads of brown spiders, roly-polies, and nightcrawlers, mostly. We had a brave bunch of students, most of whom were eager to get a hold of these tiny creatures for a closer look at their shapes and movement. And though some weren’t very excited to be so close to the spiders, the children made a good point as to why we should appreciate them: they spin their webs so they can catch insects to eat, including mosquitoes. If it weren’t for these eight-legged creatures roaming our city and state, we’d probably have a lot more mosquitoes, and thus a lot more itchy mosquito bites during the hot and humid months of summer.

In addition to planting peas directly into the ground, we also made room for two long rows of peas in the courtyard’s raised bed. Since the bed was full of overwintered strawberry plants, we had to first move all the straw that students had put on them in the fall over to the compost bin, uproot several of the plants, and move them over to another part of the garden space where we already have established raspberry canes. But why did we put straw on these plants anyways? We discussed with the kids that the strawberries are perennials, meaning they live for more than two years; the straw acts like a blanket or coat, protecting them from New England’s harsh winters that bring snow, sleet, wind, and frequent freezing temperatures. Seeing the straw on the berries also explained how this plant got its common name; farmers must have been using this technique to protect their crop for a long time or they’d be called something else. Though the fruits won’t likely be ready for picking until early July, we’ll keep our fingers crossed for a late-June harvest- a nice end of the school year treat!

Having explained to the students that we had to transplant some of the strawberry plants to the newly-designated berry patch, we got to discussing what exactly the word means and other words with a similar meaning. The kids quickly realized that the word “transplant” sounds a lot like “transport,” which means to move from one place to another, whether by foot, car, boat, train, or airplane. Thus a nice language connection was made: the prefix “trans” generally has to do with moving an object or person away from its original location.

Finally, we wrapped things up by asking the children why they think we need plants. With so many other foods like meat and dairy products, who needs plants? Kids responded by reminding us that plants are extra nutritious, full of the vitamins and minerals humans need to be healthy and live long lives. They also brought up the fact that the animals that supply us with meats and dairy foods are very often vegetarian, meaning they only eat plants, so we couldn’t have these foods if not for plants! This open discussion made us even more aware of how everything on our planet is interconnected, meaning every organic (living or once living) and inorganic (non-living) thing has an effect or impact on its surroundings.

As summer approaches, the students at Northeast can expect even more Healthy Waltham garden activities to come, including the harvesting of the peas, strawberries, and raspberries, as well as planting summer crops like beans, sunflowers, pumpkins, and tomatoes.


Images by Rebekah Carter (2011).

Lettuce, Tomatoes, and Worms @ Stanley Garden Club

Last week at Stanley Garden Club students exercised their patience as we checked for signs of new growth in our planted beds. After not discovering any green sprouts sticking out of the soil, we talked about why the seeds might be taking a little longer to germinate than expected. Students raised their hands to suggest that maybe the cold weather and lack of much sunlight might be slowing down the young plants’ growth.

Cotelydons vs. true leaves

These are really great ideas, because it is true that young seedlings need both warmth and sunlight to grow bigger. However, the seeds really only require warmth and water in order to germinate (to become sprouts); they only begin to need sunlight when they have true leaves that photosynthesize carbon dioxide into sugar (plant food) using the sun’s energy. Their very-first set of leaves, called cotyledons, don’t conduct photosynthesis, as the leaves themselves provide all the food and nutrition needed during the plant’s infancy (the beginning or early period of existence). We decided that the biggest factor in slowing down our radishes, carrots, and peas was probably the cold temperatures we’ve been experiencing, which, as the kids suggested, is in part due to the spring’s limited hours of strong sunlight. Never the less, we planted another bed with more radishes since these spring days will become longer and warmer as we approach summer.

After checking on the outdoor beds, students helped us plant a variety of lettuce seeds indoors. Each student got to plant their own six-pack of leafy greens- and no, we don’t mean the kind of six pack found on a gym buff! These six-packs were seedling trays with six cells each, and after carefully counting out twelve seeds, each Garden Club student planted two seeds in each cell. Crop varieties (the particular types of vegetables or fruits grown) included arugula, rouge d’hiver (pronounced “rooj-dee-vair”), bronze arrowhead, and red sails lettuces. Lucky for us, some students even stayed late to help label our new trays.

Unripe husk cherries @ Waltham Fields Community Farm (2010)

This past Tuesday, we continued the indoor planting with husk cherries and sun gold cherry tomatoes. We reviewed what we knew about husk cherries (also called ground cherries and relatives of tomatoes) and looked at pictures of the wrinkly, lantern-shaped outer shell called the husk, and the smooth, golden ripe cherry. Just one look at the pictures and the students began reminiscing about the husk cherries they had harvested last year, recalling the sweet and tangy, almost pineapple-y taste.

After seeding our trays, we had a special surprise for the kids. They raised eyebrows and couldn’t resist guessing as Rebekah handed out magnifying glasses and petri dishes. What was in that surprise bin she had brought? Compost? Special snacks? Why are the petri dishes wet? Eventually one student guessed correctly: worms! The worm bin, which students at McDevitt had started just two months ago, is now a thriving ecosystem (a habitat filled with different interacting organisms).

The Stanley kids dug their hands fearlessly- well, we did have a few squeals!- into the bin, exploring the ecosystem created by our vermicomposting activity. They discovered all sorts of things: roly-poly bugs, spiders, decomposing plants, slugs, flies, castings, worm eggs, and of course, the red wigglers themselves!

Click to see a close-up of this decomposing leaf's vein structure; you can even see worm eggs on it!

Students held the worms and studied them in dishes with their magnifying glasses, being careful to keep them moist. We watched as the worms crowd together into a big ball, which lead to a discussion about worms and light. Why are they behaving this way? To avoid the bright light, student discovered; they associate the cafeteria’s fluorescent lights with the sun, which can dry them out, which means they can’t breathe since oxygen can only dissolve through their skin if it’s moist. We also observed the other life we found in the worm bin, such as the roly-polies (also known as pill bugs). These guys were especially fun to watch as they curl up in tight balls when they feel threatened. Their scientific name is actually Armadillidiidae, because they share this habit with the much larger armadillo!

Once the worms, slugs, and roly-polies were all cleaned up and put safely back in their ecosystem, we had a little extra time to quickly check up on our outdoor beds. We were nervous because of the continued cold weather, but at last we saw signs of radish and snap pea germination! A little patience really pays off in the garden.

Cece and Rebekah

Image of cotyledons and true leaves from All other images by Rebekah Carter (2011).

Garden Lessons @ McDevitt Middle School

Radishes germinating

Sixth-grade students in Ms. Turkington and Mr. Maillis’ math Cluster Challenges have been active participants in preparing the school’s garden space for the warmer days ahead of us. In the classroom, students helped by starting seed trays with greens such as arugula, a few varieties of red-leaf lettuces, and Swiss chard, as well as a few kohlrabi for some more exotic-looking fare (food).

Outside, students cultivated and planted five of the garden beds with peas, carrots, and radishes. Just like those we planted at Stanley, the peas and radishes should be ready for harvesting in May, but little germination (the transition from seed to sprout) has taken place yet, with exception of the radishes. We’ll keep our eyes on these beds in the coming weeks for signs of new growth.

After helping clear out leftover crops from the autumn season, student pitched two miniature greenhouse tents on one of the two raised beds on the property. Interested in maximizing (getting the most out of something) our use of garden space, the students measured the square-footage inside of each tent to see how much salad mix we should plant. The seed packet indicated that approximately 60 seeds should be planted in every foot-long 2-4″ wide-band, with each band being about 6 inches apart (now that’s a mouth-full!); students measured a total in-tent square-footage of about 66 square feet (36 inches x 22 inches = 792 inches/12 inches = 66 square feet). Their measurements and calculations, including the spacing between each band, suggested that a planting of three 3-4 inch bands of salad mix, approximately 5 inches apart, should yield us maximum greens. But how many seeds does that equate to? About 540 (9 foot-long bands x 60 seeds) of them! Since planting the seeds two weeks ago, we’ve noticed some germination of the green-leaf varieties included in the mix.

Inside the tent / stages of growth

"Can I have another scoop of poop?"

Another aspect of our recent garden work includes an informal experiment. Students in Ms. Turkington’s class planted their greens without using any sort of soil amendment (something added to the soil to improve plant growth or health, like fertilizer or compost), while students in Mr. Maillis’ class sprinkled a good amount of red wiggler worm castings (also known as vermicompost or worm poop), collected from our very-own bins, on top of their seeds. From our work with the science Clusters, we discovered that worm castings are even more nutrient-rich than typical compost, which makes us wonder: will these greens grow faster or larger? Will they be more flavorful or more healthy? While we may not find answers to all of these questions, we’ll keep an eye on both tents to see what becomes of our two plantings.


Images by Rebekah Carter (2011).

Whole wheat pita pizzas @ the Chill Zone

For this past weekend’s Chill Zone, the kids prepared themselves mini toaster oven pizzas with leftover whole wheat pita bread rounds from our prior session, tomato sauce, shredded mozzarella, oregano, red pepper flakes (for those who like a little spice), and chopped up veggies like green bell pepper and onion.

Using a toaster oven did pose some challenges. Because of its small size, our oven could only fit one pizza at a time, requiring much patience amongst the kids.

Beyond this, we had the minor issue of some pizzas sticking to the baking sheet. For those looking to make this snack at home, we suggest either 1) pre-baking a pita round, lightly brushed with olive oil (results in a crispier crust) or 2) using a non-stick spray on the pan. A little sprinkle of cornmeal on the pan can help prevent sticking, too, since it slightly “lifts” the crust off the pan.

A simple yet classic snack idea that seemed to go over quite well with the bunch!


Images by Rebekah Carter (2011).

Learning the Parts of a Plant

Getting our hands dirty

Cold winds and a recent snow shower didn’t deter Stanley Garden Club from meeting last week and getting even more seeds planted, though the chilly temperature did keep us indoors. We got our hands dirty as we added some water to the dried up potting soil, creating the moist foundation needed for seed germination. We then planted beets, eggplant, peppers, and both red and yellow onions. There were several different kinds of beets, including golden beets, which were easily identifiable by their golden seeds- how convenient! We will definitely have to do some beet taste-testing come harvest time. Will the golden and red varieties taste similar or different?

Because of the cold weather and the fragility of new seeds, we planted these tender vegetables in plug trays. A plug tray is great for the very first stage of a plant’s life; it contains many rows of individual cells which help keep young roots separated. However, once the plants begin to grow we will have to transplant them from the plug trays into bigger trays, and then into the garden beds outside.

Image via

After washing our hands off we had a great discussion about the different parts of a plant, and how vegetables can come from just about any one (or more) of these parts. Important features of any plant include the root, stem, leaf, and flower (which develops into the fruit, which contains the seeds- two more plant parts!). Each part has a distinct and important role. Roots absorb water and nutrients from the soil and keep the plant from blowing away. Plants can have either a taproot system, in which there is one primary thick root that goes straight down into the ground, or a fibrous root system, in which there are many thin roots spreading out in every direction. Carrots and beets are examples of root vegetables, or more specifically, taproot vegetables.

Root veggies

The water and nutrients taken up by the roots are then transported up through the stem. But the stem is not just a way for the plant to move around nutrients; it also serves the important role of bringing the leaves closer to the sun. Unlike animals that must find their food, plants make their own food by using energy from sunlight to convert carbon dioxide into glucose (a type of sugar) while also releasing oxygen into the atmosphere. This process is called photosynthesis. The leaves of the plant are the primary actors in photosynthesis; they hold the most chlorophyll (green pigment) that is necessary for the plant to absorb sunlight. While all plants have leaves, some examples of leafy vegetables (crops we grow specifically for their leaves) include lettuce and spinach.

Overwintered spinach @ McDevitt

Another key part of a plant- but something we don’t usually associate with vegetables- is the flower. One example of a flower vegetable is, believe it or not, broccoli! Flowers are attractive to insects like butterflies and bees; enticed by their color and scent, these organisms feed on the flower’s nectar and, without knowing it, transfer pollen so that fertilization (when the sperm and ovules, or eggs, join together) can occur. A protective shell (the fruit) then grows around the developing seeds. Some plants make this fleshy layer extra delicious to encourage animals to eat the fruit and spread its seeds after defecating, which is simply a fancy word for pooping! Many foods we consider vegetables in culinary (cooking) terms are technically fruits because they contain seeds*. Some fruits we typically call “vegetables” include cucumbers, tomatoes, and squashes.

Cece & Rebekah

*Botanically speaking, a fruit is the fleshy part of a flowering plant derived from the fertilization of the plant’s ovaries; however, it is more generally considered to be the part of a plant that holds its seeds, such as bean pods.

The plant parts diagram is used via All other images created by Rebekah Carter (2011).