Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Our Spring SPROUTs have Sprung

To clarify the title: Last week, had our first SPROUT program of the season. SPROUT (Science Program Reaching Out) is the Washington Youth Garden's one-time nutrition and environmental science outreach program. Students and teachers join us in the Youth Garden for a few hours to get their hands dirty during an engaging outdoor lesson while exploring and enjoying the garden.

The focus of this program is on soil and plant science, insect life cycles, and nutrition. We also offer a watershed activity where we take a trip down to the Anacostia River waterfront via the Asia Valley collection in the Arboretum.

We rung in our SPROUT program this spring with a visit from Sidwell Friends Elementary School. In our lesson, "Where Does Our Food Come From?", we acted out the dramatic life story of a local, organic tomato and a conventionally produced tomato. By going through all the steps involved in getting these two tomatoes from the farm to the table, we were able to learn more about our food system and the actors involved in producing our food. To cap off our lesson, we harvested arugula and herbs from the garden, which Sidwell Friends students took back to their school and turned into a tasty seasonal salad.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Plant Parts That We Eat

We end our Garden Science program in the classroom with a celebration of plants. How do we celebrate plants? We eat them!

After reviewing the different parts of a plant and the function of each, we identify which plant part we eat with common fruits and vegetables. Did you know which part of the plant broccoli is? It's the flower. What about celery? It's the stem.

Our veggie stir fry consists of one vegetable from each part of the plant. We have carrots and ginger (roots), celery (stem), broccoli (flower), yellow squash and red pepper (fruits), and spinach (leaf). Additionally, we throw in some onions and garlic, which are bulbs, though bulbs are a specialized part that not every plant has. Last, we put our vegetables over rice - the seed!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Where does your food come from?

It's a question that many people don't know the answer to. And it's an increasingly complicated answer once you start breaking down our complex food system. In our Garden Science classes, we try to make it simple: all our food comes from the soil.

We traced a cheeseburger back to the soil, breaking down the main ingredients and mapping them out. It looked like this:
Bun - flour - wheat - soil
Tomato - soil
Lettuce - soil
Cheese - milk - cow - grass or corn - soil
Meat - cow - grass or corn - soil

The students then illustrated their favorite food and traced its ingredients back to the soil. In this picture we have tacos, pasta, icecream, and mashed potatoes all traced back to the soil.

Friday, March 13, 2009

the birds and the bees (and the moths, bats, and butterflies)

Another one of our favorite topics in Garden Science is pollination. We seek to make the connections between pollination (and the important role of pollinators) and food production. If pollination didn't happen for some reason (say, a far-fetched scenario like the disappearance of honeybees), then there wouldn't be any fertilized seeds, and subsequently no fruit since the purpose of fruit is to protect and spread the seeds.

Because we need pollination to occur in our garden, every well-planned garden has flowers that will attract pollinators. Flowers aren't just appealing to the senses - they contain the reproductive parts of a plant, including the all-important seeds. In our Garden Science lesson, we learned about the different parts of the flower and each part's role in pollination. To better understand how a flower is put together, we took some flowers apart. Each student had a lily flower to dissect. We chose a lily because it is a perfect flower - meaning it has both male (stamen) and female (pistil) parts.

After dissecting our flowers, we made bird feeders. They will help to provide a food source to our bird friends, who oftentimes have trouble finding suitable food in an urban setting during the cold months. When it comes time to install our school gardens, each class will hang their bird feeders outside in their schoolyard - recognizing that our schoolyards are environments filled with wildlife too.


Vermicomposting (composting with worms) is a successful hands-on project that we have done with our students in the classroom for many years. Our worm homes are a plastic bin with airholes. Inside, there is a thin layer of soil, shredded newspaper for bedding, and one end devoted to our food scraps. We stick to fresh fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grinds, eggshells, and bread - which the worms eat right up. The worms are fed once a week for the duration of the program and then the worm castings (worm waste) will be harvested to add nutrients to the soil in the schoolyard gardens.

This picture is of volunteer Bea and students checking out the worm bins.

In this lesson we also learned about worm anatomy. Students were fascinated by the worm's five hearts, chomp and gizzard (how they eat and digest), as well as how worms sense their surroundings. Before tucking our worms away in their bin, we observed the worms and were able to identify the different parts and the functions of each.

If you're interested in making your own vermicomposting bins, here are directions.

Starting school gardens this spring!

This year, we've added a new component to our Garden Science program: on-site school gardens!

We are working with each of our participating elementary schools to install gardens on the grounds of their school. This will add a long-term element to our program, enabling our classes to continue learning when we are not there while additionally providing an opportunity for the entire school to access and learn from a garden.

In anticipation of installing school gardens come April 09, we started seeds in each one of our classrooms. We equipped each classroom with a grow rack - an energy efficient fluorescent light attached to a four tiered plastic shelf (made out of recycled materials). Because the seedlings need 14-18 hours a sunlight a day, we set these lights to a timer. The grow rack sits right in the classroom, allowing the students to observe the daily development of the seeds they planted. The students take on the responsibility of caring for their plants - they water the plants daily while recording their care routine and the progress of the plants.

We planted lettuce, spinach, radish, swiss chard, sunflowers, marigolds, and zinnias - all plants that will do well outdoors early in the season.

Some of the schools are starting even more seeds and purchasing seedlings to expand the garden even more. We hope to have some yummy veggies for the eating before school lets out, and know that our flowers will attract lots of beneficial insects and pollinators to the garden.

After learning about germination, we were able to observe germination right as it happened about a week after we planted our seeds. After that, we thinned our plants to ensure that each container contained one healthy plant that was able to get all the resources (sun, water, nutrients) it needed. A few weeks later, we transplanted our seedlings to larger containers, allowing more room for growth and more developed root systems, which will make for a stronger plant. One our of students came up with a great way of describing it - we were moving the plants from an apartment to a house so that they could chill out in more space.

Garden Science

When the sky is gray and the air is cold, Garden Science is what keeps our garden spirit going during those seemingly long winter months. Garden Science is an eight-week long program that the WYG conducts off-site at DC public and charter elementary schools. We have five third and fourth grade classrooms that we visit once a week, using hands-on activities to teach lessons relevant to plant, environmental, earth, and life sciences. We also incorporate language arts, math, history, and art.

After our eight weeks in the classroom, each class comes out to the WYG for two full days in May. This is an exciting time for many of the students, some of whom have never gotten to experience such a large garden (almost an acre) or been out to the National Arboretum (where we are located). We spend our two days in the garden tending communal organic vegetable and herb plots while learning about soils, insect and plant life cycles, composting and nutrition. As much as we enjoy being in the classroom, this is really the highlight of the program. We love to have the garden full of kids and especially love to see our local kids out there, as our participating schools are all located in Ward 5, the same ward as the National Arboretum.

Welcome to our new blog!

Hello! We at the Washington Youth Garden are excited to have a new tool to play with! We hope that this blog will be fun and useful for our program participants, volunteers, and friends to both learn about what we do and to share your experiences at the youth garden.

Founded in 1971, WYG is one of the longest-running educational non-profit youth gardens in the country. Find out more about us on our website.

The primary goals of the program are to: a) educate youth about our relationships with food by understanding its nutritional value, health implications, cultural significance and from where it originates; b) connect children to the natural world as a learning resource and as a place for self exploration and personal growth; and c) develop, through specifically designed curriculum, interpersonal skills, awareness of civic responsibility, and the opportunity for strong family ties.

WYG is a project of the Friends of the National Arboretum and receives support from National Capital Area Federation of Garden Clubs, Slow Food DC and the U.S. National Arboretum.

Coming up soon will be more information about our programs and a look into what we have been up to over the last couple of months. Cute pictures of kids and vegetables guaranteed!

Thank you from the WYG staff,
Kaifa, Chris, and Kacie