Here are some tips I have gathered for gardening in a Montessori group care format.
~ you can choose a “garden bed” of a variety of styles. It need not be a permanent style wooden bed that is stuck in one location. But if you do choose a permanent garden bed, it ought to be placed in full sun. Otherwise you get tall, leggy produce, and things just won’t grow.
~ mulch thy garden, or else you will get a ton of weeds.
~ If your school is too cheap to fund gardening projects, ask the parents in your classroom if they would be willing to donate plant starts.
~ Seed germinating is enjoyable for the children, and a legitimate way to start growing plants. But just know that if you don’t water the seedlings frequently enough and get them transplanted into the garden quickly, they will shrivel up and die within days. I learned that lesson the hard way. They won’t tell you this in training, LOL.
~ Make your garden bed tall enough so that the children won’t climb into the garden, but low enough that the children can still water the garden. Legend has it there is a Montessori school in San Francisco, California that used plexiglass to make the sides of its garden bed so the children could see the roots burrowing down into the soil.
~ in drought-ridden California, I limit the amount of water the kids are allowed to use to water the garden by providing a basin to draw water from with a cup, specifically when it is time to water the garden. Children can fill their watering cans using the cups provided, which provides functional transferring and pouring opportunities, rich math & sensorial opportunities, large muscle coordination and grasp, hand-eye coordination, patience, and social skills practice. If you drill a couple holes in your basin and attach the cups to the basin by a short length of string, the cups won’t disappear. When watering is over, everything gets stored in the basin. This method of plant watering also gives teachers the control of making plant watering available when the weather is appropriate.
~ I personally do not permit toddler children to pick anything from plants, ever. Not only do I need to keep them safe from eating inedible plant parts and unripe produce, but they don’t understand the concept of patience, or portion control. If you allow toddlers to pick produce at liberty, they will harvest all that they can get their little hands on. So if you ever desire to give them the freedom to harvest, you better be prepared for all of it to be gone in one day. Every last leaf of the lettuce will get ripped off the plant, they will take one bite of each leaf they pull, and then throw it to the ground before hastily grabbing another.
I also care about giving the plant time to grow, and giving the produce time to ripen and mature. So I personally insist that harvesting anything from plants is teacher’s work; and I make the children ask us for produce. Especially for the youngest toddlers, they don’t know the difference at all. A plant in the garden is a plant in the garden to them. So they will uproot entire small plants that are nowhere near ready to harvest. There is also an inherent joy for toddlers in plucking things off and out of things, which I explain more below. So it’s advised to put limits on harvesting.
~ If harvesting is of interest to your curriculum plan, I recommend preparing for complete and total harvests. Plan to harvest all the beans at once. Plan to collect all the pumpkins at once, etc. Alternatively, you can pick a specific day of the week as a recurrent “harvest day”, like every Friday. Otherwise, it becomes this daily obsession to receive something from the garden, which promotes nagging, which gets annoying for staff who have a lot to manage outdoors, and it’s not always even feasible that there will be something worth harvesting on a daily basis for everyone who wants some. If the plant only produces five ripe snap peas a day, what can you do? Complete meltdowns and tantrums over who got snap peas and who didn’t is just not worth it to me. Toddlers are creatures of “me too”, “I want it now”, and “let’s do that again”. So act accordingly.
~ Toddlers LOVE to pull things off of and out of things. It’s like reverse imbucare. They will go to the garden and uproot anything they can pull out of the soil, and this could become a repeated issue. Work with this tendency in mind, and plant root veggies they can help pull up one day. You can also invite the older toddlers to do supervised weed pulling. Help make it clear that you will tell them which one is a weed, and clearly point, tap the weed, and say “you can pull this weed out”. They may also try to pull grass out of the ground if you use fresh grass to supplement your school chicken’s diets. If you wish to feed your chickens fresh grass, always use scissors to cut the grass for the chickens, and place cut grass in a specific basket next to the chicken coop for children to feed chickens with.
~ Gardening produce I find enjoyable and successful with toddlers are giant sun flowers, strawberries, radishes/ root veggies, corn, pumpkins, lettuce, snap peas, and green beans. If you’re a super good gardener, a kiwi fruit arch would be super fun for toddlers.
~ If you can’t control uninvited harvesting by toddlers, I suggest you plant an entire bin, barrel, or bed that is a “green light” zone for free-for-all harvesting. Then the children will know they are welcomed to harvest from a specific place however often they want. In this case, you want to plant something that is safe to eat in large quantities. Because they will go to town.
~ Certain beans are extremely poisonous if consumed raw. Like kidney beans. So do your homework in advance, and know what is safe to plant.
~ Plant flowers that you can use for flower arranging. This really does your program a favor, and will save you money.
~ Plant foods you can use for food prep, for produce tastings, or to authentically eat during your family-style lunch. As a full-blown grown up, I used to be part of an urban gardening project/ community, and we would have these occasional feasts at someone’s house. Lemme just say the day we harvested and ate the first watermelon we grew at one of those feasts was so much fun. The day we had a tomato tasting and tasted a huge assortment of tomato varieties was also memorable. And I was grown. So if you harvest food from your garden and then you taste, cook, and eat it together, it’s a special experience.
~ Plant different versions of the same produce. This really exposes them to the fun of gardening and to the variety of life. Then you can do a tasting, taste all the different varieties, and it’s really fun.