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Gardening method


Objectives: Deciding strategies and learning needs with regard to:
  • planting - what, how, when and where
  • maintaing the soil
  • using tools
  • getting good seeds and seedlings
  • caring for plants: watering, feeding, weeding
  • caring for plants: pest management
  • harvesting, storing and preserving

How do we grow things? What should children learn about growing things? The “garden curriculum” responds to questions like How do we keep the soil rich? How do we sow seeds? What do we do about pests? Some of the answers are always the same. Some differ according to local circumstances, practices and ideas. You need to decide what methods you will use in your school garden. This will also affect what you decide to grow.

Some widespread and successful techniques and practices are set out in Horticultural Notes. Many of them are organic approaches, advocated by this Manual (see Organic gardening in Horticultural Notes). You should compare these approaches with your own experience, your resources, the practices in your area and what the children can manage. Ask yourself these questions:

If some approaches are new to you, take advice from local gardening experts. By discussing these questions you should arrive at a “gardening curriculum” which fits your circumstances.


1. How do we keep the soil rich?

Growing plants takes nutrients out of the soil. In nature, plants usually die where they grow and give back these nutrients to the soil. But when we harvest crops, we take away what the soil produces, to eat it or to use it. In doing this, we take the richness out of the soil, and we must put it back in some way. This is the point children need to understand.

There are several good ways of keeping the soil rich:

Compost and mulching Manure, compost and mulching put back a lot of organic matter into the soil. Consult the Horticultural Notes on compost, watering plants and mulching.

Minimum tillage If you have decided to have raised permanent beds, the best policy is “minimum tillage” (see Garden beds in Horticultural Notes) - that is, leave the soil alone and let nature do the cultivating. Roots, compost, worms and bacteria will work together to build up a good soil structure. Once the bed is established, deep ploughing or digging should be avoided as it will destroy this living structure.

Is “minimum tillage” the practice in your area? Will you need to convince anyone?

Crop rotation Different crops take nutrients from the soil in different amounts. They also take them from different levels in the soil. To keep the soil rich it is essential to rotate crops - that is, to have a different crop, from a different plant family in the bed each season. The cycle of changing crops should last at least four years. Alternating deep-rooted crops and shallow-rooted ones also gives the different levels of the soil a rest. Consult Rotating crops and Intercropping in Horticultural Notes.

If you decide that pupils should learn to rotate crops, they will need to make a map of crops planted each season. It also helps if the class keeps the same plot as it goes up the school, so that the students can control the placing of the crops each year.

Multi-layer cropping Growing plants of different heights and habits together allows you to make best use of the soil (see Intercropping in Horticultural Notes). Usually the taller plants are perennials such as papaya and passion fruit, while the shorter annual crops go through the rotation.

Crop rotation in school gardens

In school gardening you need to compromise between good agricultural practice on the one hand, and nutritional, educational and motivational needs on the other. No one wants (for example) to spend a whole year studying and eating only carrots! Luckily, the space you give to each crop does not make much difference to the principle of crop rotation. Diseases do not spread far in the soil, so you can rotate small areas as well as large. For example, a commercial grower might have one field under cabbages, another under beans, one with carrots and a fourth with Swiss chard, and rotate the four crops every five seasons, with a fallow interval. A school class could have the same four crops in a door-size garden, with an empty strip and a “green manure” crop like sunflowers or alfalfa (lucerne):
 3 lines green beans4 lines Swiss chard4 lines carrots 
 5 cabbagesEmpty strip or sod cropSunflowers or alfalfa 
  (Adapted from Valley Trust Nutrition Education Programme, 1995) 
It is even possible to rotate crops in a tiny “nutrition square” only 1m × 1m, as in “square foot gardening”. These layouts make crop rotation more visible and at the same time emphasize the value of variety for good nutrition.

2. How do we use the tools?

What tools are used in your area, and how? Do children know the tools and how to use them? (See Part 5.)

Safety with tools is particularly important with children. What precautions should you take and what practices should be established?

What rules should be established about keeping tools free of rust, sharing them responsibly and, above all, putting them away after use?

3. How do we get good vegetable seeds?

You need seeds which are strong and disease-free. Local varieties will do best. Your options are:

Seeds and cuttings from the community These are probably well adapted to the climate. However you cannot be sure that they are strong and disease-free. Plant them separately, label them, get children to monitor them and see how they do.

Bought seeds These are more expensive, but generally it's advisable to buy seeds commercially and use them in the specified period. Try to get donations from a local seed retailer, but check that they are not out of date: vegetable seeds deteriorate quickly (cereals and legume seeds last longer).

Your own seeds Sometimes you can take seeds from your own plants if they are non-hybrids. This is the cheapest solution and can help to improve plant stocks. It is also very educational: learning how to select, collect and store seeds and take cuttings are valuable lessons for children. Select the best and strongest plants; avoid the common mistake of “negative selection” (taking seeds from weak or diseased plants).

4. How, when and where do we plant?

How Large seeds can be planted directly in the soil. Small seeds require a seedbed or nursery bed. This may be a box, tray or bag; a protected nursery bed; a seed tray (re-usable plastic ones are the most economical); or a seed nursery in classroom. Seeds will then need thinning and hardening off before transplanting. Some standard procedures are described in the Horticultural Notes under Planting and transplanting and Sowing seeds.

How do you plan to do it?

When Get local advice about when to plant, as the climate of the region generally dictates the best time. You will also need to fit the planting into the school term, and to go on planting over a period if you want continuous cropping.

What are the practices in your area? What would you like to try?

Better late….
A teacher in the Gambia planted onions in the school garden. He faithfully followed the instructions on the packet. An elderly woman down the road warned him it was too early, but he ignored her because he thought she was ignorant. In the end, the teacher's onions failed, while the elderly woman's onions (planted later) flourished. The later planting avoided the worst effects of the dry season.
(Cederstrom, 2002)

Where? Some of the possibilities are described in the Horticultural Notes under Rotating crops, Intercropping and Companion planting

5. How do we look after the plants?

Regular tasks in the garden are watering, mulching and weeding. These fairly repetitive chores become more interesting when children are learning the right way to do them, doing them together, showing each other how and seeing the effects of their work.

Watering Regular watering is essential for most plants. There are more and less effective ways of doing it. All gardening beginners need to recognize when water is needed, to know how much is enough and to learn to water earth, not leaves! (See Watering Plants in Horticultural Notes.)

What are the watering practices in your area? What do your children need to learn?

Mulching is covering the ground around plants with dry organic material. It is excellent for preventing weeds and keeping moisture in the soil. It slowly increases the organic content and prevents the earth from baking into a hard crust. There is some advice on mulching in the Horticultural Notes.

Is mulching a common practice in your area? What local material is suitable for mulching? Is this something pupils need to learn to do?

Weeding There's an art to weeding, too. You must catch weeds before they seed, and make sure you get the roots out or cut off the weed below the surface of the soil. Weeding can be quite a satisfying activity because the effects are visible, and weeds themselves are an interesting study in plant competition. Some attract beneficial insects; others make a good contribution to the compost heap. Check the advice about weeding in the Horticultural Notes.

What will your pupils need to learn about weeding?

6. How do we fight pests and diseases?

With “integrated pest management” (IPM) you can avoid a lot of expense while also protecting the environment (see Healthy plants in the Horticultural Notes). IPM conserves beneficial insects, protects bird life, saves money and protects the soil. It also encourages children's observation and helps them to understand the whole ecosystem. Here are some of the main IPM strategies.

Healthy plants The first way to fight diseases and pests is by helping plants stay healthy. Some ways to achieve this are:

Too much of a good thing
A farmer in Tanzania got a grant to install a drip irrigation system. The first year he grew cabbages. They were big and sold well so he planted them again next season in the same field. And the next season. And the next. By the end of the second year his irrigation system was still fine but his cabbages were small and diseased.

Crop rotation Rotating crops not only maintains the soil but also reduces disease (see Crop rotation in Horticultural Notes). Each kind of crop has its own particular diseases and pests. Some of these stay in the soil after the harvest and lie in wait for the next crop. The same kind of crop in the same place will probably get the same disease again. Different kinds of plant are much less at risk.

Companion planting Planting some crops together helps to control pests. Herbs with strong smells can put harmful insects “off the scent” and keep them away from vegetables. Some destroy harmful organisms in the soil. Some flowering plants attract beneficial insects which destroy harmful ones. For more details see Companion planting in the Horticultural Notes.

Our school practises crop rotation - for example, cabbage, red peas, corn, yam in succession. We also have plants with strong smells as companions to outsmart the insects - marigolds, peppermint and leeks. One local farmer copied the school garden and planted marigolds all through his cabbage crop. The children said it looked like a field on fire!
(C. Power, personal communication, 2003)

Attitudes to insects Some insects are good for plants and some are harmful. Butterflies and bees, for example, should be encouraged as they pollinate the plants; mantises and ladybugs prey on harmful insects. Children need to be able to distinguish between “garden friends” and “garden enemies” (see Beneficial garden creatures and Pests in the Horticultural Notes).

Most pesticides kill all insects, and this is harmful to the plants. Children should know that there are more environmentally friendly ways of dealing with pests. Some pests can be eliminated by simply picking them off when they first appear. Some can be dealt with using a cheap soap and water spray - see Homemade sprays in the Horticultural Notes. Consult Plant problems in the Horticultural Notes to see what alternative approaches children can learn.

7. How do we harvest, store and preserve crops?

What do children need to know about harvesting? (Check Harvesting in the Horticultural Notes.) Are you planning to store crops or preserve them? This is important if you are growing food to keep or for lean periods of the year. Conserving and preserving in the Horticultural Notes shows a few forms of safe storage and some ways of preserving food - e.g. drying, bottling and pickling. See also Part 9 D below.

8. What if it goes wrong?

Something always goes wrong! Even if you yourself are a gardening expert, you are working with learners. You may also be trying out new plants or new methods. But everything that goes wrong is an opportunity for communication, observation, experimentation and learning. As you can see from the Box below, most interesting enquiries spring from problems.

A school science exhibition in Zimbabwe
Some prize-winning projects in the Inter-Provincial Campfire Science Exhibition:
  • Excessive carrot wastage at Gaza primary school. Children found that they were throwing out a lot of carrot seedlings before transplanting. Why?
  • Stunted tomatoes in Amaswazi School. What was the cause? What was the cure? Children tried different types of manure to increase the yield.
  • The high rates of leaf curl on leaf vegetables at Dyaramiti School. Is this caused by too much chemical fertiliser?
  • Does urine as a fertiliser improve maize yields at Charter estate school in Chimanimani?
(L.Chinanzvavana, personal communication, 2003)


Before making final decisions on gardening methods, consult local gardeners and take expert advice. You may find it useful to draw up a list of the approaches you would like to adopt for discussion with the Garden Group, children, parents, etc. Use a table like the one below.

 Approaches to be adopted
Maintaining the soil 
Using tools 
Getting good seeds/seedlings/cuttings 
Planting and transplanting - how, when, where 
Tending plants - watering, mulching, weeding 
Pest and disease management 
Harvesting, storing, preserving 


Outputs: Decisions on methods and techniques
Map of existing crops
Useful lessons marked for your personal use

If you are confident you can make organic approaches work, persuade the school to adopt some Good Resolutions - e.g. In our garden…
 Post up the resolutions near the garden and discuss them with children. Show them to visitors and get children to explain them.
Start a Bug Board: a display of pests, with names, information and recommended treatment.
Caution: If organic approaches are innovative for your district, promote them by example rather than by publicity, and make sure they are successful before you recommend them to others!


GROWING PLANTS These lessons prepare children directly for gardening tasks and should generally be done in the growing period.

1. Sowing seeds Sowing big seeds directly in the garden is easy for young children.

Objectives Pupils get local advice on planting seeds, sow seeds directly in the garden and care for seeds and seedlings correctly.

Activities Pupils recall what plants like (rich soil, space, no competition, warmth, moisture, light). They look at the seeds to be planted and suggest what dangers they face (e.g. trapped under stones, washed away, waterlogged, eaten by birds/slugs, overgrown, scorched by sun). They decide an appropriate spacing for the seeds based on an estimate of the plant's final size, measure the seeds' diameter and multiply by three to give a rough planting depth, then compare their decisions with seed packet instructions (if any). On site they watch a demonstration of how to plant and then do it themselves (see Planting and transplanting in Horticultural Notes). Finally they discuss and decide how to protect the seedlings when they appear. Follow up with a race for the first shoots, the first true leaves, the first seedling to reach 5 cm, etc.

2. Planting and transplanting This lesson dramatizes the whole process.

Objectives Pupils understand the overall process of planting and transplanting.

Activities Some pupils represent seeds, some the sun, rain and wind, and some the gardeners. The teacher's desk is the “seedbed” and the rest of the room is the “open garden”. Pupils walk through the whole process. “Seeds” are “sown” in the “seedbed” (pupils sit on the edge of the desk), then watered regularly by “gardeners” and protected from wind, rain and sun (standing near) by a canopy held by “gardeners”. The seedlings come up (“seeds” all stand up), are seen to be overcrowded and are thinned out by gardeners. Gardeners continue to mulch and water, and “seeds” stretch and expand. Sun, rain and wind in turn come to help and hinder the seedlings. To get them used to sun, rain and wind, gardeners lift the canopy a little, then a little more, and a little more. When the “seeds” are strong enough, gardeners gently take them into the “open garden” and “plant” them back in their desks. As pupils carry out the real processes in the garden, the story is recapitulated, and can later be dramatized or contribute to a project on growing up. Older pupils draw up growing schedules for particular crops.

3. Mulching Economical and effective, mulching is an essential tool of organic gardening.

Objectives Pupils recognize the value of mulching, and know how to mulch and when.

Activities Pupils recall what plants like. They observe some plants which are wilting, diseased or overgrown with weeds, label them with their problems (e.g. no water, competition, poor soil) and suggest how to help them. The teacher proposes mulching (the “soil blanket”) and explains what to do. Pupils sort “good mulch” (if possible, light-coloured straw) from “bad mulch” (with weed seeds), then build up mulch round the plant victims until it is about 6 cm thick. They discuss how mulching helps with each problem (see Mulching in Horticultural Notes). As follow-up, pupils give demonstrations of mulching to visitors, families and other pupils (advertise them as “Mulch Magic”), make a routine of collecting and using mulching materials, or practise a mulching chant to a marching tune. Older pupils experiment by developing garden patches with and without mulch and doing weed counts. (Suggested by Guy et al., 1996.)

4. Watering (1) Watering (1) and Watering (2) should be consecutive lessons.

Objectives Pupils appreciate plants' water needs.

Activities Pupils recall what plants like, and focus on water. They discuss whether plants can have too much water or too little (plants are like people - they can both drown and die of thirst). They speculate on the questions: Where is there water/moisture in the garden? Where do plants get water from? Where is the water in plants? How does water get into the plant? and then go to the garden to hunt for answers in leaves, stems, fruit, roots and soil. Feedback will reveal that moisture is mostly in the soil and in plant stems, and gets into the plants through roots (not leaves). Pupils guess how much of a plant is water (about 90 percent) and test this by weighing a bottle stuffed with grass, drying the grass for a week, then putting it back in the bottle and weighing it again.

5. Watering (2) There are seven golden rules for good watering.

Objective Pupils know when and how to water plants.

Activities Pupils recall how important water is for plants. They read out the Seven Golden Rules (see below) one by one and explain them, then try to recite them from memory. The class goes round the garden together, feeling the earth and assessing the need for water with a measuring stick (3 cm of dry soil needs water). Where water is needed, they suggest what to do and take turns at each watering task. As follow-up, pupils make themselves “moisture measures” and show others how to use them. Older students experiment with over-watering and under-watering parallel rows of plants and recording health and growth over two weeks.

Golden rules for good watering (see Watering plants in Horticultural Notes)

6. Weeding The spirit of battle is good - but not all weeds are harmful.

Objectives Pupils recognize common local weeds and their characteristics and learn how to control them easily, cheaply and ecologically.

Activities Groups each take one of the questions below and search the garden for the answer. They report back, bringing weed samples to illustrate their answers. Older students discuss the survival strategies of sample weeds (e.g. many seeds, deep roots, height, fast life-cycle). Pupils should recognize that weeds can be useful as well as harmful. The class discusses strategies for dealing with weeds (see Weeds in Horticultural Notes) and establishes a weeding routine. Relieve the boredom of weeding with weeding parties, competitions, a weeding policy, weed study, dramatizations of the battle and experiments with weeded and unweeded garden patches.


  1. How many different kinds of weeds can you find in the garden? Do you know their names?
  2. Which is the commonest weed? Do you know its name?
  3. Where are the weeds growing? Are there any near the crops?
  4. Where are the weeds growing thickest? Why?
  5. Which is the biggest weed? How big is it? Where is it?
  6. Which weed has the deepest root?
  7. Are any of our crops in danger from weeds? Which?
  8. Where are there no weeds? Why not?
  9. Are there any insects on or around any of the weeds? Are any of the weeds sick?
  10. Do any of the weeds have flowers or seeds? How do they spread themselves/propagate?

7. Keeping the garden healthy A healthy plant can resist attacks by pests and diseases.

Objectives Pupils practise healthy gardening as a basis for integrated pest management.

Activities Pupils revise previous learning by discussing the best ways to keep plants strong and healthy, writing up key words (e.g. good garden beds, rich soil, light and shade, compost, mulching, weeding, watering, beneficial insects, protection against predators). The class goes on a garden patrol with a Plant Patrol Checklist (see Healthy plants in Horticultural Notes) and reports back with observations and suggestions for action. Follow up with regular weekly patrols, passing the responsibility from team to team.

8. Plant doctors This introduces the idea of treatment for specific plant problems.

Objectives Pupils make a rough diagnosis of a plant problem, choose suitable remedial action, carry it out and monitor the effects.

Activities Pupils identify “sick plants” in the garden - those which appear to be suffering from pests, diseases or diet problems. They describe each case and give it a name (e.g. Lacy Leaves). Older pupils can try to identify the problem more precisely (see Plant problems in Horticultural Notes) and should recognize that one symptom (e.g. wilting) may mean several different things. If it is a pest, students look around for the culprit. They then discuss how to handle the problems. With the teacher's guidance they pick up the basic messages (Disease: Destroy. Diet: Feed. Pest: Pick, spray, trap, bring in the Pest Police) and prepare to carry out immediate treatment. As follow - up, older pupils maintain case notes for their chosen plants and report on progress, or learn to make homemade plant sprays (see Homemade sprays in Horticultural Notes).

9. Harvesting Harvesting is best learnt by hands-on dem onstration and practice at harvest time. This lesson simply emphasizes principles and reinforces attitudes.

Objectives Pupils know which food crops decay rapidly, appreciate the need for careful harvesting, rapid transport and good packaging, and know what to do with plant de bris.

Activities Presented with some rotten and dried-up fruits/ vegetables, pupils discuss why foods dry out (too much sun exposure, wind, thin skins), why they rot (bacteria/fungi), when they rot (cut, overripe, bruised, wet, warm) and which foods are “rapid rotters” (those which are ripe, soft and full of water). They hear a role-played interview with a tomato farmer and pick out all his mistakes (harvesting in the heat, collecting cut, bruised, overripe and damaged tomatoes, throwing them into the basket and leaving them in the sun). To follow up, they discuss dos and don'ts for harvesting their own crops, and make up a similar interview highlighting harvesting mistakes.



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