Johnson Plant Lab: Elementary School Urban Gardening
By Randy Mann
The sound of running water gently flowing over smooth river rocks as it cascades into a pool is not something you would expect to hear or see on a school campus, much less in a school classroom. If upon entering that classroom you saw a fish breaking the surface of the pool with a splash in search of a quick meal, and the sight of green plants growing all around you, you might stop and wonder if you are actually seeing and hearing what you think you are. If you happen to be in the plant lab at Johnson Elementary School in Mesa, Arizona, your eyes and ears are not playing tricks on you. What you are experiencing actually exists, and based on the “oohs” and “aahs” of students coming through the plant lab door for the first time, it is amazing!
The plant lab is an extension of the thriving outdoor gardens located around the campus at Johnson Elementary. Johnson is considered a Title 1 school based on the socioeconomic status of its student population. The lab, and surrounding gardens, are cared for by fourth, fifth, and sixth grade student members, along with teacher sponsors, of the Johnson Garden Club. One look at the gardens and lab and you can tell the students are trying to live up to their motto of “Green and Clean”. As one of the sponsors of the Johnson Garden Club, it became evident to me rather quickly that trying to get kids to garden outdoors when the Arizona temperatures begin to climb towards 100 degrees was a losing proposition. Not only for the kids, but for some of the plants as well. What to do? We needed someplace where we could escape the Arizona heat, yet still be able to teach children about gardening, while also allowing them to do hands-on activities with plants. The solution? The Johnson Plant Lab. When the weather turns hot, we turn to the plant lab.
Our lab was funded by grants from the Western Growers Foundation and DonorsChoose.org along with many other individual contributions. We are very fortunate at Johnson to have a principal who supports our garden club endeavors. Without her support, we would never have been able to create the plant lab. She willingly offered us the use of an empty portable for the lab and free reign to design. No room, no lab. The lab contains several ebb and flow hydroponic systems, a freshwater ecosystem, worm farm, cloning station, garden reference books, and a garden related picture book library. Last year, our first year open, the plant lab had over 650 student visitors from preschool to sixth grade. They enjoyed looking at, and learning about, a variety of vegetables and plants in the lab. They were amazed to see worms growing in the worm farm and enjoyed watching tilapia swim in the pool. For many, the highlight of the visit was seeing the hundreds of ladybugs crawling around the plant lab taking care of an aphid infestation the plant lab experienced. It was something to see!
An interesting thing began happening in the plant lab. Initially, teachers brought their kids to look at the plants and learn a little something about gardening, but soon, teachers began to realize that the lab offered much more than just a gardening experience. It offered a place of quiet reflection. Teachers began taking their classes into the lab to read, write, or just sit and listen to the sound of water flowing over smooth river rocks. This is something many of our students have never experienced, and one experience that we are glad to provide. The temperature is starting its climb towards the inevitable 100 plus degrees here in Arizona. The heat has begun to take its toll on some of the plants, and the gardeners, in the outdoor gardens. It is time for us to start cleaning up the plant lab, getting it ready for opening day. I am sure the Johnson Garden Club will continue to live up to our motto of “Green and Clean”.
This is our urban gardening experience. We believe it is a worthwhile endeavor and we are committed to providing this experience to the staff and students of our school. If you would like to support our efforts, we ask for no money, we simply ask that you email our principal, Mrs. Cara Steiner, at firstname.lastname@example.org to thank her for supporting the plant lab and the Johnson Garden Club.