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On this blog, we share regular updates about the Healthy Bodies, Healthy Minds, Healthy Learners partnership between Extension's Children, Youth & Family Consortium and Bruce Vento Elementary School.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Why We're Not Planting Beans or Peas or Grass

By Kirsten Saylor, School Garden Coordinator

At Bruce Vento Elementary School in St. Paul, students in Pre-K, kindergarten, and fifth grade are planting seeds indoors before planting outside in the school’s garden. They are learning both the principles and practice of planting in a garden — and we’re doing it without beans, peas, or grass.

three Pre-K students working with plastic cups and soil in white buckets
Pre-K students prepping indoor planting containers.

“Why not beans or peas or grass?” you may wonder. “They are tried and true plants of elementary classroom planting!”

Admittedly, we're taking a risk.

Beans, peas, and grass are pretty easy to grow. They grow quickly and reliably. The idea is that kids will take these home, the families will plant them in their backyard, and everyone will have fun with it. There's four assumptions that feed this idea.
  • Kids have backyards or a space outside to plant what they grew.
  • The plants will survive the trip from school to backyard
  • Kids or their families will know how to replant them.
  • The kids want to replant them. 
I have not met an elementary kid who wants to plant, harvest, and eat green beans. Nor have I ever had a bean plant make it home whole. And once broken, it is done.

Rather than beans, peas, or grass, we are giving Bruce Vento students the opportunity to plant cilantro and dill. Why cilantro and dill? They are relatively quick growing and hardy herbs. You can eat the leaves and use the seeds for cooking. In fact, their seeds have a distinct smell!

piles of dill seeds and coriander seeds
Do you know which seeds are which?

In addition, cilantro is included in many cuisines and takes up a relatively small space (until it goes to seed) and dill is a favorite among students. Both crops may potentially be grown indoors, but they can be snuck into the corner of almost any outdoor space.

Furthermore, if the leaf is not used, both plants have very pollinator-friendly flowers and create many seeds that can be saved for next year or for other spaces. I have seen kids go wild over both of these herbs in the school garden where they are bonus, or “volunteer,” plants.

How to Pick and Plant an Herb

Before planting the seeds, I let the students know they have a choice of what they would like to plant. I tell them about the plants, and let them see and smell the seeds. We talk about the seeds and the plants they will grow into: “Does anybody use these at home? What does the smell remind you of? How do you like it?”

I want them to stretch their imagination and congratulate them on complex and informative descriptions. I might share my opinion, particularly if the kids are on a negative track (they can be so suggestible). After smelling each, I ask them what they like. If we see a pattern, we'll point it out — another academic goal for younger grades.

Before we plant the seeds, each student is responsible for getting their hands dirty and "packing" their container.

three pairs of hands dirty with soil
Hands of fifth graders in the "Dirty Hands Club."

This is a time when students who get it can help others. I pass out the seeds as each student's container passes inspection.

Instead of me planting the seeds, I give several seeds of their choice to the students in their cupped hands. I have them check with me to make sure they are spread out.

garden coordinator sitting across the table from three Pre-K students
Ms. Saylor with the Pre-K students.

Cilantro seeds (also known as coriander) are crushed by the student or by me to break the seed coat. I encourage the students to smell it afterwards and tell me if there is a difference. What fun to see their discovery of the rich smell of coriander!

Then we cover the seeds with a “blanket” of soil, tuck them in with a tap-tap-tap, and place them in the bin to rest and grow.

More Benefits of Choosing What to Grow

Offering students the choice to grow cilantro or dill provides several opportunities.
  • The opportunity to acknowledge that not everyone likes every food. And it's OK not to like something, but as you grow, your taste may too! I note that some people really don't like cilantro, while others love it.
  • The opportunity to engage students in their own learning by asking them questions about the differences between the seeds.The seeds’ shapes, smells, and sizes are different from each other. Compare and contrast is a skill students build upon each year as they learn more. For instance, with fifth graders, we discuss the protective seed coat of the cilantro vs. dill. With the younger students, we might focus on shape and size. 
  • The opportunity to choose! Students practice making a decision based on information (smell and sight) that they gather.
Surplus herb plants will be given out during our Garden Open House in June to family visitors. Students are encouraged to think of the garden as a gift — if you don't want or can't use the seedling you grew, consider giving it to someone you think would like it.

four-year-old boy holding up a clear plastic cup pack with soil
A Pre-K student with a prepped container.

Final Thought

What makes growing herbs such a great activity is that students own all stages of planting the seeds, with some supervision. I encourage students to work together to learn from each other. In one class, there was a student who exhibited shyness and low self-confidence during my introduction to the activity. During the activity, I tapped her for leadership in her group based upon her grasp of the lesson and her maturity. From that moment, I watched as she took ownership of her responsibility. When she had difficulties it was a chance to affirm to the rest of the students that she knew her stuff. That feeling of being valued simply shines through!


Healthy Minds, Healthy Bodies, Healthy Learners is an ongoing partnership between Extension's Children, Youth, and Family Consortium and Bruce Vento Elementary School. Together with many other partners, we are developing engaging learning environments that promote student learning and wellness.

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