What better way to help children learn about gardening than to encourage them to grow plants themselves? That is the idea behind the GrowLab program for school children sponsored by the National Garden Bureau (NGB) in a joint venture with the National Gardening Association and the National Science Foundation. In a matching funds program, NGB and participating seed companies donate 6 GrowLabs per year to schools (K-8) across the country. Each GrowLab is accompanied by a complete starter kit containing pots, potting mix, labels, fertilizer, insecticidal soap, watering can, and seeds.

NGB also provides recipients of GrowLab units with supporting curriculum materials such as videos and follow-up newsletters, and arranges for a local seed company or expert to “adopt” participating classes. These mentors are available as a resource for the teacher, offering advice and information in addition to replenishing seeds as needed.

Kinder “gardeners”

Brenda Kukay, a kindergarten teacher at the Mitchell School deep in the city of St. Louis, Missouri, has had her GrowLab for almost 6 of the 11 years she has been teaching. Hers was the first school district to participate in the NGB program, and she was among the teachers sent from 5 schools for training in Vermont. Partnered with the world famous Missouri Botanic Garden, over the years she has integrated the GrowLab into her science curriculum to the delight of classes.

Brenda introduces her kindergartners to science with GrowLab activities around seed planting, germination and plant growth. Her tiny ones learn by the inquiry method to ask good questions and then set about to answer them through a hands-on science experience. They sharpen observation skills as they watch for lettuce seeds to sprout. Then, when they harvest their lettuce crop, they enjoy eating the salad. They also plant peas, beans, corn, and other greens, depending on what seeds are available. In the spring they plant their young seedlings outdoors in a garden tended by the summer school students who plan to sell them to raise money for the program.

Brenda has a longtime interest in gardening and has cared for the ornamental garden areas at the school in her spare time. With this enthusiasm and the support of the periodic GrowLab newsletter, she guides her charges through the joys of growing. Of course, they are simultaneously learning other things. They learn math by measuring, estimating, and creating graphs and charts. Their writing skills are enhanced as they record their activities in their science journals. When publication resumes, they will write articles about their seed growing activities for the school newspaper.

Lots of Learning

In Brenda’s experience this is a program that teaches both students and teacher. She feels she is exposing some of her class to a totally unfamiliar world. She has discovered that some of these apartment-dwelling city kids are so removed from the natural growing cycle that they have trouble conceptualizing the future of the seeds they plant. She reports that, when asked what will be the result of planting tomato seeds, for instance, some students will venture guesses as wide-ranging as corn, beans, even a dog! She has had to do some research, herself, to master the technical intricacies of providing appropriate amounts of light for various crops.

The GrowLab program has had a halo effect at Mitchell School. Many of Brenda Kukay’s colleagues have shown an interest in what she does and are considering the potential of a GrowLab in their classrooms. The two official ones in her building are proving to be so popular that 3 more homemade versions have appeared in other classrooms. She, herself, is hoping to have a wheeled model that she can move about the room easily. One teacher, whose classroom lacks the space for a GrowLab has found room for a worm composting operation for her students. Their product is contributed to the growing activities in Brenda’s room. Teachers like the flexibility of the GrowLab units. They are useful at almost any grade or ability level. They can be integrated into various study units, or used as separate study units or for after school clubs.

The GrowLab program has influence beyond the school walls as well. Occasionally parents report that the children are asking questions at home and taking an interest in plants. Some kids are strengthening bonds with gardening grandparents. Ultimately, students who learn with GrowLabs learn a lot more than just about plants–or even science.

For More Information

The National Garden Bureau considers children’s gardening one of its most important missions. The non-profit organization intends to continue donating GrowLabs to schools throughout the 21st Century. The Bureau and member companies have placed 21 GrowLabs in schools, and will donate an additional 6 labs this fall.

For more information about donating a GrowLab and other educational programs, please contact: The National Gardening Association, 180 Flynn Avenue, Burlington, VT. 05401 phone: 1-800-LETSGRO. Or visit their excellent website at where each month the kids and classrooms section features new lessons and articles from the Growing Ideas educators’ journal. The site highlights curriculum resources that support garden based learning, connections with e-mail pals in growing classrooms, and links to other plant and garden based sites.

What is a GrowLab?

GrowLab units donated to classrooms across the nation are commercially designed and constructed for self-contained, tabletop seed-starting and seedling management. Essentially a metal frame that supports two 4 foot long easily adjusted fixtures that hold fluorescent growing lights, each unit is 52 inches wide and 23 inches deep, 39 inches tall. Each is equipped with a timer, convenient trays to hold seedling containers or potted plants and a tent-like cover to help regulate humidity.

GrowLab activities

Suggestions for integrating the GrowLab into a science curriculum are provided in the materials that accompany the unit and subsequent issues of the newsletters. However, the only limits on its use are the imaginations of the teachers and students.

Propagation: germinating seeds, growing seedlings, rooting cuttings, repotting

Experimentation: with fertilizer, light, humidity, growing media

Production: bedding plants for sale or gifts; vegetables for eating

GrowLabs Promote:

Business skills
Environmental studies
New foods
Plant identification
Responsibility and follow through
Scientific observation
Time management

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