Propagation and Care
As a garden teacher, I see my work as an opportunity to practice forms of care: I help care for our beautiful garden space, and I give care to the students I interact with each day. Recently, I’ve been reflecting on my experiences on propagation tasks with students and am excited about propagation as a rich process through which to develop students’ awareness of care.
Through the simple act of helping plants grow and the conversations we share while working, students learn to slow down and consider different ways to nurture our earth and each other. These acts build awareness of care by recognizing that strong and thoughtful relationships are an essential part of life as interconnected beings. My goal as an educator is for students to understand that care work is valuable because it can connect them to their environment and communities.
In this blog post, I share some of the specific propagation activities we conduct with students and how each activity allows for intentionality around care and relationship building.
Most of our propagation activities are performed near our greenhouse. This visible piece of infrastructure is an excellent space in which to introduce students to the special care that we want to give our plants at the start of their lives. Many students are familiar with greenhouses and will often draw the connection between infant nurseries and the greenhouse as our home for plant babies.
As we walk through the greenhouse, I encourage students to think about how the greenhouse supports plant growth by providing warmth, protection, and sunlight. I love sharing the greenhouse with students because I think it sets the tone for propagation activities: we are responsible for the lives of these plants, and we want to treat them with care and attention.
Students help sow seeds into seedling trays that grow in the greenhouse so that we can have a variety of crops to transplant into the garden. When I introduce seed sowing to students, I emphasize that this is a very special job: we are initiating these plants into their journey of life!
We talk about the importance of paying attention to each small seed that we plant and the need to go slowly so that we only plant one or two seeds into each tray cell. Placing tiny seeds from their hand into the soil is not only a chance for students to practice fine motor skills, but a lesson in the delicate beginnings of life that can grow and flourish with adequate care and resources.
We use a special soil mix for our sowing seeds called our breakfast mix, and I explain to students how this blend of coconut coir, vermiculite, and perlite provides the proper environment for seeds to germinate (our recipes for breakfast and lunch soil mixes can be found here). This can open up a discussion on the importance of our surroundings to growth and development, both for plants and for people. After the seeds are sown, students water them in; this act reminds us that water is a key resource for life.
Lastly, I encourage students to write motivational messages for growth on popsicle sticks to put in their seedling trays. It is important to me that we emphasize not only the physical resources, but also the spirit of care that can foster growth. Students have responded enthusiastically to this element of seed sowing, writing messages such as “Grow my pretties” and “You can do it!”
As plants in the greenhouse grow, we transfer them to larger containers. When I talk to students about this process, I use the metaphor of progressing in school: our 128 trays are preschool, the 6 packs are elementary school, the four inch pots are high school, and gallon containers are college. I frame the act of upsizing as a graduation ceremony to the next school, and talk about growth and the need for more space.
Upsizing requires students to be gentle so as not to damage the delicate roots or young stems of our little plants. I invite students to share if they have baby siblings or cousins who they help care for at home, and I explain that we want to treat our plant babies with the same tenderness we use for human babies. This analogy can be a wonderful spark for conversation with students about their family relationships and contributions to care at home.
Like sowing seeds, upsizing also allows for discussion on resources as we talk about the different components of our lunch mix, the soil mix we use for upsizing. Students also help to make this soil mix. We have a recipe that we read together, and then work as a team to gather and stage each ingredient. This process is a direct way to show the different resources that a plant needs for healthy growth: compost for nutrients, perlite for soil texture and water drainage, amendments for fertility.
On one occasion, a student approached me after making lunch mix together and told me that the different ingredients are like different school supplies. I was touched at her ability to connect the soil mix to our upsizing metaphor of graduating schools, and her comment allowed us to talk more about how school resources like desks, chairs, and books are important for student success in the same way that soil mix components are necessary for plants to thrive.
After plants have established themselves in the greenhouse, we are ready to transplant them into our garden beds. Building on our schools metaphor, I tell students that this is our way of sending off the plants into the rest of their adult lives.
We continue our theme of resources and talk about how we can give our plants the best opportunity to grow strong. I show students how to space plants far enough apart so that they won’t compete with each other.
We prepare for transplanting by digging holes for the plants and adding a handful of compost. This gift of compost is my favorite part of transplanting, as it allows us to talk about the cycles of death and life in the garden. I tell students how the compost we are using to nourish these new plants comes from the decomposed material of older plants, and that these past lives have been transformed into a source of nutrients that will support the plants’ growth. This cycle can open conversations on our own experiences with life cycles, and I prompt students to consider how the lives and stories of our human ancestors and families can continue to provide us with resources and strength as we navigate our own life journeys.
I am grateful for the propagation experiences I have shared with students and the energy that these activities can create. While not every group of students will be interested in building intimate relationships with young plants, I’ve found that framing propagation as an important, thoughtful activity of care can prompt students to act with more mindfulness.
When I introduce propagation activities, I use explicit language to emphasize that the work we are doing is an act of care. Besides focusing on the necessary mechanical tasks, I guide students to think about propagation as a relationship with plants; I encourage students to consider how the energy they give will impact the plant through the rest of its life as it provides beauty or food for us in the future.
And despite my own intentions, students always bring their own approach, too. I once had a group of students who delighted in naming every plant we worked with, specifically choosing names beginning with the letter J. Students’ initiative in naming the plants showed their wanting to connect with the plants in fun and playful ways. It is silly moments like these that cause me to smile and feel grateful for the time I share with students and plants in the garden.
From the bestowing of names to the diligent sowing of seeds, every activity is an occasion to build relationships, laugh a little, and center care as an important method of learning and growing together.