When middle school science teacher, Deborah Orlik, told me that her 8th grade environmental science class would be planting a vegetable garden on Wildwood’s deck, I didn’t know what to expect. The middle/upper school deck could definitely use a verdant makeover, now mostly a scattering of lunch tables and faculty parking spaces.
As I walked out onto the deck I saw Orlik’s students gathered around what looked, from a distance, like a giant, mobile blackboard. But upon closer inspection I saw the students were hard at work with something I’d never seen before- a vertical garden. Some students were grabbing handfuls of dirt, others held small green plants and placed them inside felt pockets all along the face of the vertical garden.
“They’re called Wooly Pockets,” says Orlik, “and they’re perfect for urban gardens because they take up so little ground space.”
Orlik also told me the deck garden activity is an essential part of her students’ work on a larger project on sustainable cities. “The project requires both investigation and planning for the needs of environmentally sustainable cities in the future,” says Orlik. “We’re focusing our studies on water, food, and energy.” The students will then collaborate to build their own three-dimensional city models which address these three areas of need. “Today,” Orlik says, “we’re learning how vertical gardening can help urban residents make the best use of their available space.”
In planting the Wooly Pockets, Orlik’s 8th graders get the opportunity to gain some gardening know-how and skills.
“We’re planting squash, strawberries and mint,” 8th grader, Julia H., tells me. “We need to know which plants grow best under different conditions because we need to have a plan of how to grow food in our city.”
“And,” she adds, “this is way better than learning about gardening in any book.”
Her classmate, Ally P., connects this class activity with her experience gardening with her grandmother. “I’m used to planting flowers, especially impatiens,” she says. “I’m learning that vegetables and herbs need to be much more widely spaced than flowers in order to survive.”
Orlik says creating the garden is great example of inquiry-based learning. “This is an emphasis in all of the middle and upper school science courses this year,” she says. “Students learn science best when their curiosities are piqued and they seek explanations themselves- it parallels what scientists actually do in their fields.”
Next stop, Orlik’s students will study waste management and energy issues facing cities in the 21st Century. Wildwood classrooms always anticipates what’s next.