Courtesy of Cornell University

Prof. Margaret Frank, director of the Frank Lab, collaborates with the Ithaca Children’s Garden to create plant kits.

May 10, 2020

DIY Gardening Kits Engage Kids Stuck at Home

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Cucumbers and tomatoes will soon flourish on windowsills and in gardens across Ithaca, as children take advantage of a new do-it-yourself gardening program.

The Frank Lab, a plant-grafting lab in the College of Agricultural Life Sciences, and the Ithaca Children’s Garden have teamed up to distribute do-it-yourself plant-growing kits to local students from pre-kindergarten to 12th grade. Their mission is to provide science education, time with nature and recreational fun to kids in quarantine.

The project began in March, when the founding organizations decided to team up and pursue their community missions while their physical spaces were closed.

Erin Marteal, Ithaca Children’s Garden director, told The Sun that the garden has never closed since its establishment in 1999. “We knew right away that just because the physical garden was closed didn’t mean that the mission and purpose of the Children’s Garden had stopped in any way,” Marteal said.

The organization launched ICG At Home, an online repository of nature-based activities including the plant-growing project, when the garden closed in March.

Prof. Margaret Frank, plant biology, is the director of the lab. Although the lab’s daily research has shut down, “the last month has been really exciting,” she said. Planning and executing the project has allowed the lab’s researchers to keep working, in some way.

“Collaboration has really taken this project from a small thing that was maybe going to have very minimal reach to this larger product where every kid getting a school lunch is getting this science kit, which is really awesome,” Frank said.

Hannah Thomas, grad, organized the curriculum, which stresses fun, accessibility and visual components.

“It needed to have a core idea of things we wanted everyone to understand,” she said. “So that it would be both interesting and engaging if you were five years old or if you were eighteen.”

Once students receive their kits, they can learn about plant science through observation and engagement. They can periodically submit photos of their plants to the project’s coordinators, who plan to make a compilation video.

The plant kits include one seedling, cucumber or tomato seeds, and a curriculum booklet, which contains plant-growing instructions, facts about germination and related activities.

As each plant grows, Thomas explained, students can take care of them and transplant them. At the end of the summer, they will have a vegetable.

The first plants went out to students on May 8, but communities supported the project while it was launching. When ICG contacted their listserv of about 5,000 people, Marteal said they heard back from several hundred and placed the first 300 plants easily.

The Ithaca City School District allowed the ICG to utilize their farm-to-table program, transporting plants and DIY kits to students on school district busses. Several school districts have sought inclusion in the new program, including Trumansburg and Cayuga Heights.

“There’s been a lot of interest, and I’ve heard personal stories from parents and teachers saying how meaningful it is for their kids to have something to take care of,” Marteal said.

Frank emphasized that the project serves multiple purposes, focusing on the importance of education for student participants. “They [the students] don’t have science classes right now, and we have a lot of plants and a pretty good knowledge of the plant science side,” Frank said.

Marteal noted that community interest in gardening has risen, both for at-home entertainment and for the sake of food security. She emphasized the benefits of connecting with nature, which include stress and anxiety reduction.

“There is an environmental stewardship component,” Marteal said. “But there’s also a lot about how caring for a plant can really give a child or any of us, frankly, a sense of belonging and connection.”

Environmental engagement may become more important, given the effects of the pandemic. Frank noted the problems that could arise as fall approaches and fields become ready for harvest, including safety concerns and a reduction in labor that could make an impact on the chain of food distribution.

Marteal, however, pointed to the positive effects social distancing has had on the environment. “The carbon emissions have experienced a dramatic decline with the reduction in transportation and movement,” she said.

The project organizers hope that the Ithaca community can connect with nature and find hope despite uncertainty.

“I think it speaks to the resiliency that spending time in nature really has for people, what it can offer for people, especially going through stressful times,” Marteal said.