CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Gardening projects at Ruthlawn Elementary began by happenstance and grew with enthusiasm.
"It started with a problem-based learning project," said Bev Stern, first-grade teacher.
A few years ago, rain was an issue because the water would flow downhill, onto a sidewalk, and into the classroom. Stern challenged students to find a solution.
The students did their research by asking questions and gathering information from anyone they thought might know about such things. They discussed the various ideas in the classroom and decided the best solution would be to dig a trench on a hill and fill it with rocks.
"I acquired a grant for rocks and plants," Stern said. "That diverted the water."
The next year, her class wanted to add wildlife. A birdhouse was installed along with a pond created with a liner the teacher found at a bargain price online.
"It's like a big fish tank," Stern said. "We got guppies. They eat mosquito larvae. That was the second year."
The third year, her class wanted to begin a compost bin so the plants would do better.
"It was muddy to get from the pond to the compost bin," she said. "We made memory stones."
Two classes of first graders included 44 kids creating memory stones by adding favorite items such as toy cars or marbles to a quick-drying substance. Once the blocks dried, some kids asked to take them home but that was not an option because it would destroy the path.
"Last year was the first to add a vegetable garden," Stern said. "We put in a 4-by-4 raised bed with beans, lettuce, tomatoes and potatoes. We planted in the spring and harvested in the fall."
That meant one group would plant in the spring and a different class would harvest in the fall.
However, the children also took home seeds, dirt and other items for growing some vegetables over the summer. To her delight, some kids treated Stern to their homegrown tomatoes when school began this year.
Gardening projects have continued to grow at the school over the last six years.
An indoor area with a "grow light" is used for nurturing vegetables in a hallway in a cart.
"We replanted veggies in November when it was too cold to grow things outside," Stern said. "We've had two harvests of kale, leaf lettuce and green onions in December and January."
Stern helped launch an after-school garden club for kids in grades two through five in the fall of 2012. The club is part of the Junior Master Gardener program of the West Virginia State University Extension Service. The Junior Master Gardener program is affiliated with 4-H.
There are now 28 universities throughout the country implementing the program on the state level. Texas A&M University serves as the headquarters for the national program. Go to www.jmgkids.us for more information.
"The program targets youth in grades three to eight, but it has been adapted to meet the needs of youth in West Virginia down to the preschool age range," said Melissa Stewart, West Virginia Junior Master Gardener coordinator for WVSU Extension Service.
Gardening gets kids away from the TV and computer games to the outdoors and encourages them to eat their vegetables, Stern said. Her students also read books related to the garden.
"We learn science, social studies, math and reading," she said. "Everything goes into the garden."
Educators may go to www.wvschoolgardens.com for more information on launching a class gardening project.