Perspectives Online, The Magazine of The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Summer 2009 Issue

Wake County school harvests big lessons from strawberry patch

Dr. Gina Fernandez assisted second graders with their strawberry crop throughout the school year.
Photo by Becky Kirkland

While North Carolina strawberry growers looked forward to a bumper crop of berries this month, second graders at Swift Creek Elementary School in Cary also were watching their small crop come in. Though the school’s berries arrived a few weeks later than those of commercial growers, the students and their teachers have gained a wealth of knowledge from their year-long study of strawberries and how they grow.

The project started last fall as a collaboration between Dr. Gina Fernandez, small fruits specialist and associate professor of horticultural science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and Swift Creek second grade teacher Megan Sedaghat. Fernandez’s daughter, Anya Yencho, was a student in Sedaghat’s class this year. When Sedaghat learned of Fernandez’s expertise with strawberries, she asked if Fernandez would help students grow and study strawberries.

The North Carolina Strawberry Association also got involved, providing Strawberry Time coloring books for the students and some funds to help develop a school curriculum on strawberries that other schools could implement.

As a crop, strawberries fit nicely into a traditional calendar school year, Fernandez said. The strawberry plants are planted in the fall, cared for throughout the winter and harvested in May, just before the school year ends. School gardens planted in the spring won’t yield their harvest of tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers until mid-summer after students have left school. In the fall, Fernandez helped the second-grade classes prepare a bed for strawberries, covered in plastic like most commercial strawberry beds in North Carolina. Each of five classes planted six strawberry plants to raise during the school year. Through the winter, students monitored night-time temperatures and covered their plants when a freeze was expected. They also had to cover their plants with netting when birds and squirrels threatened their berries.

Dr. Gina Fernandez showed the children how to take care of strawberry plants.
Photo by Becky Kirkland
“This has been so cool,” Sedaghat said of the project. “Why in the world anyone studying plants in school wouldn’t grow strawberries, I don’t know.”

Sedaghat said the students had enjoyed the lessons that Fernandez brought to the classroom. “She’s an expert, a role model. We couldn’t have done it without her,” Sedaghat said.
Second-grade students don’t study plants as part of the state’s curriculum, but they do study measurement, so Fernandez helped the class set up a system for measuring plant growth each month throughout the growing season. The classes planted “control” plants — one for each month of the growing year. Fernandez visited the school each month to measure and weigh different plant parts. Students in Sedaghat’s class kept “scientific journals” to record the progress of their strawberry crop during the year.

In early May, they measured their final plant of the growing season. First, Fernandez removed the plant from its pot, and then students rinsed dirt off the plant’s roots so they could measure their length. Sedaghat, a self-proclaimed pack rat, still had the dried roots sample from the first plant the students measured in the fall. The students were able to compare how the plants’ roots had grown since September. Cries of “wwwwooooooo” arose as students compared the two root samples.

The students also removed, counted and weighed the plant’s leaves, then weighed the remaining crown of the plant. Fernandez told the students that the scientific measurements they took were the same research practices used by her graduate students at N.C. State. With a year’s worth of plant measurements recorded in their journals, students were able to create graphs showing the strawberry plants’ growth over time.

In addition to Fernandez’s visits, the students heard from Apex strawberry grower Karma Lee of Buckwheat Farm, who explained how she raises strawberries on her farm. When she told them she has 56,000 strawberry plants at her pick-your-own operation, they were stunned.

The second grade strawberry patch didn’t get quite enough sun to produce lots of berries, but Sedaghat already has plans to move the whole operation to a sunnier site next season. The project was such a success that Liz Driscoll, CALS youth horticulture Extension associate, is developing a strawberry curriculum with help from the N.C. Strawberry Association. The curriculum could be used in schools throughout the state, with help from Cooperative Extension agents.

—Natalie Hampton