Authentic Lessons for 21st Century Learning

How Does Your Garden Grow? (MS-LS1-5)

Conservation, Ecosystems, and Soil Health

Heather Shaffery, Mariah Warren | Published: July 20th, 2022 by K20 Center

  • Grade Level Grade Level 6th, 7th, 8th
  • Subject Subject Science
  • Course Course
  • Time Frame Time Frame 4-5 class period(s)
  • Duration More 300 minutes


This lesson is a middle school adaptation of the high school "How Does Your Garden Grow?" lesson. Students will explore soil health principles, soil chemistry, nutrient cycles, and environmental impacts of soil quality and investigate optimal soil conditions in which to grow plants. Using the data and information collected throughout the lesson as evidence, students will create presentations to explain the relationship between soil health and plant growth.

Essential Question(s)

Why should we care about soil health?



Students will view pictures of healthy and unhealthy soils and crops and speculate on what has caused the difference in the images.


Students will test soil samples from a variety of locations to evaluate their nutrient levels and pH. Additionally, students will explore several sources to determine properties of healthy soil and practices that support it, followed by a whole-class discussion.


Students participate in a digital breakout to gather information about soil chemistry and nutrient cycles. The class will collaborate to make connections between soil health, management practices, and nutrient cycling.


Students will grow plants in a variety of healthy and unhealthy soils.


Students present the results of their soil health investigations and explain the relationship between soil health and plant growth.


  • Soil samples  

  • Gloves  

  • Paper towels and/or disinfectant wipes  

  • Mineral-free water (e.g., DI water)  

  • Soil test kit or chemical test strips  

  • Devices with internet access  

  • Sticky notes 

  • Containers for growing plants 

  • Fast-growing plant seeds

  • Posters, markers, etc. for creating presentations and for Anchor Charts

  • Lesson Slides


Show slide 5. Show the series of photographs of soil and plants in different soil conditions:

  • Healthy harvested wheat fields;

  • Bare field;

  • Plants growing in healthy soil;

  • Plants growing in unhealthy soil.

Have students complete a Photo/Picture Deconstruction strategy. Ask students to reflect on (a) what they observe in each of the four (4) photographs, (b) the potential causes for differences they notice; and (c) what the healthy plants might have that the unhealthy plants do not.

Show slide 6. After the discussion, ask students to summarize in one sentence what they think they know about the images. Effective sentences should summarize the big takeaway each student gets from the conversation.


Have students collect soil samples from possible garden sites around campus. Encourage them to collect soil from multiple sites, including samples from home, to use as comparison.

Show slide 8.

Preparing the Soil Samples:

  1. Have students create a soil solution by adding 100 mg of soil and 200 mL of water to a beaker or other container.

  2. Have students use a stirring rod or sticks to blend the mixture.

  3. Ensure that students clean the stirring rod thoroughly or use a different stirring utensil for each soil sample.

Show slide 9.

Testing the Soil Samples: Once students understand that soil may be important to plant health, have them test the soil types to determine the level of the nutrients present.

  1. Hand out the Soil Investigation handout.

  2. Provide each group with a soil test data sheet OR have each group create their own data table (See Soil Sample Test Table below).

  3. Based on the specific directions for the soil test kit you have purchased, review the procedure for soil testing with your students.

  4. Have students document their process and results using tablets or their phone’s camera if it is a ”Bring Your Own Device” (BYOD) approved environment. These pictures can be incorporated into their final presentation.

Show slide 10. This slide contains information about clean-up for the Soil Chemistry Investigation. Add any material- and classroom-specific instructions you may have to this slide.

Show slide 12. This slide is a place for you to provide any class-specific instructions for conducting the research regarding soil and soil health.

Show slide 13. Have students work in groups to gather information about general soil science, soil health, and soil functions. Give students the Window Notes handout. Each student should record important details in the Window Notes graphic organizer. Have them leave the Nutrient Cycle box empty for now.

If students have regular access to technology, ask them to use Google Apps (e.g., docs, slides) to collaboratively fill out the notes.

Have students create an Anchor Chart summarizing their findings for each of the three boxes they have filled in on their Window Notes box. Ask students to summarize the key points to create an Anchor Chart for each Window Notes box.

Encourage them to incorporate information from the soil chemistry data table into Soil Properties or Soil Health. Diagrams or drawings of soil horizons and details would also be helpful on an Anchor Chart.

Show slide 14. Some questions to guide the summary discussion could include:

  • What is soil? How do we describe it?  

  • What criteria factor into soil health?  

  • What are the benefits of having healthy soil?  

  • What soil management practices or strategies improve soil health?


Show slide 15.

Have students work together in groups to complete the How Does Your Garden Grow? Breakout.

After they have completed the Breakout activity, have them summarize the information they learned in the breakout in the Nutrient Cycles Window Notes box. Have them make additional notes in the other "windows" as necessary. Advise students that they may work collaboratively on this assignment.

Show slides 16-17. Ask students to use the 3 Sticky Notes strategy in their small groups or individually.

At this point only have them complete the Word = ___ and Phrase = ____ notes.

Have students repeat the process they used for the previous Anchor Charts to develop one for Nutrient Cycles. Ask students to share out their Words and Phrases as part of the summary conversation. If necessary, add any new information students discovered to the other three charts as well.

Show slide 18.

Encourage students to synthesize the conceptual pieces for themselves. Have them complete the Sentence part of the 3 Sticky Notes activity. Guide them to construct sentences that emphasize the connections from the information they've gathered during the Explore and Explain activities and discussions.

There are other ways to direct students' knowledge construction, but they should at least work out the following connections:

  • The relationship between nutrient cycles and soil health (e.g., how cycles support healthy soil; how unhealthy soil might disrupt cycles);

  • How soil management practices support or supplement natural nutrient cycles; 

  • The impact of soil management practices on soil health.

Several alternatives to class discussion or a written assignment for this portion of the Explain are suggested below.


Show slide 22. Give students the Soil Conditions Experiment handout. Have students generate a question about what soil conditions (e.g., pH, N) will provide optimal resources for a particular plant to grow. Alternatively or in addition, suggest that students consider how a soil management strategy impacts plant growth.

Slide 23 provides a place for you to add instructions for the investigations and research associated with this activity.

Show slide 24.


Have students prepare their materials:

  1. Punch holes in the bottom of plastic cups for drainage, fill each one with a specific soil type, and plant a few seeds in each cup.  

  2. Develop a watering and sunlight schedule based on the recommendations that come on the seed packet.  

  3. Come up with a plan for data collection and evaluation. (Example guiding questions are on slide 25.)  

  4. Determine a method for taking pictures the same way multiple times (e.g., height of camera, distance from plant, orientation).


Show slide 25.

Have students present the results of their investigations and explain the relationship between soil health and the growth of their plants.

Explain to them that their presentations provide an explanation for how soil health, nutrient cycles, and plant needs interact to impact growth.

Have students emphasize how the best soil ended up with/developed the right resources to meet the plant's needs (e.g., healthy soil has lots of bacteria which decompose plants and animals to add nitrogen to the soil for plants to use).

If students tried to improve soil health, have them emphasize how their management method fits into/fixes/supports nutrient cycles to make the soil healthier (e.g., adding peroxide puts more oxygen into the soil which helps make it compact so it drains water better).

Show slide 26. Review presentation parameters for students who researched what soil conditions are best for plant growth.

Show slide 27. Review presentation parameters for students who researched how soil management practices affect plant growth.

Show slide 28 to review content for presentations.