Building, digging, planting, and watering. These are not the typical activities in an eighth grade history class, but they have been in Eric Eaton and Matt Russell’s Ag in the Classroom class at Polk County Middle School.

Through grants provided by the Rutherford Electric Membership Corporation’s “Bright Ideas”program, the North Carolina Farm Bureau Insurance Ag In the Classroom program and generous donations from Tim Edwards Landscaping, Avery Creek Nursery and Henson’s Mulch and More, PCMS eighth graders are constructing a “Garden of Three Cultures.” This multi-year project will integrate science and social studies while giving students valuable research and hands-on experiences.

“We learned about what the Europeans, Native Americans and African Americans planted and what they used them for,” said eighth grade student Jerica Clark. Another student, Leah Dotson, added, “My favorite part was the beautification project. I really enjoyed making our school a prettier place.”

“The idea of a garden representing the three early cultures that settled North Carolina in the 1600s and 1700s came to me a few years ago as Mr. Russell and I were working on a project about the early Native American groups in North Carolina,” said Eaton, who teaches eighth grade social studies. “I thought, what better way to teach our state and nation’s history than through agriculture?

“We wanted to get students out of the classroom, get their hands dirty, and have them create a project that they could take ownership of and be proud of for years to come, all while integrating our science and history standards and approaching learning in a new way.”

The project has involved research, planning and physical labor to create three garden areas that represent plants, fruits and herbs grown by Native Americans, Africans and Europeans in colonial North Carolina. As an example, students have built a Native American garden that uses the “Three Sisters” technique of planting corn, beans and squash together. Students have researched how and when to plant these crops and how these plants work together for higher yields.

In a nod to the importance of agriculture today in North Carolina, an additional planting area was built to highlight major crops such as blueberries, strawberries and cucumbers.

“Careful research is being done by our students and ourselves to make sure that the plants that we will be growing are the varieties that those culture groups would have either grown and eaten, or adopted and shared with other cultural groups in colonial America,” Eaton said. “One of the difficult tasks is to find heirloom varieties that match those grown more than 200 years ago. If we cannot find close matches, we use close relatives. Like the students, I am learning a lot about farming and agriculture as well.”

Students have also gained a greater appreciation of the modern agriculture of North Carolina and the variety of career opportunities in agriculture-related fields. Students from the Polk County High School Future Farmers of America made a presentation to students to elevate their interest in the agriculture program at the high school and in the variety of agriculture careers available.

“This is a long-term project,” Eaton said. “We want to get more students involved and to hopefully expand the gardens in the future. We also want to incorporate the items we grow into our Life Skills classes with cooking and nutrition and even donate fruits and vegetables grown to those in need.

“Just like many of the vegetables we are growing, this idea started with a small seed of an idea and can grow into something that will nourish the mind and body. The students have been excited to share the project with others and have gained a sense of pride in what they have built. At the end of the day, that is what makes teaching worth it, to see the growth in our students.”

“It was cool to see our hard work turn into something meaningful,” said eighth grader Bailey Staton.

If you are interested in donating or offering assistance with plants, seeds or garden ideas, please contact Eric Eaton at eeaton@polkschools.org