School Garden Tip #2: My Favorite Tools

In my last blog post I talked about the importance of creating a strong sense of ownership for a successful youth garden program. In this post, I thought I’d tell you about my favorite school garden tools and equipment… and some of them may surprise you. Here are the tools we could not live without at our school garden:

Sturdy Trowels – Since we garden in raised beds, we very rarely need any tools bigger than hand trowels. We use them to till the soil, plant, weed, and clean out the beds. We do have a couple of larger shovels that are helpful for turning compost and adding new soil when needed, but honestly, we could probably get by borrowing those if we did not have them on hand.

The best trowels are lightweight but sturdy and have no sharp edges. The trowels we use with our older students are metal with wood handles, but for the pre-k groups we opted to go with plastic trowels from Fiskars, which have worked out very well. We probably have about 15 trowels, which is more than enough for each child working in the garden at one time to have his or her own tool to use. (Another helpful school gardening tip is to work in small groups in the garden.) Although sharing is an important lesson to learn, when they are out in the garden kids want to be active, and having enough tools for everyone keeps things moving smoothly. Fortunately, trowels are very affordable and can last a long time when treated with respect and cleaned after use.

Buckets- We use 5-gallon buckets in so many different ways – to hold our tools (our trowels fit in them well), to collect weeds, and to move soil. We have even had students turn them upside down and use them as seats when they need a break. We do not have the space to store a wheelbarrow, so when we need to move soil filling up buckets has been an effective way to get the job done. Each student quickly figures out how much they are able to carry at a time. Buckets clean up easily with a spray from a hose, and once dried, they stack so that they take up very little storage space.

If you are just getting started and have very few funds for a garden, you can even use buckets to make a container gardens (just add holes or cut off the bottoms). Make sure to use buckets that are made of food-grade plastic and have never been used to hold any toxic materials. You may be able to get food-grade buckets donated from cafeterias or local restaurants or bakeries, as many staple ingredients are packed in buckets for transport. (If shopping at home centers or hardware stores, look for buckets that are specifically labeled as food-grade, they will not all fall into that category.) The Harris County Master Gardeners in Houston, Texas offer an innovative program called Cylinder Gardening using 5 gallon buckets. I highly recommend you check it out if you are short on space or resources. Bucket gardening can be a perfect solution especially for an urban schoolyard with little or poor quality soil.

One word of caution about buckets–do not leave standing water in buckets. Very young children could potentially drown if left unsupervised, and in our area we have to be very careful that they do not become breeding sites for mosquitoes.

Ice Cube Trays- We plant a lot of seeds in our garden, and ice cube trays have been an amazing addition to our supply list. Before discovering ice cube trays to sort our seeds, we would fumble around with seed packets and petri dishes, and often ended up with seeds in the wrong place or even whole packets of seeds accidently getting dumped on the ground in transport. Now each season we use mailing labels to label the individual cubes in a tray with a different seed name. Then the kids pick out the seeds they need, place them in the correct cube of their ice cube tray, and carry the tray to their garden beds. Even if the tray gets spilled, usually only a few seeds at a time are lost. The ice cube trays are so cheap and are incredibly effective. Love these things! I know it may sound silly, but finding this solution seriously made my job as the volunteer garden coordinator so much easier!

Planting Grids- As I mentioned in a previous blog, each season we divide up our beds into smaller plots, and our fourth graders partner up, plan, and then maintain their own little salad gardens. When making the design, they use a graph with each square representing 1 inch (Click here to download a pdf of the graph we use). It was not until after our first planting experience that I realized how hard it was for them to grasp the idea of scale and how to translate what they created on paper into the actual plot.

To remedy this, we created planting grids from wire hardware cloth with 1 inch squares (with layers of duck tape around the edges to protect from sharp points). The students can now lay those grids over their space, and it helps immensely when planting. Don’t get me wrong – we still end up over-planting, but it is a huge help with spacing and makes planting much less frustrating, especially for first time gardeners. Usually by their second season of gardening, many of the students don’t feel the need to use the grids, but they are always available as a guide.

Drip Irrigation- Although certainly not a garden essential, installing drip irrigation has been a big help in our gardening experience. Our system is not set on a timer and must be reconnected to our faucet with a hose each time it is used, but especially on hot days, it makes it so much easier for one teacher to run out, connect the system, let it drip for 20 to 25 minutes, and then run back out and turn it off. In addition to the time savings, the water ends up getting deeper in the soil, and we do not lose as much to evaporation. However, I think the biggest benefit comes from directing irrigation water away from the leaves of the plants . When your beds are overcrowded (as ours always are, since thinning is a dreaded activity for our young gardeners), wet foliage and poor air circulation can lead to disease problems. We always see fewer problems when we are able to use the drip irrigation more than overhead watering.

So there are some of my favorite tools for our raised bed garden. I know this list would vary if you are planning an in-ground or container garden, so please feel free to use the comment section if you have a favorite tool to share!

Next up, School Garden Tip #3: Don’t Skimp on Soil.










Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens’ Innovative Children’s Garden

In many ways, Boothbay, Maine is a time warp. Long ago, my grandparents managed a resort there and I frequently traveled to Boothbay Harbor as a child. I now bring my family there each summer. As a visitor, it appears little has changed over the last few decades. Except one thing: the Botanical Gardens.

I am an avid gardener and a huge fan of botanical gardens. The Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay is one of the best I’ve been to. I go there every opportunity I get. The Garden is situated in its place—the dramatic granite coastline of Midcoast Maine—in a way that is unlike any other garden I have been to. It’s an exciting place for the plant nerd and the landscape architect alike. One of its many inviting features is its Children’s Garden, a topic highly relevant to the KidsGardening network. Erika Huber, Youth and Family Program Coordinator for the Garden, shares a little more about its founding and design below.


Emily Shipman

By Erika Huber

This year Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay, Maine celebrates its tenth anniversary open to the public. What started as a conversation between friends in 1991 and the willingness of ten founders a few years later to use their homes as collateral for the initial land purchase has become a botanical destination with nearly 190,000 guests visiting the 295 acre site last year. Situated on 3,600 feet of tidal shore frontage, this unique property encompasses miles of hiking trails and more than 12 acres of cultivated gardens, including a five senses garden, a perennial garden and a rhododendron garden to name a few.

Among these themed gardens is the much loved Bibby and Harold Alfond Children’s Garden. Designed by landscape architect Herb Schaal, who specializes in designing educational gardens for children, this two acre garden opened in July 2010. Its interactive features are inspired by children’s books by Maine authors. A Story Barn at the center of this garden contains these Maine titles, as well as more than 400 children’s books related to gardening, natural history, “green living,” and Maine cultural history. Children can get wet in the spouting whales from Down to the Sea with Mr. Magee by Chris Van Dusen, talk to a friend through a dragon’s nostril (The Stone Wall Dragon by Rochelle Draper) or hop in Burt Dow’s colorful skiff, the Tidely Idley, from Burt Dow, Deep Water Man by Robert McCloskey. Looking across the frog pond, children can pose for a picture with Sal’s bear from Blueberries for Sal, another McCloskey classic. A treehouse, bear cave, kitchen cottage and fairy village offer additional spaces to explore.

The Children’s Garden is full of colorful and curious-looking plantings like the Chinese Rhubarb in the Big Leaf garden or the weeping spruce, both of which look like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. The Rainbow Terrace is popping with thousands of tulips in May and becomes a magical landscape of brilliant colors and textures every summer. Learning happens in fun and creative ways with activities such as Garden Puppet Theater, Garden Quests and field trip tours that explore such topics as life cycles, pollinators, birds, the five senses, pond life and compost critters. Young artists hone their skills depicting plant and animal life in our Nature Illustration Camp.

Children participating in our Little Diggers program and Garden Explorers Camps get their hands dirty and learn about gardening as they dig, plant and harvest in our Learning Garden. There is even a little greenhouse nearby where flowers and vegetables are started each spring. Standards such as peas, green beans and tomatoes are grown here, along with some less common veggies. Pretzel beans, rainbow carrots, Magic Molly iridescent purple potatoes, Candy Striped popcorn, Tromboncino squash, mouse melons, Pineapple Crush alpine strawberries and Walking Stick kale spark the interest of kids and adults alike.

A mixture of flowers are also grown in the Learning Garden to highlight the importance of having a variety of shapes, colors and scents to attract a diversity of pollinators. Some of my favorite pollinator flowers are Mexican sunflowers (Tithonia) and Benary’s Giant zinnias for bumble bees, butterflies and hummingbirds; Frosty Knight sweet alyssum for bees and flower flies; and Blue Spice basil for honey bees. Speaking of herbs, an educational garden would not be complete without a variety of these odiferous plants. Our Learning Garden contains a mixture of Italian herbs, chamomile, chives, sage, dill, mint (in pots) and lavender planted nearby, which come in handy for on-the-spot five senses investigations and additions to snacks prepared by gardening campers. Who doesn’t love washing down a delicious snack of herbed popcorn with lavender lemonade!

Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens opens for the season May 1. Visit for more information about our programs for children and families.

Photos provided by: Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens

Fork in the Road takes on Jr. Iron Chef

For my blog this week I want to do something a little bit different and share a story. A story about a fierce competition we have in Vermont called Jr. Iron Chef.

Jr. Iron Chef VT is “a statewide culinary competition that challenges teams of middle and high school students to create healthy, local dishes that inspire school meal programs.”1 Teams of three to five students have ninety minutes to prepare a dish of their design and wow a diverse panel of judges who critique not only the taste and appearance of the final dish, but the professionalism and teamwork exhibited during the cooking process. Leading up to the competition, teams spend hours practicing under the guidance of their coaches who range from teachers and afterschool educators to school food service workers and professional chefs.

Back in late January I became the coach of a Jr. Iron Chef team, one made up of a handful of high school-aged culinary superstars. I’ve known these kids since the summer when they worked on our Fork in the Road food truck. Recently they’ve all been volunteering once a week at our local food shelf to help prepare meals. And since January they’ve added Jr. Iron Chef meetings to their weekly schedule—two intense hours of practicing preparing our dish, Tofu Tikka Masala with Homemade Paneer and Toasted Pita.

Our team has cooked and re-cooked this dish what feels like countless times, each week further honing the flavor and perfecting both execution and presentation. Adding that extra tablespoon of lemon juice to the paneer to get just the right tang. Cycling through different varieties of peppers until we nailed the desired heat in our dish. Figuring out if we should be dicing or cubing our sweet potato. Plating all our ingredients one way, then another way, then yet another way… tweaking the placement of that toasted pita so it leans at the perfect angle against the sauté topped rice.

And this past Saturday, we finally put all our hard work to the test as we joined over fifty other teams at the Champlain Valley Expo Center for the 10th annual Jr. Iron Chef VT competition.

Donning brand new chef coats, battered Fork in the Road baseball hats, and crisp white aprons, our team arrived just as awards were being doled out for the AM heat (there’s not enough space at the Expo Center for all teams to compete at once). At 12 o’clock sharp the giant corral that encloses the competition space was opened; we found our assigned table, efficiently set up our cooking station, passed our Brigade Check with flying colors, then eagerly waited for the cook-off to start.

And from the second the allotted ninety minutes began, our team performed with such professionalism and confidence that I am still in awe. There was just no stopping them—it was as if they had transcended some plane of existence. These kids worked with a precision, dedication and passion I have rarely seen in adults, yet alone youth. It’s hard to describe those ninety minutes as anything other than inspiring.

As we raised our green flag to signal we were done cooking and ready to have our samples delivered to the Judges Room, everyone on the team was beaming. We all knew something special had just happen. At that point, it truly didn’t matter if the team won any awards—in fact, for these kids it was never about that, they just love cooking together that much. And what they had just done during the competition was one of the purest expressions of love—for cooking and for each other—that I have ever seen.

That being said, our Fork in the Road team did win an award: Mise en Place, which goes to “the team that shows exemplary teamwork, order and professionalism.”2

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Soil Microbes: Helping Your Tiny Garden Helpers

Want to drive a gardener crazy? Call that stuff plants grow in “dirt” instead of “soil.” What’s the difference? Dirt is what you track into the house on your shoes. Soil is an amazing and complex ecosystem that is one of our planet’s most valuable natural resources. It’s a mix of inorganic minerals, water, air, organic matter from dead and decaying plants and animals, and an incredible array of living organisms, ranging in size from microscopic bacteria and fungi to earthworms, moles, and shrews.

Show students a cup of soil taken from an undisturbed area of native soil and ask them to estimate the number of organisms living in it. Let them dig around in the soil to see if they can see any creatures in it. Unless they find a stray earthworm or possibly some tiny mites or springtails if they look closely, it’s likely they’ll say that there aren’t any living creatures present. But they’ll be off on the order of billions! While there may not be any that you can see with the naked eye, if you looked through a microscope at the same soil sample, you’d be overwhelmed. There could be as many as 200 billion bacteria, 20 million protozoa, 100,000 nematodes, and 100,000 meters of fungal hyphae in that cup of soil!

Many of those microscopic organisms benefit plants, either directly or indirectly. (Of course, some soil microbes cause plant diseases, while others have no effect on plants, for good or bad.) For example, a special type of bacteria, called rhizobia, inhabits nodules on the roots of legumes (plants like peas and beans). In return for some food from the plant, the rhizobia take up or “fix” nitrogen (an essential plant nutrient) from the air, where it is not in a form available to plants, and change it into one that plants can take up and use. This is a good example of a symbiotic or mutually beneficial relationship between plants and soil microbes.

Mycorrhizae (my-cor-rye-zay) on plant roots display another symbiotic relationship. Mycorrhizae are fungi that form an association with the roots of specific plants (their name translates as “fungus root”).  The fungi receive nutrients from the plant; in return, they enlarge the surface area of the roots, allowing them to take up water and nutrients for the plant more effectively. 

There are also untold numbers of soil microbes that help plants less directly by breaking down organic matter in the soil and changing the nutrients it contains into forms available to plants. As these decomposing microbes break down organic matter, they also produce natural “glues” that bind soil particles into aggregates, enhancing soil structure and improving soil drainage and aeration.

What do all these millions and billions of garden helpers need to keep them thriving? Plenty to eat, in the form of organic matter that supplies them with the energy they need for growth and reproduction. Adding organic matter like compost to the soil keeps these beneficial microbes thriving. Remind your students of all the creatures they’re supporting as they spread compost on the soil in your school garden this spring!

School Garden Tip #1: Create a Sense of Ownership

We planted the spring garden in the raised beds at my daughter’s elementary school last week and we were all so excited to be able to dig in after weeks of preparation. We started our journey mid-January when the third graders planted our tomato seeds indoors under grow lights. Then a couple of weeks ago we began prepping the outdoor beds by adding new soil and repairing the drip irrigation. This is my fourth spring garden with the Glen Loch Elementary Teaching Gardens, and I thought over the next few blogs I could share with you some of the most helpful tips and tricks I have learned through the years, starting with a suggestion that I’ve found to be a huge contributor to the positive impact of the whole garden program:

Tip #1: Every student needs to have an in-depth, hands-on experience to develop a sense of ownership.

The very first year I helped with the fourth grade garden we use two different types of garden planning and planting techniques. That first fall, we divided the beds into individual plots and then let the kids plan their own little gardens with a partner. Everyone loved it and the kids took their harvest home to share with their families. The following spring, to save time amid busy standardized testing prep, we chose to plant theme gardens. Instead of working in pairs, every class chose a theme and all the students in the class planted one bed all together. I tried to have something for everyone to plant, but needing to keep costs down, we had very few seedlings, and some students only planted a couple of seeds. Not only was it obvious throughout the spring that the students were not as invested in the garden, an end of the year survey showed that the kids greatly favored the fall garden style. We have used the individual plot method with the fourth graders with great success since then. It has also been so gratifying to see how much they learn between the fall and spring gardens. Being able to repeat the planning/planting/maintaining/harvesting cycle experience twice in one school year has delivered amazing increases in both confidence and knowledge gained.

I was reminded of the importance of offering extensive hands-on experiences when we added third grade gardens this past fall. We received a grant to add beds for our third graders, but due to space and money, our expansion resulted in each third grade class only having one 3’ X 3’ raised bed. This meant that planting a class theme garden was pretty much our only design option. In the fall, we divided each class into four teams and each student planted a sugar snap pea seed around a teepee and we hosted a sugar snap pea race (the team whose peas made it to the top first won). We also planted marigolds around the border and discussed companion plants. Although I do like marigolds, the main goal of adding them was really to give each student an inexpensive planting experience to go with the seed planting. Although the kids enjoyed the fall gardens and they each had a chance to plant something, much like the response from the fourth graders when we tried a class-themed garden, they definitely did not seem to develop the same sense of ownership.

We used colored straws to identify different tomato varieties.

Since outdoor space is limited, we came up with an alternate solution for the spring garden by purchasing a light garden and having the third graders start their own seeds for the spring garden. Each student planted at least two seeds in a starting tray, and then a couple of weeks later they each transplanted at least one of the small seedlings into a larger pot. So they had two planting experiences before we started the outdoor garden. The result was close to 180 tomato plants! (Whew, this proved to be a bit more work than I was expecting, especially when it came time to move the plants outdoors for periods of time to harden them off.)

Each class chose a tomato recipe-based theme for their spring garden. Last week they had the chance to plant their tomato plants, along with additional ingredients for the recipe. Once again, I made sure each student had at least one thing to plant. Our spring beds include a Pizza Garden, a Salsa Garden, a Bruschetta Garden, a Pasta Garden, and a Tomato Basil Soup Garden. All of the gardens have tomatoes (we grew 7 different varieties), onions and garlic. We also scattered in basil, cilantro, oregano, parsley, and peppers where appropriate.

Third grade garden tomato recipe-based theme gardens.

Obviously, we did not have space to grow 180 tomato plants in our school garden! We planted as many as we could, and we had enough left so that every student had a chance to take a tomato plant home (with some left for the teachers too). Although the season is young, their enthusiasm for the garden already surpasses what I saw with our fall garden, and I can feel that sense of ownership taking root. I will check back in with you guys after our harvest in May to report our findings.

The take away message is this – finding a way for each student to have an in-depth experience in the garden is not always easy, but is key to creating a lasting impact with your garden program. Being surrounded by gardens and observing the growth and change throughout a season provides numerous teaching opportunities and benefits., But from my perspective, it is establishing the feelings of ownership that fuels students’ pride and plants the seeds of gardening in their soul.

Next up, School Garden Tip #2: My Favorite Tools.







Growing Young Environmentalists

When I was in elementary school in the early 1980s, environmental education was focused on catastrophes like toxic waste and rainforest destruction. While these issues remain relevant for our society at large, many have come to realize that global problems of this nature were too difficult for kids to wrap their minds around, and harder still understand what we, as young children, could do about them.

Instead, many educators have shifted to place-based education—of which garden-based learning is a part. Place-based education is hands-on, real world learning that uses the local environment to help kids understand the natural world around them and their place in it.

One place-based solution that my teachers successfully engaged my classmates and me in was recycling. It was just beginning to gain widespread adoption in the United States, and I remember that my classmates and I felt empowered and proud to be able to actually do something to contribute to the better health of our planet. We created a recycling club called the Planeteers (probably breaking some kind of trademark law) and made green t-shirts adorned with a planet encircled by smiling children holding hands.

My friends and I were pretty effective at changing our parents’ behaviors at home as well, bringing home facts and figures about the importance of recycling and getting our parents to sort plastics from metals and cardboard.

These days, recycling is well accepted at home, with curbside pick-up and no-sort bins in many communities. It’s a bit harder to do in schools and institutions, however. And many schools are still working to improve their recycling rates.

At KidsGardening, we like to engage kids in educational activities that empower them to be part of the solution. And I personally believe that for young kids, presenting global issues alongside things they can actually do to help is less anxiety inducing than discussing deforestation, for example, in the abstract.

One such program is our Carton 2 Garden contest. For three years now, we have partnered with Evergreen Packaging to recognize more than a dozen outstanding projects from across the country, featuring innovative creations designed by K-12 students and educators by re-purposing milk and juice cartons from their school cafeterias to engage students in hands-on, garden-related educational experiences.

We’re proud of this program and the young participants. It is empowering kids to think about their role in protecting the planet. And these kids are taking action: the percentage of schools that recycled milk and juice cartons prior to the Carton 2 Garden contest is just 30%. After participating in the Carton 2 Garden contest the percentage of schools that recycle milk and juice cartons is 80%! The percentage of schools that continue to save milk and juice cartons to use for special projects after the Carton 2 Garden Contest is 90%!


This program reaches nearly 7,000 students and educators across the nation every year and rewards the most innovative with cash prizes to support educational garden programs in their schools.

This type of positive reinforcement for innovative, solution oriented, pro-social behavior is exactly what kids need more of.
Would you like to participate in the 2017 Carton 2 Garden Contest? It’s not too late. Download your entry kit here and engage your students in an age appropriate place-based, environmental education.

Creative Connections for the Snowbound Garden Educator

You might remember from my last blog post that I’ve spent the majority of my teaching career in Vermont and Maine, two states blessed by communities interested in food- and garden-based education, but cursed with relatively short growing seasons. One can generally assume that for six months out of the year, November through April, very little outdoor gardening will take place. And as someone who loves working in the garden, independently and with my students, this reality is a relatively frustrating one (to put it lightly).

This long winter poses a number of challenges from an educational standpoint for anyone managing a school garden program. Mainly, how do you retain student interest in a space that sits idle for more than half the school year?

To answer this question, I had to do a bit of rebranding with my students. We weren’t just going to learn about gardening, we were going to learn about food in general, an all-encompassing lens that includes plant science, cooking, tasting, nutrition and food systems work. And over the course of the long winter, we slowly but surely (in 40 minute chunks of time each week) made our way through all these topics.

As with any subject, creating an outline for your coursework can be challenging, and I spent a significant amount of time figuring out where to start, how to transition between each lesson, and build up understanding sequentially from unit to unit. Below, I’ve listed some of topics and specifics I covered with my students to help get your own winter brainstorming session started:

Garden Connections: Wrap up your growing season by completing a retrospective with your students. How many hours did you spend in the garden? How many varieties of carrots did you plant? How many pounds of produce did you harvest or bring to your cafeteria?

Food Systems: While some food from your garden might make its way into your school cafeteria, other foods have to travel many miles before they reach your lunch tray. Trace and compare the steps in both local and conventional food systems.

Nutrition: No matter where food comes from, it can be categorized into one of the five food groups. Learn the health benefits of each food group (including how certain colors of fruits and veggies can help your body in different ways) and practice identifying foods by food group.

Cooking: (Ongoing activities in between units). Prepare a snack in class and keep track of recipes in a Tasting Journal. Tie your cooking and tasting activities to the topic you’re covering by identifying what food groups your ingredients are in, which plant parts they are, and which food system produced them.

Plant Science: When we eat fruits and veggies we’re usually only eating one or two parts of a plant. Learn all the plant parts and practice identifying what parts you’re eating. And once you know all about seeds, fruits and roots, move onto a discussion of life cycles (and maybe even pollination).

Garden Connections: Wrap up your lessons on life cycles from your Plant Science unit by planting seeds in growing flats and watching a life cycle unfold. Depending on your timing, these can be starts for your garden! Give students the opportunity to decide what they want to plant. Have them research new varieties, conduct school-wide interest polls and ask food service workers what they might be able to use in the cafeteria from the garden.

Introducing Blogger, Susan Littlefield

My love affair with plants began as a young child at my grandmother’s side. I loved to wander through Grammy's gardens with her, marveling at the oddly shaped purple blossoms on the Dutchman’s pipe vine that scrambled up the porch trellis or the delicate speckled blossoms of tiger lilies that bloomed in her side garden. But my favorite spot was her backyard garden. Within the neat border of a white picket fence, a riotous mix of flowers bloomed with wild abandon. My grandmother believed that Nature's hand was a great designer and she was delighted when plants sowed themselves. Foxglove, cosmos and larkspur sprouted up amidst the peonies and phlox, but my favorite flowers were the tall spires of hollyhocks that came up year after year in places of their own choosing.

I grew my first vegetable garden when I was eight years old. I don’t remember now what sparked my interest in growing food plants (no one else in my family grew vegetables), but I do remember that my mom was, as always, eager to help me explore and learn by trying something new. I still recall the thrill of my first harvest from that small garden. Later, when my interest in plants had grown, she joined me for many trips to our local nursery so I could search out new perennials for my flower gardens. And when as a teenager I decided I wanted to try growing vegetables in a big way, she hired a local farmer to come and plow up most of our half-acre backyard – much to the dismay of my non-gardening father! That early encouragement set me on the path to degrees in biology and plant and soil science and a career in horticulture that’s spanned more than three and a half decades.

It also gave me a blueprint for introducing my own two children, now grown, to the wonders and joy of gardening. I loved sharing with them the delicious taste of home harvested fruits and berries and the beauty of trees, shrubs, and flowers in the landscape. But we also delighted in discovering all the living things that frequent a garden – from birds and toads and bunnies to earthworms, fungi, and insects of every kind. Even pests and diseases are fascinating if you overlook the fact that they’re competing with you! We marveled at the weird fungus called corn smut (it’s even edible, I’m told, but we never dared to try it) and learned that the ferocious looking tomato hornworms in our veggie garden would metamorphose into large, night-flying sphinx moths, cousins of the amazing hummingbird moths we observed sipping nectar from our petunias! Gardening with my kids showed me firsthand the important role it can play in cultivating curious minds, healthful bodies, and an ethic of environmental stewardship.

So it’s a privilege to work with, helping to bring the joys and benefits of gardening to kids everywhere. In my blog posts I’m looking forward to sharing a little of what I’ve learned over many years of gardening – sometimes practical tips; sometimes ideas or information I find interesting or inspiring. And I’d also like to hear from you, the educators, volunteers, and parents who are out in the garden with kids making good things happen – please feel free to use the comment section below to connect. If you have a gardening question, I’ll do my best to provide an answer. I’m also eager to get suggestions for topics you’d like to see covered in future blog posts, and hope you’ll share your own experiences and ideas for connecting kids to the wonderful world of plants.

Introducing Blogger, Sarah Pounders

I jumped into the youth garden world almost twenty years ago while I was in graduate school at Texas A&M University. My research was focused on using school gardens as a nutrition education tool. To gain additional hands-on experience, I also volunteered to conduct weekly gardening activities in a classroom based at a youth shelter for kids ranging in age from 5 to 18. Even with many horticulture classes under my belt and having grown up in a gardening household, I discovered just how much I had to learn during those weekly garden sessions. I have to chuckle a bit about some of the things I planned – like building a raised bed using a fence that was not flush to the ground as one side of the bed (what was I thinking? of course the soil eroded…) and forgetting to label the seeds we planted indoors so when we set out the transplants outdoors we had surprise plants everywhere – like eggplant in the flower beds (I am still sometimes label challenged, but I must say I am getting much better at identifying plants from just a couple of leaves). But, despite all my crazy mishaps, it is the memory of the kids out in the garden – the pride in their eyes and the excitement in their smiles –that stands out the most. All of the kids living at the shelter had been removed from homes because of severe abuse and neglect, but you would never have guessed the weight of their burdens from our time out in the garden where the plants and insects captivated their minds and imaginations. It was through this experience that I discovered there is magic in a garden.

After graduate school I continued to work with youth garden programs in a number of different capacities. I’ve conducted kids’ educational programs at botanical gardens, worked with Extension Master Gardeners in Virginia and Texas, organized trainings for volunteer educators and teachers, and written extensively on youth gardening and school garden curricula. Honestly it was not my intention to specialize in this area– I love plants and want everyone to love plants which is why I went into the field of horticulture education, but I think watching the significant impact of garden programs on kids kept me circling back to youth garden programs.

As we embark on this new Growing Ideas Blog series, I am excited to have this chance to share some of my current and past garden adventures. I am definitely living proof that you don’t have to know it all and that it is okay to make mistakes because you learn as much from your “oops” moments as you do from your successes. You can expect that many of my posts will share stories from current home gardening experiences involving my 9-year-old daughter Abby and 5-year-old son Graham and a yard that has way too much shade. I am also a volunteer at my daughter’s elementary school were we have 22 raised beds and conduct fall and spring gardens (which since I live in Texas means we are gardening for all but about 1 month out of the school year).

In my posts, I will share some of the ideas that have worked for us, resources I find particularly helpful, and I am sure I will have plenty of “oops” moments to pass along too. Don’t expect fancy and elaborate projects – my focus is always on activities that are easy, practical, and enjoyable. I hope you walk away from my posts with the inspiration and motivation to get started gardening with the children in your life whether that would be at home, school or in a community garden.

Coming up in my blog – you will get an update on our spring garden adventures. This week at Abby’s school we are preparing our raised garden beds by incorporating 2 yards of new soil and the following week we will plant, so by my next post I will have lots of new stories and pictures to share.