School Garden Tip #3: Invest in Your Soil

My first volunteer experience at my daughter’s school garden involved removing approximately six yards of soil out of 10 raised beds. In the 90+ degree August weather in Texas, this was no small feat. We then had to move another 6 yards of new soil into those beds. Needless to say I had a great tan and added a bit of muscle that fall. Now why, you are probably wondering, would we completely replace our soil instead of just working to improve it?

The garden had been established the previous spring and all of the plants had really struggled. Over the summer, our lead garden teacher had sent a soil sample off to a local soil testing facility and discovered that the soil had a high pH and so little nitrogen that it did not even register on the scale. Bingo! Problem identified!

Removing the soil may sound like an extreme measure. The soil could be enriched with organic fertilizers and compost, right? The answer was probably “yes” to that question; however, the bigger challenge came when we looked at the soil composition using a simple “mudshake” test. The soil looked to be about 75% sand with a very miniscule amount of silt and clay, and the remainder appeared to be poorly processed compost that could best be described as mulch. (Also, surprisingly, there was a fair amount of rock scattered in. We suspect the truck that delivered our soil had delivered some kind of gravel on the same day.) You can check out my “before” soil picture above. If we had been dealing with in-ground garden beds and had years to slowly improve the soil, then working in compost and organic materials would have been a good solution. However, we needed to improve our growing conditions immediately to make sure our students did not experience another disappointing growing season.

So we went on the hunt for better soil and we found it at a local company called Nature’s Way Resources,  an organization established specifically to create superior soil mixes for gardens and landscapes. After a quick visit, we arranged for an order of their garden and flowerbed mix. Notice I said “garden and flowerbed mix.” Generally, the best choice for raised beds is not straight topsoil, but a lighter soil/compost blend that provides better drainage and aeration. Nature’s Way creates all of their own compost and carefully monitors nutrient and pH levels in their soils. Can you tell that I love this place? Just take a look at that beautiful soil in the “after” picture.

I know this information is not necessarily helpful to you unless you are located in the Houston, Texas region, so you may be wondering how did we go about finding a good supplier? Well, we talked to the Master Gardeners at our local Extension Office.

Master Gardeners are volunteers trained by Extension Offices and they are located in almost every county of the United States. Click here to find your local office. Their main mission is to help the Land Grant Universities in their state disseminate research-based gardening information into communities. Because of their network and enthusiasm for gardening, they usually have a great scoop on the best soil and plants around and are eager to share that information.

In addition to getting recommendations, I would also suggest that you go look at the soil before you purchase it. That may seem like a time consuming step when you have so many other details you are managing, and you may not feel like you are a soil expert, but with just a quick handful, you can determine if the soil has too much sand (does it feel like the beach), too much clay (is it heavy and clumpy) or un-composted organic materials (can you still see branches and leaves). Of course there’s more to soil quality than texture, so it’s also a good idea to do a soil test before you buy (or ask the supplier if they can show you test results for the soil you’re thinking of purchasing). You want to make sure that the soil pH is suitable for the plants you plan to grow; that there aren’t worrisome levels of contaminants such as lead; and assess whether there are any nutrient imbalances that need correcting.

Your next question for me is probably, “Was it worth it?” Yes, yes, yes! Having high quality soil has made all the difference. Being a school garden, we frequently have issues with watering (sometimes too much and sometimes too little) and overcrowding (as I mentioned in a previous blog, thinning plants is the most dreaded activity for any youth gardener). We also have to plan our planting schedule around what is the best fit for the curriculum rather than what is the best timing for the plants, but having high quality soil has helped our plants be a little more tolerant of all these challenges. Each season we incorporate a little more soil and compost into our beds to replace what was lost during the season. We also incorporate slow release organic fertilizers as needed.

What about soil donations you ask? Do you turn down free soil if it is not good quality? Trust me when I say I understand the struggles of trying to raise funds for your school (I feel like we have a different PTO fundraiser every week), but my answer here is yes, I’d turn it down if it wasn’t acceptable. Poor quality soil will end up costing you later down the road in terms of plant health and harvest. Insufficiently processed compost may also harbor weeds or disease-causing organisms – both of which you want to avoid.

So my third school garden tip for you is to invest in your soil from the beginning. I hope that you can learn from our experience and fill up your raised beds only once. Your soil truly is the foundation of your garden - don’t underestimate the power of soil!

How I Grew to Love Gardening

If you’ve been keeping up with any of our social media accounts, you’ll know by now that April is KidsGarden Month. We’ve been asking folks to share stories about how gardening has changed their lives and so I thought I’d share a little bit about what gardening has meant to me.

As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, I spent the six months after I graduated from college working on a farm in southern Vermont. My decision to pursue a farming apprenticeship was inspired by the two summers I’d spent working at a farm camp, a passion for intense physical activity, and a healthy dose of “I’m not sure what sort of career I want, but my limited experience with agriculture has been truly energizing so let’s give it a try!” I will honestly admit that an abiding love for vegetables and fantasies of tending a production garden all day did not factor prominently into the equation… in fact, I’d never been a huge fan of vegetables (I was a notoriously picky eater all through childhood and well into my teenage years) and had limited gardening experience.

This all changed during my six months on the farm. During my time there I spent a handful of hours each week managing a small growing space of my own, somewhat blindly stumbling my way through a growing season under the steady guidance of the farm manager.  I weeded this tiny garden diligently, I planted seeds and transplanted starts, watered periodically, weeded some more, and made a ritual of harvesting produce at the end of my work day, selecting the ingredients for that evening’s dinner.

Slowly my diet began to change, until it came to consist almost entirely of products from the garden I tended and animals I took care of. For the first time in my life, I could say I actively enjoyed eating a wide variety of vegetables. Not only that, but I could say with certainty that gardening was something I inexplicably loved—the satisfying feeling of dirt under my fingernails and coating my hands, the joy of watching a sprout resolutely grow taller each day, the pride of knowing that I (with the assistance of the elements) was responsible for the food I was eating.

These six months of gardening revolutionized my relationship with food and inspired my burgeoning career. Gardening became a passion and key lens through which I began to view life. I found that growing food was a powerful and grounding force that connected me to the earth and to people in ways I hadn’t imaged.

Now that you know my story, feel free to share yours…



I can remember very clearly the day I realized gardening had changed me. I was picking tomatoes when I saw a huge green tomato hornworm with little white bumps on it lying dormant on a leaf. A few months earlier I’d planted dill in hopes of attracting beneficial insects like wasps that are parasitic on hornworms.

A female parasitic wasp had laid her eggs just under the skin of the hornworm. These eggs hatched under the hornworm's skin and the larvae fed inside on the hornworm. When ready to pupate they chewed their way out through the skin, spun their cocoons attached to the hornworm's back, and shortly after that, emerged as adult wasps looking for new hornworms to parasitize. 

Needless to say, this blew my mind.

It was then that I realized that gardening had completely changed the way I viewed nature and its complex but beautiful processes and systems. 

All without my knowing, gardening had helped me slow down and notice things. As a result, I was more mindful of my surroundings. Being more mindful brought all kids of benefits like appreciation and gratitude—something I wrote about in an earlier post. It also cultivated my natural sense of curiosity and wonder.

All of these traits have served me well over the years—with plants and people alike. And when I feel like I need to re-connect and restore I head straight for the garden. It is such a gift to have a garden to retreat to. I wish this for everyone.

How has gardening changed your life? I'd love to hear your story. 

April is KidsGarden Month. And we’re inviting you to tell us how #GardeningChangesLives.

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Big Seeds for Little Hands

Want kids to develop a love of gardening? Get them growing early! Kids as young as preschool age are thrilled to plant seeds and watch their baby plants sprout from the soil and turn into big plants. Even picky eaters are usually willing to try a vegetable they’ve grown and harvested themselves. And what child isn’t thrilled to pick a bouquet of homegrown posies?

But small seeds like those of carrots and lettuce are challenging even for adults to handle. When young children are planting, keep things fun, not frustrating, by choosing seeds that are relatively large and easy to handle. Here are some suggestions for kid-friendly vegetable and flower seeds that are easy to sow and easy to grow. All of them are appropriate for sowing directly in the garden once weather conditions are suitable.

Peas: Peas are easy seeds for kids to handle because they are, well, the size of a pea! They are one of the first crops that can be planted in the spring – as soon as the soil can be worked in the spring or 5-6 weeks before the last spring frost date in your area. Early planting gives cool weather-loving peas time to produce their pods before hot summer weather hits.

Beans: These large seeds sprout quickly in warm soil, so wait until the weather is settled and all danger of frost is past, usually a week or two after the last frost date, before showing your kids how to tuck seeds into the soil. Bush beans grow quickly, need no support, and are ready for harvesting in just 7-8 weeks. Pole beans take a little longer to begin bearing and need some type of support, but produce a harvest over a longer period of time. All kids love having a special spot to play in and growing the fort themselves just adds to the fun. Growing a bean teepee is a great kids’ garden project. Erect a framework of 6-8 tall poles in a circle. Bind the poles together at the top; then plant 4-6 bean seeds at the base of each pole. Thin to the two strongest vines per pole.  As the vines grow up the structure, they’ll create a shady spot inside where kids can hang out.

Squash and pumpkin: Pumpkins are always a popular crop with kids. It’s exciting to watch the fruits develop and grow, getting bigger and bigger and changing color in time for Halloween decorating. Like beans, pumpkins and squash are warmth lovers, so wait until a week or two after your last frost date to sow seeds. Pumpkin vines are large, sprawling plants, so make sure you plant them where the vines will have plenty of room to roam.

Sunflowers: These are one of the most satisfying plants for young gardeners to grow. The seeds are large and easy to handle; they germinate quickly in warm soil, and the reward is towering plants with enormous, colorful flowers that provide edible seeds for snacking. Sunflowers are also great for making bouquets, as they are long lasting cut flowers, and they even attract beneficial insects to the garden! If you’re going for record-breaking height, plant varieties like ‘Russian Giant’ or ‘Mammoth’ and give plants rich soil and lots of water and sun.

Zinnias: Plant a rainbow! Most kids love bright colors, and zinnias come in just about every color except true blue. The seeds  are easy to handle and direct-sow once the soil is warm and the danger of frost is past. Mildew can be a problem in humid climates, so look for mildew-resistant varieties such as the Zahara and Profusion series. Then keep an eye out for the beautiful butterflies these flowers will attract to the garden.