School Garden Tip #4: Allow Teachers to Chart Their Garden Journey

I went into my first meeting with the teachers at my daughter’s school armed with my vast collection of garden guides and curriculum books. I was ready with suggestions on how to integrate the garden into every grade level and every class. I proposed an extensive garden program, full of all the best activities and ideas I had ever seen in other school gardens across the country. Looking back, I just kind of roll my eyes at myself. What was I thinking?

Thankfully, the teachers were very kind, although I could tell the reception was a little bit less than enthusiastic. In our second meeting, I changed my approach and switched from trying to lead us in one direction to asking questions – lots and lots of questions. Through this second interchange, I was able to figure out what the teachers were interested in doing and how much time they had to spend on the garden. From there I was able to propose some garden program ideas from my bank of knowledge that matched their needs. Don’t get me wrong. I still try to plug some new additions each year, but I have definitely changed the scale of my suggestions.

Our 3rd Grade gardens feature tomatoes because learning about the life cycle of the tomato plant is part of the 3rd Grade required curriculum so it helps the teachers meet the standards.

My message here is not that what we do at our school will work at your school, but rather that each garden program needs to be designed to fit the needs of the teacher or teachers using it. The garden can be an amazingly flexible educational tool. Perhaps a teacher loves history. He or she could plant a Native American Three Sister’s Garden, a WWII Victory Garden, or experiment with raft gardens like those grown by the Ancient Aztecs. Perhaps his or her focus is literature. A storybook-themed garden for younger students or a Shakespearean garden for older students might help them bring classroom lessons life. Perhaps space exploration is their jam. Simulating the growing conditions found in space using grow lights might be the perfect addition to their classroom. The point is, there is not a one-size-fits-all garden program.

Gardens are not an effortless endeavor. You will sweat, you will get dirty, and you may need to work outside of the regular school day for maintenance (I know we will be up there watering this Memorial Day weekend). By and large the benefits of a garden more than make up for this additional work, but teachers really need to be invested in the program so they feel like it is a wise use of their time.

Is there anything more engaging than listening to a professional educator talk about something they love? You’ve had one of those teachers right? The ones who get so excited about what they are talking about they make you excited about it too? That is what I want for my kids – I want them to have teachers that are teaching from their hearts. I love this statement from the book “In the Three Sisters Garden” by JoAnne Dennee thanking the schools who participated in their pilot gardening programs for reminding them of “the critical importance of each teacher owning his or her own unique journey for integrated learning.” Exactly!

So my School Garden Tip #4 is to make sure to give teachers the opportunity to draw from their own passions and interests as inspiration in their own classrooms and in the garden. Take advantage of the flexible nature of the garden as an educational tool and allow it to be molded to fit your school’s unique curriculum needs. Never compare your garden program with one at another school. The only meaningful measuring stick is how well it is working for your teachers and your students!



Honoring a Local Garden Hero

Have you ever heard of Zinnia Weybright? I hadn’t until last month. She has a huge fan club in her hometown of Santa Monica, California. Zinnia is an eleven year old committed to growing community through the garden.

Every Sunday since 2012, Zinnia has spent a few hours working in her local community garden to provide fresh, healthy, local produce to the city’s homeless through donations to food shelves and meal sites.

That’s right – at the ripe old age of six Zinnia joined the Harvesting and Cleaning Crew at the Ocean View Farms Community Garden in Santa Monica in order to pick and prep produce and flowers for those less fortunate. Recipients of the produce say that they look forward to receiving the donations from Zinnia each week because they can tell she has prepared the food with care and love.

Zinnia is special, no doubt about that. Yet many young people who garden are also more inclined to community service. In fact, sixty-nine percent of the educators KidsGardening works with report an increase in the community spirit of their students as a result of engaging in garden-based learning. If that’s not a reason to get more kids learning through the garden, I don’t know what is.

It was an honor to meet Zinnia last month and present her with a 2017 Give Back to Grow Award. I am certain this is probably just one of the many awards this vibrant young leader will receive in her lifetime.  And I so look forward to hearing about the many ways she’ll continue to make the world a better place through gardening.

The Give Back to Grow Award is awarded annually to youth who show a keen interest in gardening and community spirit. The Award is part of the Scott’s Miracle Gro’s Gro1000 program. The Gro1000 program is founded on the premise that “When people come together in a garden, or gather on a green space, something good happens: the world and their place in it becomes more amazing, more special, more powerful. With urban and economic development at an all-time high, we desperately need to protect and grow our collective connection to nature, to the environment and to each other.”


What You Probably Don’t Know About Sunflowers

Sunflowers are a youth garden favorite, but they are not always the best neighbors.  This guest blog post by Larry Hodgson explains how sunflowers can impact the growth of other plants in your garden.

Larry Hodgson is creator of the blog 'Laidback Gardener' and is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. After studies at the University of Toronto and Laval University where he obtained his B.A. in modern languages in 1978, he succeeded in combining his language skills with his passion for gardening in a novel career as a garden writer and lecturer. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. An avid proponent of garden tourism, he has lead garden tours throughout Canada and to the gardens of over 30 countries over the last 30 years.  He presently resides in Quebec City, Quebec. 


By Larry Hodgson

Not many people know about the dark side of sunflowers (Helianthus annuus). However, the beautiful bright blooms do hide a nasty secret: sunflowers are allelopathic, that is, they give off toxins (terpenes and various phenolic compounds) from all their parts (roots, leaves, stems, flowers, seeds, etc.) that impede the growth of other plants or even kill them. This is a protective system for the plant: they kill their neighbors, but not their own seedlings, so this gives the plant, an annual that only reproduces by seeds, a head start, making sure it can come back the following year without too much competition.

That said, if sunflowers are grown year after year in the same spot, even their own seedlings will eventually start to suffer.

The efficacy of sunflower toxin is such that the sunflower extracts are being considered as potential organic herbicides. Studies show that certain sunflower cultivars are much more phytotoxic than others, which suggests it might be possible to breed sunflowers specifically for their herbicidal effect.

Reducing Sunflower Toxicity

To reduce the effect of sunflower toxicity, cut back, chop up and compost the plants, including their roots, in the fall (yes, the sunflower’s toxic parts decompose readily in compost bins) and rain and natural decomposition will eliminate most of the toxins left in the soil before spring. Or continue to grow sunflowers on that spot.

Bird Feeders

The most obvious place where sunflower toxicity is visible is under bird feeders.

Sunflower seeds are favorites with birds, but the hulls fall to the ground over the winter, weakening or killing the plants below, notably lawn grasses. Then sunflower seedlings, originating from seeds the birds dropped without eating, germinate and grow: not necessarily what you had planned.

To prevent or reduce this effect, cover the ground under your bird feeders in the fall with a tarp or cloth and remove it, along with the hulls and seeds, in the spring. Or place your feeder over a surface free of plant growth: perhaps a patio or deck. Or grow sunflower resistant plants underneath.

You could also use hulled sunflower seeds (sunflower “hearts”) as bird feed, although they are more expensive.

One would hope that hybridizers could develop a toxin-free sunflower to be grown specifically for use in bird food, but this is not, as far as I know, being done.

Plants Resistant to Sunflowers

There has been little study of plants that are resistant to sunflower allelopathy, although I did find the following list on the site of Toronto Master Gardeners:

  1. Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia spp).
  2. Boxwood (Buxus spp.)
  3. Clematis (Clematis spp.)
  4. Coreopsis, tickseed (Coreopsis spp.)
  5. Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster spp.)
  6. Dahlia (Dahlia spp.)
  7. Daylily (Hemerocallis spp.)
  8. Dead nettle, yellow archangel (Lamium spp.)
  9. Echinacea, purple coneflower (Echinacea spp.)
  10. Heuchera, coral bells (Heuchera spp.)
  11. Iris (Iris spp.)
  12. Lantana (Lantana spp.)
  13. Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)
  14. Lupines (Lupinus spp.)
  15. Mint (Mentha spp.)
  16. Periwinkle (Vinca spp.)
  17. Pink, carnation (Dianthus spp.)
  18. Rose (Rosa spp.)
  19. Sunflowers (Helianthus spp.)
  20. Thyme (Thymus spp.)





Growing Pest-free Cabbage

I love cabbage! Not only is it tasty and loaded with nutrients, it’s one of the prettiest vegetables in the garden. Those plump heads in shades of green and reddish-purple nestled in their ruffs of crinkled leaves look so nice; I almost hate to harvest them. Cabbage is also a great crop for young gardeners to grow in school and home gardens. It can be planted both early in the season and grown for fall harvest, so it fits well with school session schedules. And kids are always excited to check on the progress of those rapidly expanding cabbage heads, some as big as basketballs at harvest!

Confounding Cabbageworms

But, alas, we’re not the only creatures that love cabbage. Grow cabbage anywhere in the country and you will most likely have to deal with cabbage worms (they’re actually caterpillars, in spite of their name). You'll know they have paid your cabbage patch a visit if you see large, round or irregular holes chewed in the leaves between the veins and midribs, as well as masses of green or brown frass (the polite word for caterpillar poop) between the leaves. The cabbage heads may also be tunneled into. This damage comes courtesy of green worms that are up to about an inch and a half long and have a light stripe down the center of their backs. They are either cabbage loopers or imported cabbageworms. Most gardeners have seen small, white, day-flying butterflies with a black wing spot flitting through the garden– these butterflies are the adults of the imported cabbageworm. The cabbage looper adult is a brownish moth that flies in the evening.

If your cabbage leaves are riddled with small holes or have areas where only the outer layer of the leaf had been chewed, leaving a translucent spot, the caterpillar of the diamondback moth is at work. Smaller than the other worms, these 1/4-inch long green caterpillars feed on the undersides of the leaves and wriggle rapidly when disturbed.

All of these pests also happily dine on other members of the Cabbage family, so you may find them on broccoli, cauliflower, kale, and collards as well. But fortunately, all three of these pests can be controlled relatively easily and safely on cabbage and related crops.

My preferred method is exclusion. As soon as I put my cabbage seedlings in the ground, I cover the bed with a floating row cover and keep it on until I harvest my crop. These lightweight covers let in light and air, but exclude the adult butterflies and moths. No flying females, no eggs laid, no worms! And since what’s getting harvested are the leaves of the cabbage plant, I don't need to worry about removing the covers to let bees in to pollinate flowers, as I would with fruiting crops like squash.

If you don't want to use row covers (they do keep those pretty cabbage heads from view) and you only have a few plants, you can handpick worms from leaf undersides and drop them into a container of soapy water to kill them. Or you can spray plants with the safe microbial insecticide Bt, which only affects butterfly and moth caterpillars. They need to ingest Bt in order for it to work, so be sure to spray the undersides of leaves where the caterpillars are feeding. Bt works best when the caterpillars are small, so begin spraying as soon as you see the adults flying or notice any leaf chewing. You'll need to make repeat applications throughout the summer, as the adults lay eggs all season long.

Imported cabbageworms and cabbage loopers spend the winter as pupae attached to plant debris, so clean up the garden well in the fall to reduce the number that overwinter. (Loopers may not overwinter in colder areas, but they generally work their way up from south by mid to late summer.)  Diamondback moths overwinter as adults under plants debris, so garden clean-up will also help to reduce their numbers.

Cutworms and Root Maggot Control

Cutworms and cabbage root maggots are other cabbage pests that may be encountered in many parts of the country. Damage from these pests can also easily be prevented with the use of barriers. Cutworms are night-feeding caterpillars that chew through the stems of young plants right at soil level. To protect plants, place cutworm collars around the stems of seedlings at transplant time. One easy strategy is to wrap the stems of your cabbage seedlings with 4-5 thicknesses of 3-4 inch wide newspaper strips, placed so that 2 inches of the strip extend below ground when the seedling is planted. You can also encircle stems with collars made from cardboard, yogurt containers, or the like, with two inches pushed into the ground and at least one inch above.

Root-feeding cabbage maggots hatch from eggs laid by small flies in the soil around the base of a cabbage-family plant. Row covers will exclude the female flies and prevent egg-laying, but this method needs to be combined with crop rotation to be successful. The adult flies emerge in the spring after having overwintered as pupae in the soil, so covers only work in areas that were not previously infested; otherwise the adults will emerge under the covering.  You can also prevent egg-laying by placing mats made from flat, 6-inch wide squares of weatherproof material around the base of each plant when you set it in the garden. Make a slit in one side leading to a small hole in the center for the stem and tuck the mat around the stem. Make sure the mat is firmly in contact with the soil so flies can’t sneak under to lay eggs.