I really love poppies. You know in the fall or spring when you wander into the garden center for some bulbs, there’s always something you can’t resist? For me, it’s a package of poppy seeds. Nothing beats their vibrant color! They hardly bloom for more than a few days, but they’re prolific and when one loses its petals to a hard rain, another is shortly on the way. But as much as I love the flowers, I think my kids love the seed pods even more.
The red poppies and violet poppies growing in my yard reseed themselves quite nicely. They’ve been coming back year after year, even though we always collect the seeds pods and then forget to sprinkle them around the garden. (Poppy seeds generally like to overwinter in your garden.) We have, however, gifted a few tablespoons of seeds to our neighbor’s mother, who also loves poppies.
At our house, we like to collect the brown, dried pods for a few weeks, and then open a whole bunch of seed pods at once. It’s not necessarily an activity with a purpose, we just put them into a jar. But it’s fun, it gives the kids a way to be involved in the garden clean-up, and it’s cool to see how many tiny seeds are in each pod.
Maybe this year we’ll sprinkle our collected seeds into homemade plantable paper to give as teachers’ gifts, or make our own child-illustrated seed packets to give away.
As many of you loyal blog readers know, I spend half my week working with the Burlington School District in Burlington, VT, as a Garden Education Coordinator. Much of my time is spent managing a large production garden at Burlington High School (BHS) with the assistance of rotating groups of students. During the bountiful summer months, our Fork in the Road youth help out in the garden, but during the school year the vast majority of weeding, watering and harvesting is done by students enrolled in a Food Science course led by teacher Richard Meyer.
The class is a science elective that students can take for credit—just like any other class at the high school—but rather than completing labs centered on titrations and solving chemical equations, a typical lab in the Food Science class involves garden fresh vegetables and a plethora of cooking utensils.
“Students are taught the whole process from seed to harvest. They learn how to grow the veggies, take care of them, and then either harvest for food or preserve them for later use,” says Meyer, referring to the fact that over the course of the year, students not only complete a variety of cooking projects ranging from canning pasta sauce to making fresh mozzarella cheese, but help maintain the gardens at BHS and take on growing projects of their own.
In the fall, when our garden is still producing, students often spend one class a week out in the garden. These visits typically involve everyone pitching together to tackle the maintenance project of the day—cutting back asparagus, weeding around the eggplant, harvesting over 100 pounds of squash for the cafeteria, picking basil for a pesto making project. In fact, many of the cooking projects that students take on in the fall feature produce that they’ve harvested from the gardens they’ve been caring for.
Interspersed amongst these maintenance activities are short lessons on plant and soil science. For example, before planting garlic last week we discussed the differences between compost and mulch. And earlier in the season when we harvested tomatoes and peppers for salsa making, students were shocked to hear that we often eat vegetables that are botanically fruits (our whole discussion about the plant parts we consume was mind blowing for many students).
The class also grows their own microgreens in our school greenhouse, a project they keep up all winter long. As their greens mature the students harvest and deliver them to the Champlain Cafe, a small restaurant next to our cafeteria managed by students enrolled in the Burlington Technical Center’s Culinary Program.
During the winter months my involvement in the class drops off to monthly guest lectures and cooking projects (discussing the history of sauerkraut before making it, for example). But come the spring, things take off again. Students return to the greenhouse to work with me to plant flats on flats of seeds, the future starts that will be transplanted into the gardens at BHS, Hunt Middle School and elementary schools across the district.
When asked why they enrolled in the course, many students say that they’re interested in learning more about how to cook or that they just enjoy spending time outside in the garden. “Many of the students do not grow any plants at home nor do they do much cooking,” say Meyer. “This class gives them a taste of both.”
And it appears that there are many others at BHS who share an interest in learning more about these topics. This past fall, enough students attempted to enroll in the course that Meyer could have taught two full classes. The high school only allowed him to teach one, but we all have our fingers crossed that in future years the Food Science class will be able to expand to reach more students, providing youth with an opportunity to learn valuable life skills and participate in our school food system.
When fall arrives with its shorter days and cooler temperatures, vegetable gardens in most parts of the country begin winding down. But there is still plenty to keep gardeners busy as the seasons change. Here are some things you and your young gardeners can do to get the most from your vegetable garden, even as the growing season draws to a close.
Plant Garlic Plant garlic for harvest next summer a week or two after the first killing frost up until about six weeks before the ground freezes. Separate a bulb into individual cloves just before planting, and place each clove with the pointed end up, 2-4 inches deep if you are north of zone 7, 1-2 inches deep in southern gardens, and 4-6 inches apart within the row. In the north, once the ground freezes in late fall, mulch the bed with straw, weed-free hay, shredded leaves, or pine needles spread 4-6 inches deep.
Let Frost Sweeten Fall Crops Kale, Brussels sprouts, and collards all taste sweetest if you wait until after light frost to harvest. But if a sudden early cold snap into the teens is predicted, cover plants, as the sudden drop in temperature may injure plants. Leaves of collards and kale are ready for picking as soon as they reach usable size. Sprouts are ready when they are about an inch in diameter. Pick off and compost yellowing lower leaves.
Harvest Green Tomatoes Once the nights are consistently below 50 degrees F, it's best to harvest any remaining mature green tomatoes (those that have turned light green to white), even if the vines haven't yet been hit by frost. These tomatoes will ripen better indoors once the weather is this cool. Clip tomatoes from the vine with a short piece of stem attached. Red tomatoes well on their way to ripening can tolerate cooler temperatures and can be left on the vine until frost threatens.
Cover Greens for Extended Harvest Cover beds of lettuce, spinach, arugula, and other greens with floating row covers to extend your harvest season. The row covers will provide a few degrees of frost protection, enough to often give you several weeks or more of garden-fresh produce compared to uncovered plants.
Pinch Brussels Sprouts To get the sprouts to ripen together, pinch off the top couple of inches of your Brussels sprouts plants to direct their energy into the sprouts that are already developing along the stem. Unpruned plants will continue to produce new sprouts until the weather is quite cool, though they may be smaller. Clip off any lower leaves that have yellowed, and keep plants watered if fall weather is dry. Sprouts harvested after the first frost will be sweetest. Harvest from the bottom up when the sprouts are between 3/4- 1 1/2 inches in diameter.
Plan for an Extra Early Spinach Harvest Try planting some spinach seeds about 4-6 weeks before average date of the first hard fall frost in your area. This will give you plants about the size of a tea cup, the best size for overwintering. In areas with good snow cover, plants often overwinter without additional protection. But covering plants with winter-weight row cover fabric after cold weather hits provides extra insurance. The baby plants will take off growing in early spring (be sure to remove any covering), and you'll be picking homegrown spinach in short order. Look for hardy varieties like 'Winter Bloomsdale' to plant for overwintering.
I mentioned in my last blog that our school garden program was going to try something new this year by starting seeds under our grow lights for our fall garden, both to jumpstart our gardens and hopefully, save some money. Our fourth grade classes planted kale, dill and a variety of lettuce seeds. Our third grade classes planted marigolds. So, reporting back, I can tell you that planting seeds was a fun time and a great kick-off activity. I felt like the kids were more excited on planting day because they had already started thinking about the garden. Unfortunately, we had mixed results on the production side, experiencing both success and complete failure in our venture.
A week after seed planting our school closed because of Hurricane Harvey, and so no one was able to get in to water them for 10 days. Fortunately, the humidity trays had not been removed yet and the lights were on a timer (and the school did not lose electricity during the storm) or else we surely would have come back to trays of dead plants.
Amazingly enough, the lettuce, kale and dill performed like champs. By September 15 when the fourth graders planted their gardens, the plants looked very healthy. We divide up our fourth grade gardens into small plots, and the kids partner up and get to plan their own salad gardens (Click here to see our plant list and planning graphs). Since we have relied on starting the plants from seed, usually the beds do not look that different at the end of planting day. This year, though, since we started seeds indoors we had “instant”gardens. (We still planted some seeds too, of course.) It was rewarding for both the kids and the volunteers who showed up to help on our outrageously hot planting day—94 degrees! The picture at the top of the blog was taken about one week after planting day and it looks like we are going to have lettuce to harvest at the end of this week after only 3 weeks in the garden. So, success!
The marigolds did not fare as well with the neglect. Trapped under the humidity chamber, one of the varieties ended up very leggy. The stems were weak and tangled together, and most broke as the kids try to plant them (although a few have made it). The second variety we planted did not come up at all. A new garden experience for me – complete seed failure! Admittedly, the seeds were from 2015, so I was not expecting 100% germination, but I honestly have never planted seeds where not even one seed sprouted from a packet before. I was given the seeds last spring and I am not sure where they had been kept prior to that. Perhaps they were stored in conditions that were too warm or moist, but regardless, seed planting ended up being a bit of a downer for the third graders.
On planting day, we purchased flats of already blooming marigolds to plant in their beds. Our third graders engage in a sugar snap pea race each fall where we plant sugar snap peas on teepees and see whose vines make it to the top first. We also planted marigolds around the edges of each bed. In addition to planting the purchased marigolds, that day we also had the kids plant new marigold seeds that were placed under the grow lights. Not that we needed any more plants to take care of, but I did not want to end the experience on such a negative note. We will get marigold seeds to germinate and grow! Hopefully, they will be big enough for the kids to take home by late October.
So the fall gardens are under way at Glen Loch Elementary. Now, we are just waiting on the fall weather to kick in as well. Right now we are still topping out at 90 degrees and watering every day. Cooler temperatures are in the forecast though, and our plants are ready to take off!