Four Ways to Keep Growing in Winter

growing in winter

While I’m not the biggest fan of the cold weather, I do love the changing seasons here in Vermont. After a very fulfilling first season of gardening, I was sad to put my garden to bed last fall, but I was also excited for the period of rest and reflection that the wintertime brings. Gardening had become such a big part of my life in such a short period of time; I knew I couldn’t stop learning after I laid down that layer of mulch and buckwheat. So, I made a commitment to use this downtime to reflect on my first season, learn as much as I can, and set a great foundation for next year. Here’s how I will keep growing in winter:

keep growing in winter

Microgreens: The very first thing I did when I came home from putting my garden to bed in October was plant microgreens. This is a simple way to get your hands in the dirt all winter long.  Plus, they’re super nutritious! I’ve also recently started growing broccoli sprouts. I love having life blooming at different stages all around my apartment when it feels so dormant outside.

keep growing in winter
Colorful winter CSA.

CSA Share: I joined a local CSA in November. It has been so exciting to get a weekly delivery of fresh, local fruits and veggies all winter long. Although it’s not quite the same as growing them myself, it has given me the opportunity to continue experimenting with cooking new varieties and canning. Also, I eat pretty well, but I have to say that I have never eaten healthier in my life. I’ve also never eaten more root vegetables, but that’s another topic for another day.

Podcasts: I’m a big fan of podcasts, so it was only a matter of time before I scoured iTunes for the best gardening podcasts. After sampling a few this summer, I landed on my two favorites: The Joe Gardener Show with Joe Lamp’l and The Living Homegrown Podcast with Theresa Loe. Joe’s podcast is laser-focused on gardening – techniques, tips, and tricks to be successful, as well as things to avoid. Theresa talks a lot about gardening too, but has a broader focus on sustainable living with episodes such things as canning, making homemade dyes and cleaning products, and a recent favorite of mine: understanding the behavior of your backyard chickens!

Books and Planning: The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible by Ed Smith and Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew have been my go-to resources for garden planning for next season. I’ve also been playing around with Gardener’s Supply Company’s Kitchen Garden Planner. If you’re like me and want your garden planned out inch-by-inch before you start seeds in a few weeks, I highly suggest this tool. It’s like a video game for garden geeks.

I hope this helped spark some ideas if you’re feeling the winter blues and missing your garden. How have you kept growing this winter? Leave a comment below to let us know!

Vegetable Scrap Painting

vegetable scrap painting

It’s been a looooong cold winter here in Vermont, and it’s only January. When it’s dangerously cold outside (high of -5°F) our family starts getting into science experiments and art projects. Trying to think of ways to brighten up our winter doldrums with a garden-related activity, my mind turned to the KidsGardening lesson plan Exploring Plant Dyes.

Not one to actually follow directions, I took some liberties with this lesson plan. First, I didn’t really want to permanently dye anything, but since we go through an obscene amount of paint in our house, I thought it might be interesting to try to make some paint from vegetable scraps.

As I was scrounging around in the refrigerator for the purple cabbage, I also found some rainbow carrots that had seen better days. My six-year old peeled a few outer leaves off the cabbage, and peeled the carrots. I chopped the carrots, and we put them in two saucepans with a few cups of water. We had one saucepan for the cabbage and dark purple carrots, and another for the yellow and red carrots. (Note, our purple carrots were purple all the way through. Some varieties have purple skin and orange flesh.)

After an hour or so on the stove, our purple veggie scraps yielded a lovely, deep purple water. The yellow and red carrots, though, barely colored the water at all. (We had been hoping for orange.) So I sprinkled in a bit of ground turmeric, and after 15 minutes or so, our water was very orange!

vegetable scrap paintingI strained the veggies out using a fine mesh strainer, and let the water cool in mason jar. I left it on the counter for a few days until we had some time to paint.

This was a mistake.

Guess what happens when you leave cabbage water in a tightly sealed jar at room temperature? Yep, it stinks. The turmeric paint wasn’t as bad.

As we’re painting, my six-year old says, “Mommy, this kind of smells bad. It smells like farts.” 

The colors were muted, but it was still fun. If we did it again, which is a big if, I would plan to paint as soon as the water cooled.

The moral of this blog post? If you follow the directions in KidsGardening lesson plans or activities, you’ll likely have success. If you wing it, you end up with fart paint.

Five Tips for an Elementary School Cooking Program

school cooking program

As many of my loyal blog readers will remember (even though it’s been awhile), in my last post I wrote about my work with a formalized Food Science class offered at Burlington High School. This week I wanted to share a bit about how one of the elementary schools in our district has integrated cooking into their weekly schedule and their school culture. In particular, I wanted to share five of their strategies that I would consider best practices for starting a cooking program at your own school.

  1. Be intentional about what you grow in the school garden. Everything planted in the Champlain Elementary School garden is planted with a purpose. Vegetable varieties are often selected so that they can be used specifically in classroom cooking projects or by food service staff in school meals. Crops are strategically planted so that they reach full maturity in late summer and early fall, just in time for students returning to school. Before planting this coming season, put some thought into how your garden space could directly contribute to a handful of concrete cooking projects.

  2. Appeal to your community for donations. Local grocery stores have provided the school with grant money to acquire cooking supplies and gift certificates so that teachers can pick up ingredients for cooking projects. Teachers on the Outdoor Planning Committee have also leveraged relationships with district food service staff to assist with acquiring ingredients, though appeals to parents can yield just as productive results (for both foodstuffs and general supplies). Local kitchen stores can also be a good source of high quality donations or discounted items.

  3. If you can, have enough cooking implements for half your class. The key to Champlain’s culinary program is their mobile cooking cart equipped with enough cutting boards, box graters and whisks (just to name a few items) for an entire classroom. Having a large, well organized, collection of peelers, knives, measuring cups and spoons allows everyone to participate fully, though it’s not necessary for every single student to have their own rolling pin or spatula. In fact, when leading cooking activities I generally have students work in pairs and share tools; I find this promotes teamwork and cuts down on clutter and distractions.

  4. Have clear procedures that both teachers and volunteers understand. Cooking with a large group can be challenging and having an extra adult in the room can go a long way. Have clear standard operating procedures for cooking activities that both teachers and volunteers are trained on before they begin facilitating culinary projects. Have a written document that can easily be referenced or host a semi-annual training for both teachers and volunteers.

  5. Dedicate a set amount of time for cooking projects. Every Friday, at least four classes set aside an hour to participate in a cooking activity. While some teachers will pursue cooking with their classes on other days of the week, Fridays have become a set day where a volunteer or I will come in to help with these projects. Having a scheduled day each week where folks know they can jointly tackle a cooking activity with their students has created a sense of feasibility and sustained excitement for culinary projects, to the point that many would consider Cooking Cart Fridays an integral part of school culture.

Starting Seeds: What you need to know to be ready

kids starting seeds

The winter solstice is past, and each day the sunlight coming in my windows is a little bit stronger and lasts a little bit longer. While the cold and snow outside tell me winter is still keeping a firm grip on my Vermont garden, these gradually lengthening days hold out the promise of spring weather ahead. They tell me that, in spite of snowstorms and below-zero nights, gardening season is on its way and it’s time to think about starting seeds indoors.

Although January is too early for me to actually begin planting seeds indoors in my climate, it’s a good time to start planning which seeds to start and ordering them online or purchasing packets at my local garden store. (For help figuring out what to start when in your climate, see When to Plant Seeds.) It’s also the time to check that all my seed-starting supplies are ready, from fluorescent grow lights to germinating mix to cleaned and sanitized pots recycled from previous seasons. (To get re-used containers ready, I scrub them in warm, soapy water; rinse them; then soak them in a tub filled with 9 parts water and 1 part household bleach for 15 minutes. Next I rinse them with clear water and let them air dry.)  

All seeds are in a state of suspended animation, waiting for the right set of conditions to awaken and begin to sprout. For many kinds of seeds, warmth and moisture will rouse them into growth. But for some kinds of seeds, germination requirements are more complex. Some seeds contain chemical and physical inhibitors that keep them from germinating when the environment isn’t suitable. Once the seed receives the proper conditioning that destroys these inhibitors, it “knows” that it’s safe to start on the journey to becoming a plant. Understanding what conditioning particular seeds need sets you on the path to starting these seeds successfully.

Some seeds have a very hard seed coat that in nature is broken in a variety of ways that assure that the seed germinates under the proper conditions. Alternate freezing and thawing temperatures, extreme heat from a fire, passing through the digestive system of an animal are all ways in which a hard seed coat can be breached to allow moisture in. We can reproduce this conditioning with a procedure called scarification, which is simply nicking, scraping or cutting through the seed coat.  For example, you can cut off the pointed end of a morning glory seed with a sharp razor blade or scrape the seeds across a piece of sand paper. If you have a lot of seeds to scarify, put them in a jar with some coarse sand and shake vigorously.

Sometimes soaking is enough to soften the seed coat to speed germination.  Soaking can also speed germination by removing chemical inhibitors from the seed coat. Soak parsley seeds for 24 to 48 hours before planting, pouring off the water and replacing it with fresh several times, discarding the leached out inhibitors in the process. 

When we think of planting seeds, what springs to mind is usually a picture of tucking seeds into the soil. And while some seeds do need the darkness of a soil covering for germination, most will germinate in light or dark, though the covering of soil helps to keep them moist.  But some do require exposure to light to break down inhibitors in the seed coat. Lobelia, impatiens, and ageratum are flower seeds that need light for germination; simply press them on to the surface of the germinating medium, rather than burying them.

Certain seeds, usually of perennials, trees, and shrubs from cold-winter climates, need to be exposed to a certain duration of cool temperatures before they’re ready to germinate. This chilling requirement prevents them from sprouting prematurely when the weather is too cold for growth. In nature, these conditions are provided by normal seasonal changes.  When gardeners mimic this process, it’s called stratification. Seeds are given a period of moist cold (40-45 degrees F) for about 6 weeks to duplicate going through a cold winter; a refrigerator easily provides the appropriate “winter” chill.

Once seeds have been conditioned, most need warmth in addition to moisture to germinate well. The majority of the seeds we start early indoors appreciate bottom heat from a seedling heat mat or the top the refrigerator that keeps the germinating mix between 70 to 80 degrees F.

How to know what’s best for sprouting various kinds of seeds? Check the instructions on the seed packet for the specific requirements of the seeds you’re starting. Happy planting!

Looking Back at 2017

school garden

I want to kick off the New Year by sharing some of the highlights of the fall 2017 garden at my children’s elementary school in The Woodlands, Texas. Despite challenging weather, we had an amazing growing season this year. We started off in August with 30 inches of rain in one week from Hurricane Harvey and then we experienced higher than normal temperatures and minimal rainfall the rest of the fall (it only rained 4 times between September and Thanksgiving), so there was a lot of time spent watering, especially when our plants were first getting established. There were days when the plants would wilt even when the soil was moist because their young roots just could not take up water as fast as it was being used, but on the up side, the drier weather kept some of the insect and disease problems we have had in the past in check.

school gardenFirst let me start by sharing a picture of our amazing pollinator garden. My kids and I started a tray of pollinator-attracting plants in late summer and thinking I would remember what we planted and be able to recognize the young seedlings, I did not label the rows, so this was also a bit of a surprise garden (because of course I did not actually remember what we planted and had discarded the seed packets without thinking). We ended up with huge cosmos, marigold, and salvia plants in a wide array of colors (I am pretty sure we planted milkweed and coreopsis seeds too, but they apparently did not compete well with the others). Our plants attracted a diversity of bees and butterflies. We had a few young gardeners a little nervous about the number of bees flying around, but they quickly realized that the bees were very focused on the flowers and were not at all interested in the students. We will definitely be re-planting this area again this spring.

school gardenNext let me share a photo of our Third Grade gardens. We planted sugar snap pea teepees surrounded by marigolds. The marigolds took hold quickly, but the sugar snap peas really struggled with the hot weather. We planted them in mid-September, but they did not reach the top of our teepees until mid-November. We divided the kids into teams with each team having a different pole of the teepee--- the team whose plants reached the top first got an emoji key ring prize. As soon as the weather cooled down, they quickly made up for lost time though and began blooming up a storm so that all of the gardeners had a chance to snack on the peas before Christmas break.

And last but not least, our Fourth Grade salad gardens were total rock stars this fall. We started the lettuce and kale seeds inside for the first time and it was a huge success– we have never had a better harvest. Within a month of planting outdoors, the kids were able to bring home gallon-sized zip lock bags of kale, lettuce and radishes and they continued to harvest biweekly up to Thanksgiving. As the lettuce was beginning to bolt due to the hot temperatures, the broccoli exploded and took over the beds and the broccoli harvest soon school gardenbegan. We did have one disappointment this fall. Out of all the carrot seeds planted, only one garden plot ended up with harvestable plants. Another plant that also usually performs well for us that did not this season was the green bean. Did you know that green beans are a host plant for the Long-tailed Skipper caterpillar? It was the first time in five years that we have had a problem with them, but for some reason they were in great abundance this year (maybe because of our pollinator garden) and they really, really liked our green bean plants. Even though I think I am ready to give up on the carrots, perhaps we will try green beans again this spring and see if our plants can get some size on them before the caterpillar population can mow them down.

With 2017 behind us, it is now time to start working on our spring garden. I know it may sound early to many of you, but we start planting our spring garden seeds indoors in mid-January for an early March outdoor planting. Our fall garden has set the bar high this year so I am both excited and a bit nervous about what we can cook up for the spring. One of my favorite things about the garden is knowing that as many times as I have done this, I know I will learn something new right along with the students - that is the beauty of working hand in hand with mother nature – it is always an adventure!