Your School Gardens Questions, Answered (Part 2)

school garden questions answered

In my last blog I answered some questions submitted by our Facebook followers. Today, I’ll tackle a handful of additional queries...

Q1: Are there seed companies that sell children's garden seed mixes? They're seed packets with a variety of garden seeds that the children can sort and plant to make a complete garden.           

seed mixes for kidsI’ve never seen a seed company combine assorted vegetable seeds in a single seed packet, with the exception of a lettuce blend. However, many seed companies will create and sell pollinator mixes. These packets often have a whole assortment of flower seeds in them that could be sorted if you wanted, though they’re designed specifically so that all the varieties planted together (ie. via broadcasting) complement one another (sequential blooming, diverse nutrients, etc.). If you’re interesting in these, look to Botanical Interest, who is donating 10% of their proceeds September 1-3, 2018, to KidsGardening!

Companies might also create and package seed collections, these are an assortment of seed packets often grouped by a theme. Some examples from High Mowing, a company local to us in Vermont, are their Container Garden Collection, their Garden Starter Collection and their Kids Garden Collection! In each of these cases, you receive a diverse assortment of seeds, 5-10 packets, each of a different variety. There isn’t much seed sorting to do, other than figuring out what you want to plant and where!

Q2: My school in New Jersey runs from September to June. I would like to plant some things that students can harvest in the fall. Any ideas?

Immediately when you get back to school in September you can plant radishes and various micro or baby greens outdoors with students; these are fast growing crops that you can harvest after only a few weeks. As it begins to get cooler, you can cover the greens with reemay/fabric row cover, to extend the growing season.

With some forethought, you can also plant some veggies come the end of the school year that will be harvestable next fall (though you will also have to create a plan for maintaining the garden over the summer). Various winter squashes, peppers and eggplants are three crops that require relatively little care over the summer and will produce a bountiful harvest come the start of the school year (especially if you hold off planting them until June). Similarly, plant a whole bed of carrots during the last week of school and they should be ready to go once classes start back up.

Over the summer you can also strategically time the planting of various crops so that they reach maturity around the time school begins (ex: kale, beets, potatoes, etc.), but these will also require weeding and watering during the summer months..

Q3: Do you have models or plans for self-watering, rolling garden beds? What reasons would people choose a rolling garden bed over a permanent garden bed? We may have some construction at our school and we did not want to risk putting up new garden beds that might need to be removed, so we are considering getting more portable rolling garden beds.

I personally have never built nor used a rolling garden bed, though I have seen my fair share of portable beds. Most of the time these are smaller growing units that folks choose to use because of somewhat adverse sunlight conditions, limited space, or restrictions on installing a permanent structure. Moveable beds (depending on their size) can also be brought inside during the winter months, allowing you to extend the growing season.

Moveable garden beds can take many different shapes. They can be everything from a wide pot-shape fabric container, such as Smart Pots’ Big Bag Bed (pictured in the main blog image, above), to an elevated raised bed or planter, like this one from Eartheasy. If you’re specifically looking for something with wheels and you’re interested in a self-watering system, I’d recommend checking out the Rolling U-Garden Planter from Gardener’s Supply. (Did you know Gardener’s Supply generously offers a 25% discount to schools and educational institutions? Call Holly-Ruth Stocking at 888-560-1037 to place your order, and mention code KGO2018.)

A Reminder to Enjoy Your Garden

slow down and enjoy your garden

Summer is winding down. The garden is bountiful, the harvest is prolific…and there is so much to do.

Water the garden, pickle the cucumbers, ferment the cabbage, remove the pests, seed the fall crops, repair the tomato trellis, wow there are so many weeds, give away zucchini, cook all the food…

STOP! Okay, I think we both need to take a deep breath. IN…and…OUT.

Woah! I have to admit, this summer my garden chores seem to have been relegated to just more items on my never-ending to do list. More things I need to “get done” as quickly as possible before moving on to the next.

Can you relate? My guess is that you can. Our fast-paced ever-connected world has trained our brains to think this way, to prioritize multitasking, productivity, and busyness over mindfulness and enjoyment.

Don’t get me wrong, I love eating organic, fresh vegetables; but if my garden is just a means to an end then I’d rather just go to my local food coop. We’re here for the journey and we should take time to enjoy it - and teach our kids to do the same.

A big part of what gardens teach us is to just be. To observe. To sit in stillness and enjoyment of all that nature has to offer. When our garden becomes just another item on our to do list, we lose that. Let’s honor our gardens and ourselves with some quiet time.

New Beginnings for School Gardens

Planting seedlings at a school garden

My mantra for the 2018 – 2019 school year: “It’s worth it.”

I have been the parent volunteer garden coordinator at my kids’ school for the last five years. That first year, parents and fourth grade teachers sat down together in true garden team style and brainstormed plans for the garden. We tried a couple of different approaches, but then landed on a system that really seemed to work and take hold. Three years ago, we used the same approach to add on a third grade garden area. Last year was the first year I felt we had kind of found our groove. The students, teachers and parent volunteers had the process down.

It’s worth it.

Due to a number of different reasons, this year 4 of our 6 fourth grade teachers are new to our school and 4 of our 7 third grade teachers are new to third grade. All of the teachers that were part of our original garden committee have either retired or moved to new schools. I am happy to say that many of our dedicated parent garden volunteers are back for another year though (and in fact we had a few dedicated families and Scouts who bravely tackled the weeds in the Texas heat to get everything ready for the first day of school - it was amazing! I was so happy I almost cried!), but with 5 years under our belt, we are pretty much re-booting on the teacher side.

It’s worth it.

This summer our school was under construction. Taking inventory the first week the school opened back up, one of the shelves for the grow lights had disappeared along with our timer and power strip, the compost bin had been emptied and the water valve had been broken. I admit I was a bit discouraged by my first trip out to the school this year. I am happy to report that by the first day of school the grow light shelf reappeared and our wonderful school office administrator arranged to get the water fixed. What a motivation boost it was to have both of these things happen so quickly!

It’s worth it.

A new fence has been put up around the school. Please know I have no complaints about this as it is meant to add safety to the building, but it does mean we will need to rethink weekend and break watering schedules and probably also planting schedules too. It is yet to be determined how we will be able to access the site when the school is not open, but I am sure we will figure something out.

It’s worth it.

One of my favorite quotes of all time is from a social worker from the early 20th century Grace Abbott: “Perhaps you may ask, ‘Does the road lead uphill all the way?’ And I must answer ‘Yes, to the very end.’ But if I offer you a long, hard struggle, I can also promise you great rewards.”

Hmmm… perhaps not all of you will see that as inspirational as I do. But it helps remind me to focus on 3 truths that keep me motivated:

  • Our school garden is the first time many of our students ever see how fruits and vegetables are grown.
  • Our school garden has inspired a number of homes gardens resulting in more families growing their own fresh food and decreasing kids screen time while increasing their experiences in nature.
  • Our school garden may be the only gardening opportunity for many of our students until they are adults.

So is it going to be a challenging year? Likely, yes. But, I can already feel the support gathering from parents and administrators. Also, I am excited about the opportunity to work with the new teachers and think it is a great time to evaluate the garden and how we use it.  I know it is going to take a little bit of extra energy and enthusiasm to get things moving this year and I am going to be honest with you, even with 20 + years of youth gardening experience under my belt, the task seems a bit daunting. But, is it worth it? Hands down yes.

It’s worth it.

At KidsGardening it is our goal to try and provide the know-how and inspiration teachers and parents need to grow new and keep existing garden programs going. We know first hand it isn’t easy, but we want you to know it is worth it. We want gardening educators every where to know how much we appreciate and support their efforts and that their blood, sweat and tears are making a difference. A school garden is not a curriculum in a box, it is a living lab and an engaging tool that provides students with a connection to nature and our food system and our environment that lasts a life time.

Do you agree that it’s worth it? Do you want to help us inspire and motivate new and current garden educators?

If so, please consider giving to our Back to School Gardens Campaign. The money will go to support our foundational programs including our monthly Kids Garden News, the development of our online resources (lesson plans, garden activities, how-to articles and garden guides), creation of new curriculum materials (like our most recent Digging into Soil Guide) and our grant programs like our Youth Garden Grant that has been providing seed money and supplies to youth gardens since 1982.

Our goal is to raise $8,000. We need your help to keep doing what we do! Visit Back to School Gardens to learn more.

Garden Stories: The Hornworm Incident


One of the great things about gardening – of which there are many! – are the stories you can tell. Kids always have great garden stories; from accidentally eating a slug on a piece of kale, to the time a groundhog devoured all the snap peas. This last one actually led to a 5-minute dramatic production put on by my daughter’s preschool class.

So, here's the garden story we've been telling around our house recently...

The other day my daughter and I were happily hunting for ripe cherry tomatoes when I noticed that one of my tomato plants was growing only stems, but no leaves. Later that night, it hit me. My plant isn’t growing only stems, something is eating the leaves!

I had it in my head what it could be, and checked the KidsGardening growing guide and another gardening book to be sure. Yep. It’s a hornworm.

(Cue a horror movie scream.)

hornworm poop
The black droppings of a hornworm.

The next morning, after dreaming that my tomato crop was ruined by a freakish August snowstorm, I became obsessed with tracking down the tomato-muncher. My kids came up with all kinds of plans to scare it out of the garden, my favorite being a sign that said, “No hornworms allowed.”

I spent about 40 minutes hunting for it, at two different times of day. I watched the plant for movement.  I found poop. Wow. SO MUCH HORNWORM POOP! (Sarah blogged about being surprised how much poop a monarch caterpillar can make. I imagine this is similar.)

But I didn’t find the hornworm. I am hopeful that the crows that had been eating the strawberries flew by and enjoyed a tasty hornworm snack. If so, I may forgive the crows.

Telling stories about garden foes, funny incidents, or gross encounters connects the garden to your family or school's history. It can connect you, as an adult, to fellow gardeners who may have advice or whoppers of their own to add. If your kids are like mine, they want to hear the same stories over and over again. (Mayyyybe I use this opportunity to embellish the story a wee bit and really draw out the suspense.) So, tell us, what's the garden story you've been telling around the watering hose this summer?

Your School Garden Questions: Answered! (part 1)

multi lingual school garden signs

The other week we asked our Facebook followers if they had any gardening questions and for my blog today I’m tackling some of those queries. 

Q1: We have a school garden that includes 14 raised garden beds filled with fruits, veggies and herbs... We would like to post a list of garden chores/activities for classes to go by when visiting the garden. What are some ideas of what to include on this list?

  • Chores: Watering, weeding, and harvesting are always tasks that students can help with in the garden. But you might want to add some extra directions when it comes to harvesting; it’s always a bummer when a class is planning a big tasting or cooking activity only to find out that the produce they were going to use has been harvested by someone else unknowingly. Having something that folks can easily write notes on, like a chalkboard or whiteboard attached to a garden fence or shed, can be a great way to effectively communicate these tasks.
  • Activities: Scavenger hunts are a great option for a class to explore a garden, not to mention they’re easy to coordinate. Create a whole series of themed lists (ex: garden insects, things you can eat, various colors, etc.) and laminate them to help prevent any wear and tear. Alternatively collect a bunch of egg cartons for students to use as collection containers. I like to label each container and challenge students to find multiple examples of the thing they’re looking for (ex: something soft, something hard, something smooth, something colorful, something alive, something dead, etc.)

Q2: Where can we make or find signs to post in the garden that teach about the different garden areas so that each area can provide a self-guided garden lesson for anyone that visits the garden?

  • Rather than buying signs, I’d try getting a class to create informative signs themselves. (See the multilingual example in the header image.)
  • But if you’re dead set on having custom signs made I’d try finding and working with a local business or checking out MyPlantLabel; I personally have never purchased signs from them, but they seem to have a variety of options that seem aligned with what you’re looking for.
  • I’d also caution against permanent signage and encourage you to pursue signs that can easily be moved, especially if they highlight information about annual crops you’ve planted in beds. I once worked with a school that had a handful of beautiful signs permanently installed next to each of their garden beds. Each sign has a lot of really great information about what was growing in the bed that season. Unfortunately growing the same variety in the same bed year after year isn’t very good for soil health, so the school was faced with the decision to either replant in the same location to the detriment of that bed’s soil health, or rotate their crops though the garden space, but have signs that incorrectly identified the contents of every single garden bed.

Q3: What are different ways to incorporate technology in the garden for different grade levels? Engineering?

  • school garden weather stationRelated to the previous question/answer, I’ve seen some schools install very small signs that simply have QR codes that, when scanned, link to a website with content generated by students. This could be a way to both incorporate technology into the garden and communicate information about the different garden areas for the purpose of a self-guided tour or lesson.
  • Weather stations can also be a great way to integrate technology into a garden space. You can work with students to research weather instruments and create a custom built weather station (an engineering project perhaps), or simply buy an all-in-one wireless weather station that can stream data to a display system in your classroom (Ex: an AcuRite system)
  • Trellises are a simpler (and less expensive) engineering project, not to mention an often essential garden feature, that you can challenge students to design and create from a mix of store bought and found materials (ex: twine and large sturdy sticks).

If I didn’t respond to your question this week, be on the lookout for answers in future blog posts! I welcome your additional questions in the comment section below.