Making the Most of Your Last Garden Harvest

last garden harvest

As the weather gets colder here in Vermont, and as the gardens throughout the Burlington School District are put to bed, I begin to focus largely on cooking classes with my students. For most of the winter, students and I will work together to create delicious snacks using almost exclusively store-bought ingredients, but for now we’re trying to use every last bit of food produced in our school gardens.

So today, I wanted to share five of the cooking projects we’ve been working on in school that feature ingredients from the final days of our growing season—all those veggies that we’re salvaging from the dying plants instead of throwing them directly in the compost bin.

last garden harvest
Photo by Andy Duback

  • Kale Pesto: As we ripped out all our woody, yellowing basil plants we set aside the last of the green leaves— enough to fill almost four ziplock gallon bags! While we could have made a decent amount of pesto using just the basil, we were able to stretch it even further by adding kale, which is still growing in abundance.
  • Salsa Verde: There were so many green tomatoes still on the vine when we pulled out the tomato plants last week. Rather than throwing them all in the compost bin we decided to put them to good use. Some we set aside to ripen, but the vast majority of the unripe fruit was combined with the last of the tomatillo harvest and turned into jar upon jar of salsa verde.
  • Hot Sauce: Just like with the tomatoes, there were a ton of not-completely-ripe peppers that we harvested just before the plants were uprooted and composted. Some of these peppers were added to the salsa verde, but the rest will be turned into hot sauce.
  • Dried Herbs: The day before our first frost warning we pulled all the assorted herbs from the gardens. Students then worked on cutting some of the stems to manageable sizes, tying them in bundles, then hanging them up to dry.
  • Seed Saving: Even though this isn’t really a cooking project, it’s a great way to make use of the those not-quite-edible tomatoes or bolted, bitter greens that you’re clearing out the garden. Not sure how to preserve seeds from the plants in your garden? Check out KidsGardening’s Save Your Seed activity plan and Seed Saving Guide to find out!

Growing a Garden Community

garden community

Last night, with a few rows of garlic planted and a few moments of gratitude, my garden was put to bed for the year. It’s a bittersweet time for me. I love my time in the garden and all of the abundance it brings to my life, but I also love the changing seasons and begin to crave the rest and rejuvenation that the winter time brings.

As I’m reflecting on this season, I thought it would be nice to share with you the special kind of gardening community I have been growing with over the last two years. I have been fortunate to be a part of the Vermont Community Garden Network (VCGN)’s Community Teaching Garden (CTG). VCGN is a wonderful organization (and a friend of KidsGardening!) that supports and grows our home state’s vibrant network of community and school gardens.

The CTG class is an immersive, 1-2 year experience in which you are provided with all of the resources and knowledge you need to get started as a gardener. The first year is intended for beginners. We each had our own plots, as well as some shared space to grow special items like potatoes and beans. I had wanted to garden for years but I didn’t know where to start. This class was perfect for me because it gave me everything I needed and walked me through an entire season. We met for two hours in the evening twice per week for 22 weeks. It was a big commitment, and totally worth it.

This year, I took the Advanced CTG course, and we had a bit of a different model. Instead of each having individual beds, we had shared space that we were responsible for caring for collectively. This model allowed us to learn to care for a much larger-scale garden and learn about different growing and pest-control techniques that are much more effective when you can plant, say one row of tomatoes all together, rather than a mixed bed. It was also nice to have a group of people with which to share watering, weeding, and other responsibilities. Many hands make light work!

But perhaps one of the most profound things I have gained from being a part of this class over the last two years is a community of people, from all walks of life, who I love and adore and might not otherwise have ever interacted with. There is a special kind of bond that’s formed when you are working together – especially over a long period of time – to deepen your connection to the earth and meet one of our most basic instincts: to nourish our bodies with healthy foods.

I’m so grateful for all of you who are growing these garden communities for youth in your schools, homes, and organizations. I know it’s impacting their lives and leading to a brighter future.

Seed Balls Spread Beauty

Making seed balls with kids is a really fun way to spread wildflower seeds. We tried it out this summer, and I think it would make a really great fall activity, too!

KidsGardening has a great how-to on making seed balls – but I wanted something even easier. We took this activity with us to a family lakehouse, and wanted to make our packing as simple as possible. I found some pre-made seed ball mix online, and bought a few packets of wildflower seeds at my local garden center. I also grabbed all the poppy seeds we had been collecting from our home garden. (You can see them in the image above - we had at least four tablespoons worth!)

Both kids AND adults had fun getting a little messy mixing the seeds into the clay. If you’re doing this activity with toddlers, I recommend using bigger seeds. Or, if you use really tiny seeds, like poppies, you can roll the clay in a few seeds instead of trying to sprinkle them on your clay.

We rolled up some seed balls, let them dry for a day, and then set out to spread some beauty.

Throwing the seed balls was my kids’ favorite part! We can’t wait to visit again next summer and see what, if anything, has grown.

It’s Garden Grant Season!

garden grant

It’s garden grant season! This week I wanted to take a quick minute to point out all the garden grants open right now because many have quickly approaching deadlines.

At KidsGardening, our open grants include: Budding Botanist (due November 19), Youth Garden Grant (due December 17) and Carton 2 Garden Contest (due March 25, but accepting entries on a rolling basis).

Whole Kids Foundation’s Garden Grant and Bee Grant Programs are now accepting applications (due October 15). Captain Planet has a number of different grants programs open for environmental programming and gardening (many due on January 15).  Wild Ones Lorrie Otto Seeds for Education Fund is also currently accepting applications (due date October 15). The soonest deadline, Nature Conservancy’s Nature Works Everywhere Grant is open and due this Friday, October 5. Lastly, Annie’s Grants for Gardens application is now available (due November 1).

Just FYI, whenever we locate a garden grant opportunity, we post it on our Grant Opportunities page. (And if you know of any we do not have listed, please send them my way).

Let me also mention two organizations whose programs are designed to help you raise money by providing you with crowd fundraising tools – Seed Money and Annie’s Garden Funder.

As someone who has read a lot of grant applications over the years and also written a lot of applications too, I want to leave you with one thought.  The number of amazing applications is always greater than the number of grants available. Both at work and in my volunteer life, I have applied for a lot (a lot) of grants and only gotten a small handful of them. I always have to remind myself that not getting a grant I have applied for is not a statement of the value of my program – just a sign that there was a lot of competition and that I need to keep looking for the best funding match. So even though I am sharing these grant opportunities with you today, I just wanted to mention that I know some times grants are a long shot (and a time consuming one at that), but keep in mind that having a strong proposal in your arsenal can also help you solicit local donations too. KidsGardening offers some additional grant writing tips if you're looking for help.

Soil Can Help Fight Climate Change: Kids Need to Get Dirty and Learn About Soil

soil can help fight climate change

Switch to compact fluorescent light bulbs and plant a tree – these are some popular suggestions for practical steps people can take to help mitigate climate change. But the truth is, we are standing on one of the most overlooked, most effective and least expensive strategies available: store carbon in the soil.

The earth's soil contains the second-largest quantity of carbon (the largest amount is dissolved in oceans). Unfortunately, many of our modern day practices – including the removal of fossil fuels for use as an energy source and the tilling of land for agriculture crops – has resulted in an increase in carbon present in the atmosphere. This has led to global climate change.

How do we encourage the movement of carbon from the atmosphere to the soil? We need the help of plants to accomplish this. However, it needs to be the right plants in the right place.

Planting trees might sound like a flawless idea since trees absorb large quantities of carbon. But trees are not always the best solution. In areas that were originally covered in wetlands and grasslands, native, deep-rooted grassland plants are much more efficient in the sequestering of carbon. Native grassland plants also use water resources more efficiently, contribute greater amounts of organic matter to the soil, and are better adapted to handling drought conditions. The ecological lesson is that we should plant trees only where the soil will benefit from it.

Another way we can change the amount of carbon stored in soil is to promote techniques that reduce the release of carbon from the soil into the atmosphere. One example is "no-till" farming, in which farm-seeding equipment inserts crop seeds into slits cut into the undisturbed soil.  Farmers have reported that no-till agricultural practices delivered savings in just 2 to 3 years and increased crop yields by 10 percent. It also reduced fossil-fuel use for farm machinery by 90 percent.

No-till agriculture also leaves leftover plant matter on the land, which means the technique can add up to 1.3 inches of soil materials and organic matter per acre over the next 50 years. The many feet of new soil would be a sponge to hold back runoff and nutrients from entering rivers and lakes and hurting potable water supplies. It would also help reduce costly, damaging floods.

Ranchers can also contribute by using grazing practices that emulate the way bison used to graze. They moved quickly over the landscape – consuming then moving on-- and not returning to the same location for an extended period, often years. Ranchers now can graze their cattle on deep rooted native grasses and wildflowers, and keep the cattle and sheep “moving”, with short stops in each paddock, allowing a longer plant recovery period compared to conventional grazing where cattle may access the same paddock and wear down the energy and recovery potential of each eaten plant every day.

Scientific analyses show that recapturing atmospheric carbon into soil and plant communities is the easiest and least expensive method for mitigating climate change and that it provides many other economic, cultural, and ecological benefits. Restoring soils in currently farmed land can rein in 10 to 15 percent of the annual carbon emissions Americans create. Replanting native grasslands and restoring drained wetlands can reduce up to another 20 percent.  We need to follow nature's lead and put carbon where the earth has securely stored it for millions of years – in the soils. Among many other benefits, this will cleanse the atmosphere, taking a big bite out of the existing greenhouse-gas loads.

Unfortunately, few Americans are aware of the power of the land below their feet to help balance our environment. Teaching children about the importance of soil is another way educators and parents can help fight climate change.  Children need to be encouraged to play and explore soil so they will grow to appreciate its contribution to our global community.  It is never too early to begin learning about the importance of soil.  With the help of teachers, they will understand that what they stand to learn about soils is essentially important to their future and that of all other species on earth.

Steven I. Apfelbaum is a senior ecologist with Applied Ecological Services, Inc., in Brodhead, Wis. He and others at AES are part of a global team of scientists researching how to re-grow healthy soils for the benefit of people, climate, water cycles, biodiversity, and food systems on earth.  Steve co-teaches a course on the future of coastal ecosystems at Harvard Graduate School of Design, Cambridge, and lectures regularly at various other universities. For more of Steve's writing on soil as a carbon sink, enjoy The role of ruminants in reducing agriculture’s carbon footprint in North America, for the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation.