Peas, Pollinators, and (Hydro)Ponics

Fall finally made it to Texas (this is the first week that our day time temperatures have not been in the 90s) and our gardens are rejoicing.  In spite of the summer that just would not quit, we kicked off our fall planting the first Friday of October and we have had some unhappy plants the last few weeks including lettuce seed that has just refused to grow.  Honestly, I was tired of being outside too. We are all happy about the cooler temperatures!

For those of you new to the blog, in addition to my work at KidsGardening, I also help coordinate the gardens at my son’s elementary school.  This school year we are trying a few new things while also keeping a few fan favorites, so I thought I would share our line up with you.  

school garden pictures
Sugar snap pea races

First up, we started our annual Sugar Snap Pea races with our third graders.  Each class divided into four teams and each team planted sugar snap peas at the base of one of the poles of their class teepee.  The kids picked out team names and the team whose plants get to the top first will win a small prize (last year it was a bookmark).  In addition to garden planting, we also made plant pals this year (homemade “chia” pets with panty hose, soil and grass seed) and that activity was such a hit.  The whole school now wants one (teachers and parents included). We ring our sugar snap pea beds with blooming annuals and also talk about pollinators and companion planting. We did very similar plantings with our PreK classes (although without the contest portion and with a more informal lesson structure).

We are also trying two new things this school year.  With our second grade classes, we are working on the Cabot Pollinator Patch Program.  Created through a partnership with the great folks at Cabot Creamery Co-operative, this program provides a series of activities designed to promote and build awareness around the importance of protecting pollinators.

Pollinator garden at school
Pollinator garden

In the garden, the second graders planted a variety of blooming annuals along with sowing spring flowering wildflower seeds.  The kids placed small butterfly decorations where the wildflower seeds are planted in anticipation of the butterflies to come next spring (and also so everyone remembers that we did plant something there so the new sprouts do not get accidentally “weeded”). We also played many rousing rounds of the “Be the Bee” game to teach kids about some of the reasons why bees and other pollinator populations are declining.  We are going to follow it up in the coming weeks with additional activities from the program to hopefully firmly plant a love for pollinators in our young gardeners.

And last but not least, our fourth grade classes are getting a look at farming of the future as we explore hydroponics. KidsGardening is working with The National Farm to School Network and Scotts Miracle-Gro Foundation to help support their Gro More Good Hydroponics Pilot Project through the development of a guide to help elementary educators introduce students to hydroponic gardening.  Although not an official pilot site, our fourth grade classes are getting a chance to give hydroponics a try (and also play guinea pig on the new lessons). In addition to learning the basics of hydroponics through videos and activities, we have planted lettuce 3 different ways so that they can see the differences first hand. We have planted lettuce in an AeroGarden Farm hydroponic unit, in pots placed under grow lights and also out in raised garden beds. The photos I am sharing with you were taken after 2 weeks of growth.  Due to our extreme heat, the hydroponic and grow light lettuce plants are out pacing our outdoor plants by leaps and bounds. The students are definitely getting to see the benefits of being able to control environmental conditions like temperature and moisture. As the weather cools (and hopefully those outdoor plants will start growing), I know we will have lots of other opportunities for comparison like leaf color and thickness, pest problems and water usage. I promise to share more as our experiment continues. (Grow outdoor lettuce! Grow!).

The last few weeks have been busy and demanding, but as always, getting back into the garden reminds me why I do what I do.  The garden is the perfect hands-on tool for teaching kids about science in a fun way while also connecting them to their environment and helping them gain an appreciation for our food system.  Digging in the soil and watching the seeds and plants grow, is an experience that can not be replaced through virtual reality and it is an opportunity that every child everywhere needs.  

Lettuce under grow lights

Hydroponic lettuce

Lettuce sprouts outside in the hot Texas fall

Garden Programs in Northern Climates

winter programming

Lately my blog posts have included lots of tips for seasonal activities. To continue with this trend, I thought I’d share a webinar I recently participated in hosted by the School Garden Support Organization Network. Focused on winter programming in Northern climates, a few school garden experts and I shared our ideas for creative food- and garden-based programming that you can accomplish while your outdoor growing space is dormant. Here’s a link to the recording; I hope you will give the webinar a listen! 

If you’re interested in other webinars like this, subscribe to our newsletter for information on webinars that KidsGardening staff participate in. And if you live in a place where your school garden needs to go on hiatus during the winter because of cold temperatures and snow, let us know what fun activities you do to keep students engaged!

Kids and Bees

kids and bees

Recently my daughter’s second grade class took a field trip to an apiary. Their class is studying pollinators, and her fantastic teacher set up an opportunity for kids to meet a beekeeper and interact with hives. Of course I volunteered to tag along. A big part of this was that I wanted to meet bees up close and personal (and of course get to know the kids in my daughter's class).

kids and bees
Quietly observing pollination activity

The kids had a long walk to the apiary, and we passed the time by chanting about how much we love bees. It was a beautiful early fall day in Vermont and there were lots of bees out on flowers and weeds on our walk. Even though they had been studying bees, there were quite a few kids who were scared of being stung. How was this going to go if they were surrounded by thousands of bees?!

Once we got to the apiary, kids were divided into two groups that would take turns doing an activity. One group found a flower to sit near in a native pollinator garden, and did a quiet observation of any visiting insects. The other group dressed in the kid-sized beekeeper suits and visited the hives. Can you guess which activity kids were more excited for?

kids and bees
A dead drone (male) bee

Kids who were scared of bees without a suit were fearless wearing a suit. They were excited to listen to the beekeeper and interact with the hives. They got to hold bees in their hand, observe them closely, and learn all sorts of cool facts. Such as:

  • Boy bees don’t sting.
  • Girl bees have a stinger because when they were not chosen to be the queen, their egg tube turns into the stinger. (I feel like this is a whole mood.)
  • Girl bees kick the boy bees out of the hive as it starts to get cold.

It was really fun seeing kids be able to get up close and personal with bees. It’s a hands-on learning experience they’ll remember forever. If you ever have a chance to take a class or your own kiddos to an apiary – do it!!

Crowdfunding for School Gardens

crowdfunding for school gardens

The back to school season also means back to fundraising. The purchasing of school supplies and new shoes is quickly followed by efforts to help raise money to fund the educational needs and activities not supported by the school district. (For many of you, I bet this is an amount that seems to grow each year). At my children’s school, I am in the midst of volunteering for campaigns to help raise the funds to support this year’s demands and my energy and pocketbook are quickly draining. I have spent a lot of time this year researching fundraising options and thinking about the philosophy behind giving and knowing that many of you are probably in the same boat, I wanted to share some thoughts.

The traditional youth and school fundraisers centered on the sale of products are quickly getting replaced by crowdfunding alternatives. What is crowdfunding? Broadly defined, crowdfunding is fundraising efforts focused on raising small amounts of money from large numbers of people generally without the exchange of any type of goods. Frequently they involve the use of online platforms and social media or in some cases efforts are organized around events.

The administration at both of the schools I work with are fully behind (and strongly encourage) using crowdfunding techniques rather than product sales. They like crowdfunding campaigns because more of the money raised goes directly to the school – it is a great thing to be able to promote. That being said, one of the challenges I have found is that people do not fully understand the time and energy it takes to conduct a successful crowd fundraiser. You have to replace the reward of a product with the motivation to give just to give. To do this you have to be so very clear about the goals of your programs and expenses, why they are important and the critical need for the funding. Communicating this information is much more complicated than just throwing together a fun run or putting together an online fundraising website. It comes down to sharing your story and marketing it in such a way that folks who are not involved with it on a day to day basis truly understand the value of what you are doing. I can honestly say from working on both types of fundraisers, that the product fundraisers I have worked on have been less time consuming and tend to bring in the same if not more money. However, that being said, crowdfunding campaigns do something that product sales do not. A successful crowdfunding campaign creates a sense of community and cultivates feelings of ownership that, over the long run, expands the number of people invested in your efforts which will hopefully contribute to the sustainability of your program in the future.

So what are some tips for creating a successful crowdfunding campaign? KidsGardening recently participated in a webinar from the School Garden Support Organization on Crowdfunding for School Gardens and if you have the chance, check out the archive for more information. In addition to talking about a social marketing campaign we hosted using the Crowdrise platform, and sharing some of the tips I have gathered, Hillary Lyons shared information about the Embrace Joy and Justice Campaign from Slow Food USA, and Roger Doiron introduced us all to

If you are thinking about exploring the use of a crowdfunding campaign for your school garden, you really need to check out Specifically focused on helping garden programs (both in the United States and around the world), Seedmoney provides the platform and the assistance to help you conduct a month-long crowdfunding campaign (from November 15th through December 15th). On top of that, they also have grant opportunities for the chance to earn matching funds. The deadline to apply to participate is November 12th, so make sure to check it out now if you are interested.

I will leave you with these thoughts. As I begin to get weary in asking for money, I try to find ways to remind myself why it is important – I have to pair the tedious fundraising work with some time out in the school garden surrounded by the little smiling faces eager to learn to remind myself these efforts help create a school environment that is positive for teachers and students. Also, I try to always remember the importance of telling the story. It is important to remember that when you are knee deep in the weeds, not everyone has the same perspective, but that does not mean they do not want to help. And my last tip is to always remember the importance of saying thank you for every donation, no matter the size. Gratitude is a two way street. It is important to the donor, but it also fuels the recipient. It helps remind you that you are not alone and you have people supporting your efforts.