Favorite Summertime Garden Snacks

garden snacks

Here in Vermont it’s that time of summer when gardens are overflowing with produce. It seems that every other day I have two dozen hot peppers to pick and each week I’m making massive batches of pesto (more on that in a minute). For me, having lots of veggies to harvest is simultaneously rewarding and overwhelming. And I think many gardener’s would agree that it’s easy to feel swamped by the amount of food coming out of the garden at the height of the growing season, especially if you don’t have a set plan for it. 

Over the years, through trial and error, I’ve come to realize which veggies I know I have a definite use for and which ones I should cut back on—for example, cabbage is incredibly fun to grow in my opinion, but there’s only so much I can eat. To formulate an understanding of which varieties I should grow and how much, I had to really examine the foods I like to snack on and the meals I like to prepare. During this self-reflective process there were a few recipes that immediately rose to the top and I wanted to share a little bit about them with you today. Below are three of my absolute favorite summertime garden snacks that allow me to use a significant amount of produce from a garden in one go, plus they’re delicious and easy to make whether you’re a kid or an adult!

Pan fried (blistered) shishitos: Shishitos are hands down my absolute favorite type of pepper. They are a finger-size, very mild Japanese variety (just a hit of spice) that taste best when sauteed whole in a little bit of olive oil with some salt sprinkled on top (just toss them in a pan at medium-high heat with the aforementioned ingredients until they’re slightly charred). They’re tasty enough to be a stand-alone snack, but I commonly use them as a side during dinner. And if I’m not craving whole shishitos, I’ll simply chop them up and add them to any dish that involves peppers. I typically grow one or two shishito plants each season and end up eating 8-12 peppers nearly every other day.

Pesto: I tend to have at least five basil plants in my garden, and making pesto is the only way I can keep up with the amount of basil I harvest throughout the growing season. While making pesto almost weekly can sometimes feel like a chore, I know that I can easily freeze whatever I make and that by the end of the summer I’ll have enough pesto to last me until the next growing season. One of the things I love about pesto is all the different varieties you can make! Try a spinach version or this parsley one. Kale and garlic scapes are also wonderful additions to spice up a traditional basil-based recipe and you can even add in some shishitos to create a slightly spicy kick.

Quick Pickles: I’m not super into raw cucumber but I love pickles and I like the idea of making my own but don’t have the patience to go through the whole canning process (nor do I have the proper equipment) The solution: quick pickles! Unlike fresh preserved pickles which can be stored up to a year, quick pickles only last a few weeks in your refrigerator. You can easily make your own with a basic brining solution or you can simply toss sliced cucumbers in leftover brine once you’re done with a store bought jar (though you should only do this once or twice before getting a new jar). Having a single plant can sometimes produce too much for even my quick pickling habit, especially if I let the cucumbers reach their full size, so I do my best to harvest cukes when they’re still small (approx. 3-4 inches).

Celebrating Moths

Moths

Anyone else have night owl children right now? I think my kids are practicing for their college days. In fact my daughter, in light of the fact that schedules are changing, just asked if night school would be a choice in the fall. The reason I bring this up is to point out that yes, there is cool stuff to do out in the garden, even when the sun goes down! There are many flowers that bloom and are at their full glory at night such as moonflowers, evening primoses, and nicotiana. They usually give off a strong, sweet scent that helps them attract the attention of pollinators such as moths and bats.

Speaking of moths, this week is National Moth Week and a perfect time to go on a hunt for these nocturnal creatures. They can be distinguished from their butterfly relatives because they are usually out at night, they have feathery antenna and in their pupa stage they transform in cocoons whereas a butterfly transforms in a chrysalis. That’s right folks, The Very Hungry Caterpillar has mixed it up for us! Most moths spend time as a cocoon and most butterflies as a chrysalis (although there are certainly exceptions, you can read Eric Carle's explanation about why he wrote it that way). This was one of my son’s favorite books when he was young and I love it too, but I did swap out chrysalis for cocoon when I read it to him. I thought it sounded just fine that way.

Back on topic though, moths are pretty cool. From yellow spots that make them look like they have owl eyes, to mottled colored wings, moths have some of the most remarkable and fun camouflage adaptations. If your kids are up like mine tonight, go out and see what you might find. Moths are frequently attracted to porch lights, so you might want to start there. Also while you are out there, make sure to enjoy the evening chorus of critters who sing throughout the night during summer months.

Above is a picture of an Imperial moth, a common visitor to our school garden. They frequently spend the day resting on the brick of our school building and the kids get such a kick out of finding them. They are well camouflaged, but different enough from the red/brown brick to draw attention. Their larval form eats on pine and other trees, which means they do not cause any damage in the garden (unlike the long-tailed skipper caterpillars which keep eating all of our bean foliage). We also sometimes spy luna moths which are really cool too.

Another great kid-friendly night garden resource you may want to check out is Our Shadow Garden by Cherie Foster Colburn. A very touching story about a grandchild creating a special garden with his grandfather for his grandmother who has cancer and is unable to garden during the day, the book’s illustrations were drawn by children who were patients at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. It's another book I love!

Cooler temperatures, a non-electronic environment, and sensory engaging activities are just some of the benefits you can reap from a night-themed garden. Make sure to keep an eye out for garden friends you might want to avoid (in Texas we have to watch out for copperheads, skunks, and mosquitoes). It’s a whole different world out there when the lights go out and another fun way to teach kids to appreciate and respect the beauty and intricacies of relationships in nature.

Dilly the Swallowtail Caterpillar

swallowtail caterpillar

"Mommy we have a new pet!" Recently my kids came home from an afternoon at their grandparents' house with a tiny caterpillar. It was called Dilly, as they were found in Gram's dill, and brought to our house because my youngest child was very interested in having a bug as a pet and my mom knew I'd be into that sort of thing. And so began our journey into the world of raising a swallowtail caterpillar!

We put Dilly on some sprigs of fennel and dill, which were placed in a mason jar full of water. We quickly realized we needed a cardboard box underneath, as Dilly was basically a caterpillar poop machine. We put Dilly right where we'd place a vase of flowers, and everyone in the family enjoyed watching them munch their way through the fennel. (See the picture above for Dilly's funny backbend way of eating!)

After about 2 days, Dilly got really still, and stayed that way for about 12 hours. I was a little worried they were dead! But Dilly was just shedding their skin. And then they ate the skin. Waste not, want not, I suppose. The newer and improved Dilly continued their munching for a few more days. Then one afternoon my spouse pulled me into the kitchen and whispers, "DILLY IS MISSING!" It turns out swallowtail caterpillars are very content to stay on their food source– until it's time to form a chrysalis. And then they go a little wild, and start crawling all over to find the right place. We searched all around, and Dilly had actually escaped to our porch through a little crack in the screen door. We scooped it back up, and I went about creating a makeshift habitat.

swallowtail caterpillar
Makeshift swallowtail habitat

Reader, I have never felt so crafty as when I created this home for Dilly. I ran outside and grabbed a few small sticks my kids had collected. I found a small box to anchor the sticks. And then I grabbed a meshy reusable produce bag to keep Dilly in one place. I used a little duct tape to keep the bag in place.

Dilly crawled manically all around the habitat. A few hours later, they settled into one spot, and stayed there for about 24 hours. One night, before I sent to bed, I went to check on them. Dilly was doing some strange wiggling motions, almost as if it looked like it was going to throw up. Then, Dilly started using it's legs to shed it's skin, revealing the chrysalis. It was so fascinating, and honestly, a tiny bit gross!

Dilly the chrysalis stayed that way for about 10 days, and then one morning the chrysalis looked much darker. Hatching time was near! I moved Dilly's habitat right next to my computer so I could see them hatch. At one point I looked up from my work, didn't see the chrysalis, and there was Dilly the black swallowtail butterfly!

swallowtail caterpillar
Dilly the black swallowtail butterfly

It was time to return Dilly to the wild. I removed the mesh produce bag, put them on the porch, and after a few hours, off flew Dilly the butterfly. There are lots of sites on how to raise swallowtail butterflies, and I encourage you to read more if you want to do this at home. But really, it was great fun, and everyone in our family immensely enjoyed the up-close view of Dilly's transformation.

For videos of Dilly as both a caterpillar and a freshly hatched butterfly, check out our Instagram!

Do you want to attract swallowtails to your garden? We've got a growing guide to attract swallowtails!

Three pieces of school garden advice

Christine school garden tips

Many of you may know from my previous blog posts that in addition to my work with KidsGardening, I’ve been managing gardens and teaching cooking classes for the Burlington School District for the past three and a half years. Since late 2016 a partnership has existed between KidsGardening and the Burlington School Food Project (BSFP), the district’s food service department and the guiding force behind farm to school activities across the city, that has enabled my split role. But as of July 1st, I am stepping away from my work with BSFP and am joining the KidsGardening staff full time as the Programming Director!

As I make this exciting transition, I’ve found myself reflecting on the lessons learned from my time spearheading district-wide gardening and cooking initiatives. Here are some of key factors that I believe have played a role in the success of BSFP’s farm to school programming.

Muli-tiered Support: The expansion of cooking cart programming to the majority of schools in the district can be attributed to the widespread excitement and support for food preparation and tasting activities. At the various elementary schools where I’ve taught, 100% of teachers opted into monthly cooking classes, food service staff welcomed me into their kitchens, and principals provided time at staff meetings for trainings related to food-based education. In many cases we also had parents volunteering to serve on garden committees and assist with planning and implementation. And from the school’s perspective, BSFP was able to meet the needs and interests of teachers by providing an employee dedicated to supporting them and facilitating learning opportunities. Without this multi-tiered support system, I’m not sure how far our programming would have gotten. 

Creative Collaboration: My position with the distinct would not have existed without a partnership with KidsGardening, so perhaps it is no surprise that collaboration in general has proven key to the development of food-based programming. Many of our school garden programs have benefited greatly from community connections—grants received from the co-op around the corner, tool sheds designed and built by students at a nearby college, garden maintenance provided by a local restaurant owner. And looking inward, some of our schools were able to create mobile cooking carts by working under my guidance and with material and financial support from the Food Service Department and the Curriculum Department. In fact, these two district entities, which typically never interact in school systems across the country, collaborated to jointly fund the Garden Education Coordinator position and support farm to school focused professional development opportunities for teachers.

Securing Funding: The decision to integrate a part time position focused on supporting food-based activities into the district’s budget created an enabling environment for the expansion of farm to school programming. But even with such a financial commitment, schools have remained partially responsible for purchasing ingredients for cooking classes and gardening materials. Each school has their own tried and true fundraising mechanisms from seedling sales to generous PTOs, but BSFP has recognized this financial gap and made it a priority to increasingly provide physical materials (mulch, compost, seed packets, vegetable starts, etc.) and monetary support (ex: gift certificates to grocery stores, discounts at local nurseries) directly to schools.

For many, garnering support, discovering and maintaining collaborative partnership, and securing funding can be some of the biggest challenges when it comes to establishing and expanding food-based programming at schools. I hope that these snapshots of the Burlington School Food Project’s success in these areas can be useful to you and your program. 

Gro More Good Hydroponics Pilot Project

hydroponics pilot

This past school year, KidsGardening had the exciting opportunity to work in collaboration with the National Farm to School Network and The Scotts Miracle-Gro Foundation on the Gro More Good Hydroponics Pilot Project which resulted in the creation of the Exploring Hydroponics Guide.

Hydroponics in short is growing plants by supplying all necessary nutrients in the plant’s water supply rather than through soil. From an educational standpoint, it provides a lot of interesting opportunities to teach kids about plant needs and gives them the chance to investigate ways we can use engineering and technology to grow plants in nontraditional settings. They get the chance to explore ways to grow plants in challenging environments and think about how this type of growing technique might be used to meet the needs of our current and future food systems. From a student’s perspective, it is just plain fun too.

As part of this partnership, just like the 15 pilot sites, I had the chance use the guide and an AeroGarden Farm Plus system with the fourth grade students at our school garden and you may remember I shared a bit about our experiences in a blog in the fall. I kicked off each session by taking an anonymous vote on paper, asking students “Do plants need soil to grow?” and not surprisingly, a majority of students said yes. Many times to simplify teaching plant needs, kids learn soil is one of those needs rather than learning that soil provides the needs of water, nutrients and place to grow to the plant. It was awesome to watch their amazement as our plants quickly grew in the hydroponic unit (much faster than the lettuce growing outside) and really be able to demonstrate for them that you can in fact provide for the needs of plants without soil. We then tied that into lessons about what hydroponics mean for growing plants for increasing populations and in challenging environments like in urban centers, deserts, Antarctica and even on the moon.

I just want to mention here, that I always make sure to include in these lessons that soil is very important and share the wonder of how perfectly it is designed to naturally meet the needs of plants. I place the emphasis on using hydroponics in situations where we might need to look for alternate solutions (including environments with challenges such things as water scarcity, low land availability, and temperature extremes) and the benefits hydroponics can offer in those solutions. My absolute favorite finding from the feedback shared by the Gro More Good Hydroponic pilot programs we worked with was that they found working with the hydroponic systems in the classroom increased the interest in and enthusiasm for their outdoor gardens too. Because it was regularly accessible and because of the faster growth rate, the gardens proved to be a great hook to get kids excited about gardening. How cool is that? You can read more about the highlights of the pilot program from the National Farm to School Network.

The Exploring Hydroponics Guide offers 5 lessons (with 3 distinct learning activities in each) targeting 3rd through 5th grade. We include suggestions for using with younger and older students too. The focus is on hands-on exploration and real world application. It also includes an extensive appendix offering hydroponic basics for anyone new to this type of system. The pilot programs used a prefabricated hydroponic system, but in the guide we also share ideas on how to build your own systems too. I want to make sure to give a shout out to Joreen Hendry, Eve Pranis, and Victoria Beliveau who authored the original KidsGardening Exploring Classroom Hydroponics publication many years ago which laid the ground work on these easy (and inexpensive) DIY systems.

You can download the Exploring Hydroponics guide for free both on the KidsGardening website and the The National Farm to School Network website. We hope that you find it to be a useful resource to add to your youth garden library.