Greenhouse Update!

Greenhouse Progress

In my last blog I wrote about starting seeds in the greenhouse at Burlington High School. This week, I wanted to provide a quick update.

greenhouse
The greenhouse at Burlington High School

Despite the fact that I’ve helped seed the vast majority of starts that will be transplanted into school gardens across the entire district for going on 3 years, I always get a little bit nervous about whether or not our seeds will germinate successfully. Most of my worries are focused on watering and making sure that nothing gets too dry, especially as sunny, warm days become more frequent here in Vermont. We have an sprinkler system on a timer that helps with irrigation, but it’s not perfect—often under watering plants but leaving giant puddles on the greenhouse floors—so I tend to hand water the growing flats twice a day until the seedlings are well established.

greenhouse progress
Cabbages!

Staying on top of watering pays off. Our sprouts are looking healthy and strong. I’m particularly pleased with this year’s planting of cabbage. Usually my brassicas get really leggy, but this year the stems haven’t gotten too long and the leaves seem to be getting bigger and bigger each day. I might even try potting up the cabbages within the coming weeks, something I’ve never done before seeing as they’ve always turned out so delicate in the past.

Since our first round of seeding, we’ve done two additional plantings, including one just yesterday. This time we focused on assorted greens, tomatoes, and a second round of cabbage to allow for succession planting. And in two weeks, we’ll do our final wave of seed starting. We always save cucumbers, squash (both summer and winter), pumpkins and sunflowers for last since they grow so quickly. Before we know it, it’ll be time to bring our starts outside to harden off and transplant!

{Header image shows marigold seedlings.}

Nightshades and Brassicas and Alliums Oh My

nightshades brassicas alliums

nightshadesEach year around mid-to-late March I work with a group of high school students to start seeds for most of the gardens in the Burlington School District. This is one of my favorite aspects of the growing season! I love spending time in the greenhouse whether it be seed starting, watering, or potting up plants that have gotten too big for their original growing flats.

Yesterday, on the first day of spring, we gathered to do our first round of seeding. For folks in similar growing climates—or plant hardiness zones—this may seem a little late, but that’s because we generally use June 1st as our transplant date (also a little late) to be able to work with a group of students participating in some end of year programming focused on urban agriculture.

Yesterday’s seed starting was focused on some crops that take the longest to mature, an assortment of nightshades (peppers and eggplants), alliums (onions, leeks, etc.), brassicas (cabbage and kohlrabi), and herbs.

nightshadesWhile I love alliums, peppers are probably my favorite thing to grow, especially the hot ones. Not only do I enjoy using hot peppers in a lot of my cooking (as do many of the older students I work with), I also really like to experiment with making different types of hot sauce. My favorite pepper that I recommend to just about everyone, is the Shishito, a mild Japanese variety that’s particularly delicious when pan-fried with a little bit of coarse salt.

Our next round of planting will happen in approximately two weeks, by which time we’ll probably start to see a few sprouts! Until then, we’ll simply focus on keeping our many growing flats well-watered.

Strategic School Garden Planning

strategic garden planning

Yesterday I received an email request from a teacher I work with: “Do you have some time to come talk with our staff about making strategic plant selections for our school garden?” I immediately began compiling some recommendations and helpful guidelines to present to teachers at an upcoming meeting. I thought I’d share some of this advice in today’s blog; below you’ll find a list of questions I encourage folks to consider before putting any seeds or starts in the ground:

  • What is the purpose of your garden this growing season? Is it to use as a outdoor classroom and demonstrate life science concepts in action? Is it to attract pollinators? Is it to grow food that can be used in the school cafeteria or in classroom cooking activities? Do you want to donate produce to families or a local food bank? I think this is a key question that will guide the rest of your garden planning, informing both the varieties and quantities you’ll plant.
  • How much space do you have? I’ve worked with many schools where each classroom is assigned a single small garden bed. Often times these garden beds are overflowing with plants—ten carrots here, six radishes there, two kale plants, a smattering of flowers, and sprawling cucumber vines spilling over the sides of the bed or slowing choking out the rest of the plants. If you have limited space it may be tempting to cram as much into your garden bed as possible (especially if your class is having a hard time deciding on a single veggie), but remember that cramped quarters often lead to stunted growth. Even if you decide to go with one variety, be sure to leave the proper amount of space between plants so that they can grow to their full potential.
  • What will happen to the garden over the summer? For many schools, the bulk of the growing seasons falls during summer vacation, and it’s essential to answer the following two questions: 1. Do you have reliable summer maintenance? 2. Do you have a plan for produce over the summer? If you answer “no” to both questions, then I’d highly recommend planting low yield, low maintenance crops, such as carrots, winter squash, sweet potatoes, etc. Once these crops are in the ground they simply require regular watering and occasional weeding. They’re not like tomatoes, which require frequent pruning and continual harvesting during the height of the summer.
  • When do you want to harvest? While it’s exciting to plant with students the second the conditions are right, consider timing first. Vegetables grow at different rates. Some, like leaf lettuces and radishes, only take a few weeks to reach maturity, while others, such as potatoes and squash, take significantly longer. For example, if you plant cucumbers before the end of the school year, they’ll be ready to harvest in the middle of the summer when no one is around, but if you wait until later in the summer to plant then your cucumbers will be ready for students when they return to school in the fall. Consider your ideal harvesting date and work backwards (using the “days to maturity” information often found on seed packets) to figure out the right time to direct seed or transplant.

strategic garden planningstrategic garden planning

Cooking with Students

Cooking with students. Brightly colored bowls of pesto, plus a blender, cheese grater, cutting boards, knife, and crackers.

As many of you know, I spend half my week with the Burlington School District working with students on an assortment of food-based projects. And during the long Vermont winter, much of my time is dedicated to cooking classes and taste tests.

Each month I pick a new recipe inspired by Vermont Harvest of the Month to tackle with students during weekly hour-long cooking classes. For January, the featured Harvest of the Month vegetable is beets, so we’re making beet hummus, a simple recipe that has proven to be a real crowd pleaser.

Christine explains to the class that she hates beets.

Now, I have to be completely honest, I do not enjoy beets. And I’ve let every single class I’ve worked with know this. Some students have looked at me aghast once I’ve revealed this information (“Ms. Christine doesn’t like a vegetable?? I thought she liked all vegetables!”), while others have repeated back to me our adages about food preferences (“Everyone has different taste buds and that’s OK. There’s nothing wrong with liking or disliking specific foods”).

While I’ve gotten a kick out of the first response, it’s been particularly rewarding hearing students reassure me that it’s completely fine to not like beets. We spend a lot of time in classes talking about how we all have different taste buds and that it’s alright to have different opinions about food as long as we express our likes and dislikes in a respectful manner—i.e. “don’t yuck my yum” and the converse, don’t make someone feel bad for not liking something.

These concepts are at the heart of the cooking and tasting activities I lead. My goal is always to create a safe and welcoming space where students can share their honest opinions and won’t feel judged for their food preferences. There’s no pressure to say you absolutely loved something on the first try and there’s no shame in firmly declaring that this new flavor was not for you. As I often remind students, there’s no right answer to the question “did you like x?”

In fact, rather than simply asking students “did you like it?”, I encourage them to identify the ingredients and flavors that stood out the most and think about how they might change a recipe to better fit their tastes buds. Our classes are just as much a time to practice assorted cooking skills as they are a time to practice understanding our food preferences—learning the flavors, textures, and smells we like and don’t like, and figuring out how we can creatively customize recipes based on these inclinations.

At the end of the day I want to minimize the uneasiness and anxiety surrounding trying foods for the first time. Ideally, students will feel increasingly comfortable stepping outside their comfort zones and expanding their tasting horizons, becoming adventurous, confident cooks and eaters who feel empowered to explore and experiment with foods both familiar and new.

Beet Hummus

Combine the following ingredients in a food processor or blender:

  • 1 can chickpeas
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 2-3 tablespoons of lemon juice
  • 1-2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 small cooked beet (microwaved, boiled, roasted, your choice!)

P.S. I said I don’t like beets, but I do love this beet hummus recipe—that earthly flavor I’m not so comfortable with is lost amidst a powerful combination of garlic, lemon and olive oil. Many non-beet-loving students who at first assured me they’d hate the hummus, have come to this same conclusion.

 

Gardening Resolutions for the New Year

garden resolutions

It’s not even the middle of winter and I’m already thinking about my garden plans for the next growing season. In between mulling over what varieties to plant and daydreaming about simply being outside in a t-shirt and shorts on a warm summer day, I’ve also been putting some thought into the things I want to improve. It seems like every year there are tasks that just slip by and I always end up saying “maybe next season I’ll get around to that.” Considering the new year is fast approaching, I figured I’d compile some of these resolutions into an official list of gardening resolutions:

  • Actually prune the tomatoes: Pretty much every year I’ve managed a school garden I haven’t pruned our tomato plants and they always end up turning into massive viney bushes. This past season I did much better at staying on top of pruning, but we had an incredibly dry summer so our tomato crop was measly at best. This year I’m keeping my fingers crossed for better weather and plan to integrate checking the tomato plants for suckers into my everyday garden routine. If you’re also looking to step up your tomato growing efforts check out our Tomato Growing Guide.
  • Minimize overplanting: I manage two large production gardens for the Burlington School District and almost all our produce goes directly into school cafeterias. And even though our chefs do a fantastic job using our fruits and veggies in meals, sometimes I just end up growing a little more than necessary. Kale, hot peppers, and summer squash tend to be the top culprits. This year I’m planning on consulting my planting records and cutting back on the number of seeds I’m sowing. (See above: that's a lot of hot peppers!)
  • Maintain the raspberry bushes: We have a number of raspberry bushes at one of our gardens and we always make an effort to restring our T-post trellises each spring. That being said, I don’t do the best job of training any new growth so that it’s contained by the lattice system. By the end of the summer most of the raspberry branches have escaped the trellis, defeating the purpose of our original work. Come the growing season I’m aiming to actually put a concerted effort into maintaining our raspberries.
  • Clean out the tool sheds: Both of the production gardens I manage have large sheds chock full of gardening tools. I spent most of last summer telling myself that one day I’d get around to cleaning out these sheds and taking an inventory of all our assorted equipment. Needless to say this cleaning session did not happen and so I’d like to kick off the next season with a big day of cleaning and organizing.
  • Plant some spinach: I love spinach and yet I never really grow it in our school gardens; we tend to shy away from greens in favor of larger crops that can have more of a presence on the lunch line. But for the first time in years I now have a little garden at home and I’m definitely looking forward to planting some spinach there and having it available for fresh salads and stir-fries all summer long.

Do you have any gardening goals for the new year? Feel free to share!

Mister Chris and Christine!

Mister Chris and Friends is a new children's show on Vermont PBS, and KidsGardening's education specialist Christine Gall appears in several episodes as Farmer Christine. She had a fantastic time working on the show, and we are so excited to share it with you.

Each new episode of Mister Chris and Friends is designed as an educational lesson on an aspect of the natural world, combined with the show’s foundational approach of creating a safe and welcoming environment in which to learn and explore.

The show is incredibly sweet, and if you need to unwind with the littles in your life, you should check it out! May we recommend episode 3, where Christine is the featured guest?

Seeds: In this episode, we wish with our friend Wishing Well that we could grow bigger... right now! Mister Chris will work with our farmer friend, Christine, to learn more about what a seed needs to grow, including time.

You can watch the entire series at Vermont PBS.

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!

Give a Leaf a Nibble: Garden Coordinator at Work

garden coordinator

As I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, I spend half my week as the Garden Education Coordinator for the Burlington School District. I get to care for school gardens and work with K-12 classrooms on a variety of garden-based projects, everything from planting and harvesting to preparing snacks with students using a mobile cooking cart. The other week Eva Sollberger, a senior multimedia producer from Seven Days, filmed a few of my garden classes at Champlain Elementary School and interviewed students and teachers (as well as myself) for her “Stuck in Vermont” web video series.

Check out the video below to see our garden program in action!

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.)

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.