Back to School Garden-Based Learning Resources

In many parts of the country the school year is starting back up with some significant differences from past years. Many districts are engaging students in fully remote learning, some are embracing hybrid models that mix in-person instruction with distance teaching, and others have fully opened. No matter what situation you’re in and whether you’re a teaching or an at home caregiver, there are plenty of resources available to help you tackle garden-based learning in safe and meaningful ways this fall:

  • Lessons to Grow By is a FREE four-month KidsGardening program of weekly garden-themed lessons and activities for parents teaching at home, or for educators instructing via distance learning. These fun, engaging adventures are grouped around a monthly theme, featuring three hands-on activities for kids each week with supplemental suggested reading, videos, and more. Lessons to Grow By is aimed at learners in grades 3-5, but the activities can easily be adapted for younger or older audiences. Lessons to Grow By launches August 31 and is only available by subscription (see link above to sign up and gain access to these special learn-from-home lessons)
  • Edible Education for the Home Classroom is a collection of lessons from the Edible Schoolyard that can easily be done at home. Many of their activities extend beyond the garden to the dinner plate, which means you’ll find recipes and guided reflections on mindful eating alongside germination experiments. Lessons are categorized based on central themes including imagine, create, support, learn, connect, and reflection.
  • SGSO Webinars and Virtual Gatherings will allow you to hear from experts in the field or engage in peer to peer networking through an entirely online series hosted by the School Garden Support Organization Network. The fall series kicked off yesterday with a Virtual Gathering on garden care and management during Covid-19 (you should be able to find a recording of this event, along with past webinars and virtual gatherings in the extensive SGSO Archive). Future topics include distance teaching/learning, Covid-friendly outdoor classroom infrastructure, using your school garden to support food relief, and more.
  • A Guidance Template for Gardening during Covid-19 created by the University of Minnesota Extension provides best practices for minimizing risk while working in a garden space. Originally created for community gardens, this template has sections that are most definitely applicable for schools interested in thinking critically about sanitation and safe social distancing protocols.
  • Green Schoolyards of America’s Covid-19 Outdoor Learning Page serves as a compilation of resources to help teachers and administrators creatively and realistically navigate repurposing outdoor spaces as classrooms. Many of the resources listed here are not specially focused on school gardens, because the truth is you don’t need a growing space to have an outdoor classroom or to teach outside. That being said, many of the tips and strategies recommended by Green Schoolyards of America and their working groups are relevant to folks invested in school garden programming and infrastructure.

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).

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. 

School Garden Plans, Adjusted

school garden plans

As the weather warms up here in Vermont, I’m grateful for the opportunity to get out into the Burlington School District gardens. This year, our school garden plans have changed. For the past few weeks I’ve been diligently working away at a long to-do list—installing drip irrigation, building trellises, hardening off starts from our greenhouse, etc.—in preparation for planting. While I think we could benefit from a bit of rain to moisten our dry soils, the nighttime temperatures are now high enough for our tomatoes, peppers, and other more sensitive plants to finally make their way outside.

I’m more excited for our big planting day than ever before. In response to the COVID-19 crisis, the Burlington School Food Project gardening team made the decision to amp up our production so that we can donate as much produce as possible to families in need during these unprecedented times. We didn’t expand our garden footprints, but we did practically double our production capacity by remaking in-ground beds and pathways narrower—instead of 12 rows in our Left Field garden, we now have 21!

With more plants in our garden, we’ll really have to stay on top of watering, weeding, pruning, and harvesting. While we’re up to the task, having some dedicated volunteers will help our growing season run smoothly. Many of our schools have received an outpouring of support from the community, with more folks offering to volunteer than ever before. In order to accommodate these volunteer requests we’ve established a series of protocols to encourage safe physically distant gardening:

  • A Safe Gardening Guidelines document, created by a local community garden organization, is being shared with all prospective volunteers and posted at all garden sites.
  • Volunteers are strongly encouraged to bring their own tools, though schools will be providing sanitizing solutions so that tools and high touch surfaces (garden shed door handles, gates, water spigots, etc.) can be cleaned thoroughly.
  • Volunteers are encouraged to wear a mask, especially if others are present, though we’re hoping to limit person to person contact by creating schedules so that volunteers are either working in the garden alone (or with their family) or with one or two other individuals so that proper physical distancing can be maintained.

How is your school garden approaching the growing season? Are you planning on working with volunteers? Do you plan on donating any of your garden produce? Have you adjusted any of your garden plans given the current circumstances? We’d love to hear your creative solutions and approaches!

Resources for Garden Educators

resources for garden educators

In last week’s blog Sarah spotlighted the incredible work that the School Garden Support Organization (SGSO) Network has done to support the continuation of youth garden activities during COVID-19. Beyond their special COVID-19 resource page, the network is hosting weekly gatherings that allow folks to share ideas and best practices on topics ranging from remote learning to organizational resiliency. I’ve really enjoyed tuning into these gatherings and hearing about the creative ways folks are responding to school closures, stay-at-home orders, and physical distancing protocols. 

Participating in these virtual gatherings has also prompted me to think about other opportunities for remote information sharing, learning, and professional development. Here some ongoing and upcoming webinars and online classes that might be of interest to other garden-based educators:

  • SGSO’s archived webinars: Fellow KidsGardening Educational Specialist Sarah Pounders and I have participated in some of the SGSO Network’s previous webinars. Beyond this extensive list of recordings that cover everything from best practices for crowdfunding to school and community farm stands, the network also lists webinars from a number of like organizations including the National Farm to School Network and the Whole Kids Foundation. SGSO’s COVID-19 related Virtual Gatherings can also be accessed via link on this page.
  • Prescott College’s Food Systems Friday: If you’re interested in how the food system is being affected by COVID-19 this is the webinar for you. Addressing topics from food security to culinary education, this weekly series brings in experts from the field to share their experiences and insights (Episode 4 on School and Community Garden features yours truly). While it’s a fun listen in and of itself, it could also be a useful resource and potential topic of discussion for high school culinary and ag classes. 
  • PennState Extension’s Victory Garden Reinvented!: Penn State Extension’s Master Gardener Program has been hosting a free webinar series that provides recommendations for vegetable growers (think succession planting and integrated pest management). Whether you’re an experienced gardener or just getting started, these weekly hour-long classes are great for deepening your planting knowledge. Your state’s Extension Program might be offering their own programming, so be sure to see what’s available locally to get the most relevant information for your growing climate.
  • Teaching in Nature’s Classroom: Our friends at Life Lab, the Wisconsin School Garden Network, and Rooted are teaming up to bring you a 15-week self-guided course on approaches to garden-based education. This seems like a great opportunity for folks interested in reflecting on their teaching practices and taking their school garden program to the next level. Definitely take a look at this one and sign-up before the class is full.

Adapting to School Closures

Adapting to school closures

Since news broke that schools in Vermont would remain closed for the duration of the academic year, many of the Burlington School District teachers I work with have been wondering what to do about our growing spaces. Do we scrap school gardens for the year or do we adapt to our new circumstances? 

The Burlington School Food Project, our district’s food service department and Farm to School program, is committed to seeing our growing season through. While we’ve all but decided to cancel our student-led Fork in the Road food truck program for the summer, we are moving forward to growing seedlings in our greenhouse and hope to ramp up production in our larger gardens this summer so that we can provide produce to students and their families during this unprecedented time. 

Some of our elementary school gardens are looking to take a similar approach while other programs are still up in the air, with teachers waiting until mid to late May to make decisions about how they will proceed. Many of our schools have the flexibility of waiting over a month to figure out their plans—we usually don’t start planting outdoors until closer to the end of the school year anyway due to Vermont’s often chilly spring weather and schools know they’ll have starts and seeds ready for them through the Burlington School Food Project. If schools end up deciding they don’t want to plant the seedlings we’ve been growing for them in our district greenhouse, then we’ll donate these plants to the community. 

adapting to school closuresIn the meantime, we’ll continue watering our plants and prepping our production growing spaces. But the Burlington School Food Project is doing more than just thinking about school gardens, like many other child nutrition programs across the country, we’re working hard to provide meals to students at feeding sites set up across the city. Over a two week period our team served over 10,000 free meals (our school district is approximately 3,500 students and not everyone elects to participate in our school meal program) and donated a considerable amount of perishable product from our school kitchens to local food banks.

The Burlington School Food Project will continue to serve meals for the remainder of the academic year, even during school breaks, before transitioning to our summer feeding program. As previously mentioned, our goal is to make garden-grown produce available to families at our meal distribution sites. Until the time that produce is ready to be harvested, we’ll be piloting a seed distribution program in partnership with Vermont Community Garden Network and the Vermont Farm to School Network.

At Home Garden Activities

at home activities

KidsGardening is here to support our community of families and educators. As you are figuring out educating or entertaining your children in these coming weeks, we want to be a resource for you. We are sharing some of our favorite garden- and nature-based activities and lesson plans on our social media channels. We are focusing on ideas that don't require many materials, and oftentimes with things that you already have on hand. (Although everyone's craft cupboard and garden shed are different.)  Here's a few things we've shared, and a few others that we will further down the line. On social media (particularly on Facebook and Instagram), we'll be sharing ways to adapt and/or simplify the activities to meet your needs. 

  • Create a Seed Viewer: This is a simple planting project that allows you to observe how the roots of a plant form. Beans tend to work best, but you could also try using peas—in fact, it might be neat to try out both and compare how the two varieties grow.
  • Make Seed Balls: Seeds balls are fun, hands on, and... messy, but that’s partly why they’re fun to make! I’d recommend using small wildflower seeds for this project, and if they’re native varieties even better. Once you’ve made your seed balls, let them air dry, then store them in a safe place until you’re ready to plant them in the spring.
  • Attempt a Seed Dissection: Seeds are often so small, it can be hard to imagine what they look like  inside. Learn how to dissect a soaked lima bean and identify various seed parts with this in-depth activity. 
  • Try your hand at Kitchen Scrap Gardening: Growing a new plant from an old one is remarkably simple. From carrots to pineapples to avocados, it’s easy to set up a system that allows these foods to regrown. You can choose a short term growing experiment (ex: regrowing greens) or a something that may last many years (germinating a seed from an old orange and nurturing it as it develops into a citrus tree over time).

Our website has many more activities, lesson plans, garden basics, and growing guides. We’d love to hear about the projects you’re tackling, and how we can be helpful when it comes to garden projects with your kids. 

Garden Planning Calendars

garden planning calendars

In the most recent In the Weeds video I mentioned garden planning calendars and how they’re a great project to tackle with students. A detailed garden calendar can also be an extremely helpful and effective tool when it comes to overall garden planning, so whether or not you have the opportunity to create one with students, it’s an activity that I would highly recommend to help streamline and improve your garden systems. 

Here in Vermont, February is generally the month when I develop my own garden calendar, and so I wanted to share the main framework that guides my thinking: harvest time. Do I want to be able to pick fully grown cabbages by early summer? Are there crops like lettuce and spinach I want access to all summer long? Do I want my students to be able to harvest fresh basil leaves when they return to school in the fall? By asking all these questions, I’m forced to think about my ideal harvest date or window. 

garden planning calendarsOnce I’ve decided when I’d like to harvest, I can work backwards to figure out a planting date. Most seed packets will have information on how long a particular variety takes to mature—for example, Yellow Sweet Spanish Utah Onions take approximately 100 days. That means if I want to harvest them with students right when they return to school the first week of September, then they need to be planted around the final week of May at the latest. 

After figuring out all my plantings dates, I take anything that falls within a week or two window and pick one planting day to log on my calendar. Most of the time I start veggies by seed instead of purchasing starts, I also utilize produce all summer long, so I typically begin starting seeds by mid-March.

Garden planning calendars are one approach to strategic garden planning, but you can check out one of my blog posts from last spring for additional tips.

Indoor Garden-Based Activities to Get You Through the Winter

winter activities

It’s the middle of the winter and for folks in northern climates the gardening season can’t feel further away. Even if you can’t get outside during this cold and snowy season, there are plenty of garden-based activities that you can try out indoors. Below are five fun indoor options to try out with your students:

  1. Grow Salad Greens for a taste test: Greens are perhaps the most simple and straightforward indoor growing option. They grow well under lights or simply on sunny windowsills (though definitely be aware of how chilly it can be close to a window). Try planting different varieties of greens (leaf lettuce, kale, arugula, mustard greens) so that you can compare the appearance, flavor and texture of each.
  2. Create a  Vermicomposting System: Worm composting is remarkably fun, easy, and smell free (if you do it right). Vermicomposting systems are great for learning about decomposition and sustainability—observing worms can be fascinating and you get a nutrient rich by-product that you can add to garden beds or potted plants. You can also buy pre-made systems if you’d rather not make your own (I have one of these at home and love it)!
  3. Try your hand at Kitchen Scrap Gardening: Turning food scraps into new plants is magical, whether you’re using avocado pits, sweet potatoes, or beheaded pineapples. Pro tip: I’ve had great success tossing avocado pits in my vermicomposting system, letting them sprout there, then replanting them in soil—one pit has grown into a 5 ft tall plant!
  4. Design your own Hydroponic System: While they might seem complex at first glance, hydroponic systems can easily be created in a classroom using an assortment of repurposed items. Follow the steps in the linked activity or learn from one of our Carton to Garden contest winners who made a hydroponic system out of milk cartons from their school cafeteria.
  5. Make Seed Paper: This is a fairly involved (and often messy) project, but it yields incredible results. I’ve done this a handful of times with my students and they’re always enthralled by the paper making process and extremely excited about the prospect of planting their own piece of seed paper in the garden come spring.

 

The Return of Mister Chris and Christine!

Mister Chris and Christine

Last November, Beth shared a blog about Mister Chris and Friends, a Vermont PBS children’s show that I appeared in as Farmer Christine. I’m excited to share that I reprised my role in the second season, which premiered last week.

Mister Chris is an amazing educator, who I am supremely grateful to have gotten to know over the course of filming this wonderful show. He’s incredibly intentional about creating welcoming and inclusive environments in which children can learn and explore, an attentiveness highlighted in each episode. 

While I encourage you to check out the entirety of the second season, here’s one episode to get you started:

New Friends: A new family has moved to the farm from El Salvador. Meanwhile, Mister Chris and his friends learn about butterfly migration and help the newest members of the community feel welcome.

You can watch all of Season 1 and 2 at Vermont PBS.