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.

School Garden Retrospective

school garden retrospective

This past Monday we got over a half a foot of snow here in Burlington. The majority of our school gardens have already been put to bed though there were still a couple of chores to be done here and there, but with the snow it seems that the growing season is officially over whether we wanted it to be or not. Time for a school garden retrospective!

At the end of the season, I always like to think back over the past year and take stock of how things went in the school garden. Below are some of the questions I like to tackle with the gardening committees at the schools I work with.

  • Were we happy with what we grew and was there a use for our produce? It’s always important to think about what you’re growing in a school garden and why. In particular, I’ve found that if you have a garden focused on a food project, it’s good to revisit how/if produce was harvested in a timely manner and and how/if it was utilized (whether that be in a classroom cooking activity or donated to a local food pantry). If you ended up with a lot of wasted produce, it might be sensible to dial back your growing efforts next season. Or you might realize that certain crops were extra popular with students and it might be worth the effort to grow more of that in the future.

  • What were our basic management needs and were they met? Who shouldered most of the work? Did we have enough volunteers or do we need to cultivate a wider network to support watering, weeding, and harvesting? It might be beneficial to break this question down into multiple timeframes—end of the school year (planting time for many folks in northern climates), summer break, start of the school year.

  • Do we need to adjust our growing practices? The answer to this question will likely be informed by the discussions you have about the two previous topics. If you struggle with getting volunteers during the summer does it make sense to have high yield crops like summer squash and cucumbers that were left to rot on the vine? Was your school cafeteria really excited to use all the kale you grew? If so, maybe you grow more next year to provide a more consistent supply to the food service staff.

  • How much money did we spend last year on garden supplies and projects? Do we foresee similar spending this coming year? Having a solid grasp of your budget is always helpful, in particular if you’re making any asks of your PTOs or PTAs.

  • Do we need anything to improve our programming next year? This could refer to physical infrastructure and equipment that might make gardening easier or more accessible for students or it could refer to trainings and resources for staff to feel more comfortable teaching in the garden.

What are your strategies for looking back at the last growing season and synthesizing your garden accomplishments? Do you have your own school garden retrospective? How do you plan for the coming year ahead? Feel free to share your tips and thoughts; we’d love to hear from you!

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!

Carton 2 Garden is Back!

Carton 2 Garden

Not too long ago I wrote about activities for the first day back in the school garden. It’s somewhat hard to believe, but here in Vermont I’m already starting to think about indoor activities for when our gardens are dormant! If you’re also looking for something garden-related to do with your classes during the long winter, then look no further than our Carton 2 Garden Contest (also a great option for you folks down in more southern climates—you’re just extra lucky that you can probably tackle this project outdoors).

The Carton 2 Garden Contest is presented in partnership with Evergreen Packaging and is open to all K-12 public and private schools in the United States (Pre-K classes located at schools serving additional elementary, middle, and/or high school grade levels may also enter).

What’s the objective of the contest you ask? Collect at least 100 empty milk or juice cartons from your home, community, or cafeteria, then design and construct purposeful and creative garden items or structures using them. Your school does not need a garden to participate. You can even frame your project within the context of Creative Arts, Environmental Stewardship, Health & Nutrition, and/or STEM for the opportunity to win a specialty prize, making the contest a perfect hands-on extension for classroom learning objectives.

Beyond connecting to these specific topics, the Carton to Garden Contest generally provides a great platform to discuss sustainability and renewable resources with students, and is a fantastic opportunity for a class to work collaboratively to brainstorm an innovative idea and then execute an exciting project.

Some past examples of past winning projects include:

  • The creation of “hotels” for pollinators seeking shelter and nesting space.
  • An effort to restore saltgrass habitats to a local ecosystem by propagating endangered species of marsh grass in cartons.
  • An incredible tiger sculpture that was placed in a raised bed to watch over students’ plants.
  • The installation of a vertical wall garden, with individual growing cells made of cartons
  • The development of a mobile sensory garden for use as a therapeutic resource for students with disabilities.

All of these projects, as well as many other successful ones, are the culmination of hours of student planning and work! And while the deadline for this year’s contest isn’t until April, you may find that late fall/early winter is a great time to start thinking about what you and your students might want to submit to the 2019-2020 Carton 2 Garden Contest.

Header image above is from Mildred L. Day School in Arundel, ME. Their entry, the Vertical Flower and Herb Garden by the 2nd Grade Gardeneers, was a winner in the Elementary category last year.

Fall Cover Crop

cover crop

As we enter the fall here in Vermont there are a few big tasks on my to-do list before putting the gardens to bed for the season: 1) Keep up with harvesting. 2) Plant garlic. 3) Plant cover crop.

I plant a fall cover crop (this year I chose winter rye) on many of our empty beds (having already harvested one-off crops such as cabbage, kohlrabi, potatoes, and carrots from them) for a variety of reasons: to prevent erosion, to reduce the growth of weeds throughout the fall, and to add organic matter (i.e. nutrients) back into the garden beds.

I try to plant cover crop sometime in late August or early September, giving the seeds over a month to germinate and grow before our first frost typically hits, usually in mid-October. The later you plant your cover crop the greater the chance of the crop dying over the winter, as opposed to going dormant. Ideally you want your cover crop to enter this period of dormancy and then resume growth come the spring.

As the spring progresses you’ll want to keep an eye on your cover crop—you’ll definitely want to mow it or cut it down before it begins to produce seed! Leave the plant material to decompose on top of the bed for a week or so, before tilling it in. Wait another week or two and then you’re ready to plant in a nutrient-rich bed!

If you’re interested in learning about specific varieties of cool-season cover crops to plant this fall you can check out this helpful article from Modern Farmer. Alternatively, if you live in a warmer climate that doesn’t have cold and snowy winters like we do in New England, you can check out our Buckwheat Growing Guide to learn about warm-season cover crops. And if you’re interested in learning more about all aspects of cover crops, I recommend SARE’s (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education) Cover Crop Topic Room.

Activities for the First Day in the Garden

Activities for the first day in the garden

Here in Burlington we have just over a week until school starts. And with the onset of the academic year right around the corner I’m beginning to think about what to do with students during our first days in the garden. During these initial classes I typically focus on reintroducing students to their school’s growing space through lots of guided sensory exploration. Here are some of my favorite activities to get students reacquainted with the garden.

  • Garden Agreements: One of the first things I do with students during their inaugural class is to establish a set of Garden Agreements or Guidelines for staying safe and having fun. With older students it can be neat to have them generate these themselves: Divide your class into small groups and have each group brainstorm a list of 3-5 “rules” they think are the most essential (ex: ask permission before picking something, keep your feet on the pathways, etc). Next, have each group share their list with the whole class and then create a master list based on everyone’s suggestions.
  • Color Scavenger Hunt I’m all about scavenger hunts as a way for students to rediscover the garden. To do this activity you just need a wide assortment of paint chips, which you can easily get for free at your local hardware store—it may be tempting to simply grab a bunch of shades of green and brown, but I encourage you to get a swath of colors, everything from a brilliant red to a deep purple. Distribute a paint chip to each student and challenge them to find something in the garden that matches their color.
  • egg carton scavenger huntEgg Carton Scavenger Hunt: Another scavenger hunt option is to utilize egg cartons 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.). Alternatively you can put a bunch of different labels on a single container and have students search for all different types of objects. One important rule: only add something to your container if it can fit in your hand and if there’s more than one of it in the garden.
  • Tasting Survey: Guide students through the garden, identifying and then tasting everything edible you’re growing. It’s a simple activity but fun activity and you can easily take it a step further by challenging students to think of how you could use whatever you’re tasting in a recipe or by identifying and comparing flavor profiles. After eating our way through the garden I like to give students the opportunity to go back and pick one more of their favorite thing.
  • Flower Picking: This is one of my favorite ways to wrap up a first class with younger classes. Give students a minute or so to roam the garden and find their favorite flower (many of our elementary school gardens plants tons of sunflowers, zinnias, marigolds and nasturtiums so there’s usually enough for everyone to find one), then have them stand by it. Once everyone has made their selection reveal that they’ll get to bring that flower with them when they leave the garden. Classes sometimes choose to pool their flowers and create beautiful bouquets, other times students elect to bring their flower home.

For more on a successful year in the garden and/or outdoor classroom, check out some more top tips from Christine.