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.


More Books to Read in the Garden

children's books to read about gardens

In the spirit of Sarah and Beth’s most recent blog posts featuring some fantastic book recommendations, I thought I’d share some of the stories I read most often during my elementary school level cooking and gardening classes. 

One Bean, Anne Rockwell
This book follows a young boy as he plants a bean seed and watches it grow. The simple narrative is easy to play out in real life, which is why this is my go-to whenever I teach younger students (K-2) about seeds and life cycles. Not only does the book provide a model for a seed starting activity, it also includes ideas for additional projects and some in-depth info on beans. 

Heroes of the Vegetable Patch, Ulf Stark
This is a fun story about two siblings who care for their neighbor’s garden after being magically shrunk to the size of radishes. I really like to read this book at the start of the growing season as a way to get students thinking about their responsibilities to the plants and insects in the garden. 

Before We Eat: From Farm to Table, Pat Brisson
The illustrations are absolutely beautiful in this book that asks readers to think about where food is coming from—who grew it or raised it and how it makes its way to our plate. I love using this book to set the stage for cooking activities; it gets students thinking about the story behind each ingredient we’re using in a recipe and establishes the concept of gratitude, which we always practice before our first taste. 

I Will Never Not Ever Eat a Tomato, Lauren Child
This is another book that I use in conjunction with cooking or tasting activities. In this one, Charlie convinces his very picky-eater-sister Lola to try vegetables by coming up with some creative names for the foods she normally hates. As someone who was basically Lola growing up, I sympathize with a lot of my students who are hesitant to snack on veggies straight out of the garden or partake in the recipes that we prepare in class. I often end up using this book as a starting point for a discussion about how we can build confidence to try new foods. 


Have any other book recommendations? We’d love to hear about your favorites! 


Oakbrook Elementary School Garden Build

garden build

For the fifth year in a row, KidsGardening partnered with PT Holdings, a company based in Addison, IL, to build a school garden in the suburbs of Chicago as part of their Giving Back Initiative. One month ago, members of the KidsGardening team headed out to Oakbrook Elementary School in Wood Dale, IL, to install a dream garden with the help of over 100 volunteers.

Despite a chilly and rainy start to the day, PT Holdings staff and members of the Oakbrook community accomplished an impressive number of projects. We built a large storage shed, an arbor, twelve benches, three tumbler compost bins, and six raised garden beds. These raised beds were filled with 10 yards of soil, topped off with compost, and planted with an assortment of veggies and herbs. We also installed 80 feet of fencing around the new garden space to deter any deer from snacking on students’ plants.

Beyond this fenced in garden, volunteers also created an in-ground pollinator garden, weeded and mulched large sections of a pre-existing perennial landscape, and beautified the school’s entrance. All-in-all, it was a full morning of hard (but also fun) work!

Below you can see some pictures from this awesome event.

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.

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

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.