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.


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.