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.

Maintaining Youth Engagement in the Garden All Summer Long

youth engagement in the garden all summer

As many of my loyal blog readers will know, I spend half of each week with the Burlington School District as a Garden Education Coordinator. And oddly enough, when it comes to my work with the district, my busiest time of year is often the summer. This somewhat paradoxical reality got me thinking about all the ways I’ve connected with youth in the garden during the summer, something that I know many school programs struggle with. So I thought I’d compile a list of the strategies I’ve used, entities I’ve partnered with, and programs I’ve facilitated to keep youth engaged in the garden all summer long.

  1. Support Summer Schools and Summer Feeding Sites: Here in Burlington a handful of our schools stay active for at least part, if not most, of the summer. Whether they be students attending summer school or youth dropping by for the free meals offered by the Burlington School Food Project, there are a lot of kids passing through school even though it’s no longer the academic year. Many of the teachers I work with during the school year lead summer school classes and are occasionally looking for fun outdoor activities to do with their students. Teachers will sometimes ask for advice: What work would be most helpful for us to do this week? What’s ready to harvest that I could eat with my students? Others might request more hands on support: I saw you working in the garden yesterday, next time you’re here would you be willing to lead a short gardening activity with my class?
  2. Summer (Garden) Camps: I used to help run an afterschool program that morphed into a 5 day-a-week camp during the summer months. As someone who happened to be passionate about connecting kids to the garden, I spearheaded staff efforts to connect our campers to this largely volunteer-managed space. At the end of the school year, just as we began planning summer camp, I met with the individual who ran the garden to get the lay of the land and to learn how we could support and interact with the growing space over the summer. With her guidance we were able to create a plan that balanced student interest and access with the realities of summer garden maintenance. Some weeks counselors would facilitate daily structured garden-based activities (ex: paper pot making, seed starting, weeding parties etc.), other weeks we’d just take excited students to the garden during recess or free choice time to see if there was anything to harvest, water or weed.
  3. Community Center Connections: One of our middle school sites houses summer camp programming that is administered and facilitated by the community center next door. For the past three years I’ve partnered with the center’s cooking class to lead guest cooking activities and get students out into our large production garden. The relationship partly arose out of miscommunications; unbeknownst to us camp was facilitating garden specific programming in our space, with staff attempting to plant in beds we had future plans for and harvesting food intended for our Fork in the Road food truck. After a conversation with the camp director to set up respectful expectations around garden use, we set out on a new path of increased communication and collaboration. Ever since then, I’ve coordinated with the individual running the cooking class to work with their students once or twice a week while camp is in session, we’re able to tackle necessary garden projects that are simultaneously fun for campers.
  4. Paid Positions for Youth: Each summer Burlington School Food Project’s Fork in the Road food truck employs approximately eight Burlington High School Students for ten weeks. Students earn wages while prepping complex meals, working, vending, and catering events throughout our community, and participating in garden shifts. During these weekly garden shifts, students weed, water, plant, and harvest produce from our two large production gardens. For much of the summer they are the primary caretakers of the gardens, making their time spent in these spaces meaningful not just in a practical sense--each shift serves as a way to deepen their relationship with the food growing there as they nurture tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and more from seedlings to mature plants that they will then pick, prepare and then serve on the food truck. Our youth staff are paid through the food service department, which undeniably presents some challenges each year, but there are alternative ways to providing wages to youth participating in a work-and-learn program like ours; for a great example take a look at this old fundraising page for Medomak Valley High School’s Heirloom Seed Project Teen Agriculture Crew.

Say YES to High School Gardening Intensives

high school gardening intensives

For many students the end of the school year is fast approaching, for students at Burlington High School this means YES Programs are in full swing. Year End Studies (YES) Programs are two week non-traditional intensive courses that can focus on topics ranging from foreign language, poetry, and paper mache classes to training for a 10K, advanced lake fishing, gluten free baking, and a trip Scandinavia (the full course description book is worth a look).

“Burlington Farming: Growing the Future” is one of the many amazing courses that students can sign-up for (my high school self probably would have chosen “Welcome to Middle Earth”). The class focuses on the “thriving and growing farm and garden culture” in our small city, with trips to local farms and community gardens where students lend a hand planting, tending and harvesting produce.

For the past three years I’ve worked with students for the first three days of this YES Program to prepare and plant the two large production gardens in our school district. For me, these are the three most important and most fun days of the year. Here are some of the highlights from this year’s program:

high school garden intensivesDay 1: Preparing the Front Garden and Cleaning up the Perennial Garden at Burlington High School

  • Sixteen fearless high school students arrive and jump right into some serious work after a quick tutorial on weed extraction (including how to tell what’s a weed and what’s not).
  • Two students brave pruning and trellising the prickly raspberry bushes.
  • The rototiller refuses to start and a single student tills a 10’x40’ space with a shovel.
  • A handful of students work to re-establish the garden beds that were inevitably plowed over (as they are every year) during the snowy winter months.
  • Half the gang rallies to unload and spread 4 yards of mulch.
  • Two giant pick-up trucks are entirely filled with weeds and garden debris.

high school garden intensivesDay 2: Preparing and Planting the Hunt Middle School Garden

  • Two students show up a half hour early and expertly dismantle a 190 foot long old fence without any urging… they just love to work that much.
  • These two students now team up with a few others to begin installing a new fence with the help of Brian, the high school English teacher who manages this YES Program. A giant gas-powered auger is involved.
  • The rest of the crew helps transplant over 100 starts (planted by the Food Science class earlier in the school year).
  • Once the plants are in, students band together to install over 500 feet of drip tape and approximately 200 feet of row cover.

Day 3: Preparing and Planting the Left Field Garden at Burlington High School

  • high school garden intensives
    Left field garden after lots of hard work. The before picture is the photo at the top of this post.

    Students clear the pathways and beds of weeds in record time.

  • A yard of compost is delivered and added to the newly re-established beds.
  • A core team transplants another 100 starts, including multiple varieties of winter squash and hot peppers (which will eventually be coveted by the Food Service staff to make soup and Food Science students to make salsa).
  • Three students tame the always unruly asparagus bed.
  • We break out the power tools and a handful of ladies assemble a large wooden trellis for the tomatoes.
  • A special delivery of popsicles and ice cream sandwiches arrive and we celebrate three incredible days of truly amazing and dedicated work.
  • One students stays 45 minutes late, quietly helping me trellis the tomatoes. He doesn’t ask for direction, just sees the job and decides to help.

North Elementary School Garden Build

garden build

For the fourth 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. This past Saturday, three members of the KidsGardening team headed out to North Elementary School in Villa Park, IL, to work with over 150 volunteers on a series of exciting projects.

Over the course of a morning, PT Holdings staff and members of the North Elementary School community built eight raised beds, twelve benches, a 7’x7’ storage shed, and a weather station. Volunteers also transplanted over 100 plants, and moved 9.5 yards of mulch, 8 yards of soil, 1 yard of gravel and ½ a yard of compost. Whew! It takes a lot of volunteer-power to make a school garden happen so quickly.

Check out some pictures of this fantastic event...

garden build
Welcome to North Elementary
garden build
Here come the plants!
garden build
Check out that cool weather station! So many possible curriculum integrations.
garden build
It takes helpers big and small to get the job done.
garden build
Beautiful new garden beds. Amazing work, everyone!

Tips for a School Garden on a Tight Budget

school garden tight budget

As the growing season approaches I find myself eagerly looking forward to starting seeds in our school greenhouse and eventually planting the garden. And as fun as this process can be, I and maybe other garden educators, classroom teachers and school PTOs need to ask a very important question first: what does our garden budget look like? And so loyal blog readers, today I’m providing five tips to help you think about how you can get your school garden going on a tight budget.

  1. Consult your records and adjust accordingly: Each year keep careful track of everything growing in your garden. Did you have a shortage of peppers last summer? Maybe plan on adding 3 or 4 more plants. Was the carrot bed too crowded? Perhaps only go with one pack of seeds this year rather than two. Were there too many cucumbers? Cut back on the number of plants you grow and look for a variety with a smaller yield. Having an accurate estimate of the number of plants you’ll need based on the size of your space and the demand for any given variety will greatly aid the planning process and prevent unwanted expenses on excess materials.


  2. Before buying seeds and/or veggie starts reach out to the community: Cooperative Extension offices, community gardening groups, and garden stores might be willing to donate seeds from last year or the year before to your program. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with using older seeds; many times germination rates are just as high as newly packaged seeds! Alternatively, if you don’t have the time or capacity to start your own plants, nurseries might offer up their surplus seedlings if you ask.


  3. Use what you have: You might not even need seeds to start your garden, instead try your hand at kitchen scrap gardening and grow celery, various leafy greens, potatoes and even pineapples from leftover food scraps.


  4. Get creative with recycling: Rather than buying new growing flats or plastic pots to start seeds, make your own newspaper pots or reuse yogurt containers that students bring in from home, K-cups from the teachers’ lounge, or milk cartons from the cafeteria (check out our Carton to Garden contest if you use cartons to start your garden). You can even make a watering can out of recycled materials by simply poking holes in the screw-on cap of a plastic gallon milk jug.


  5. Connect with parents, teachers and other school community members: Interested in adding more supplies to your garden arsenal, look no further than the school community. Ask people to look around their basement and garages for any tools they might want to donate—even old sandbox or beach toys can be effective gardening tools for Pre-K and lower elementary school students. Simple 5 gallon buckets can be perfect for everything from transporting garden debris to container gardening projects. And an old plastic storage container can be the foundation of a worm composting system.

You don’t need to have the nicest watering cans, high tech grow lights, or matching trowels and rakes for a garden to have an impact. The simplest garden and tools can still offer meaningful and exciting experiences for youth of all ages.

Five Tips for an Elementary School Cooking Program

school cooking program

As many of my loyal blog readers will remember (even though it’s been awhile), in my last post I wrote about my work with a formalized Food Science class offered at Burlington High School. This week I wanted to share a bit about how one of the elementary schools in our district has integrated cooking into their weekly schedule and their school culture. In particular, I wanted to share five of their strategies that I would consider best practices for starting a cooking program at your own school.

  1. Be intentional about what you grow in the school garden. Everything planted in the Champlain Elementary School garden is planted with a purpose. Vegetable varieties are often selected so that they can be used specifically in classroom cooking projects or by food service staff in school meals. Crops are strategically planted so that they reach full maturity in late summer and early fall, just in time for students returning to school. Before planting this coming season, put some thought into how your garden space could directly contribute to a handful of concrete cooking projects.

  2. Appeal to your community for donations. Local grocery stores have provided the school with grant money to acquire cooking supplies and gift certificates so that teachers can pick up ingredients for cooking projects. Teachers on the Outdoor Planning Committee have also leveraged relationships with district food service staff to assist with acquiring ingredients, though appeals to parents can yield just as productive results (for both foodstuffs and general supplies). Local kitchen stores can also be a good source of high quality donations or discounted items.

  3. If you can, have enough cooking implements for half your class. The key to Champlain’s culinary program is their mobile cooking cart equipped with enough cutting boards, box graters and whisks (just to name a few items) for an entire classroom. Having a large, well organized, collection of peelers, knives, measuring cups and spoons allows everyone to participate fully, though it’s not necessary for every single student to have their own rolling pin or spatula. In fact, when leading cooking activities I generally have students work in pairs and share tools; I find this promotes teamwork and cuts down on clutter and distractions.

  4. Have clear procedures that both teachers and volunteers understand. Cooking with a large group can be challenging and having an extra adult in the room can go a long way. Have clear standard operating procedures for cooking activities that both teachers and volunteers are trained on before they begin facilitating culinary projects. Have a written document that can easily be referenced or host a semi-annual training for both teachers and volunteers.

  5. Dedicate a set amount of time for cooking projects. Every Friday, at least four classes set aside an hour to participate in a cooking activity. While some teachers will pursue cooking with their classes on other days of the week, Fridays have become a set day where a volunteer or I will come in to help with these projects. Having a scheduled day each week where folks know they can jointly tackle a cooking activity with their students has created a sense of feasibility and sustained excitement for culinary projects, to the point that many would consider Cooking Cart Fridays an integral part of school culture.

Sauerkraut for School Credit

sauerkraut for school credit

As many of you loyal blog readers know, I spend half my week working with the Burlington School District in Burlington, VT, as a Garden Education Coordinator. Much of my time is spent managing a large production garden at Burlington High School (BHS) with the assistance of rotating groups of students. During the bountiful summer months, our Fork in the Road youth help out in the garden, but during the school year the vast majority of weeding, watering and harvesting is done by students enrolled in a Food Science course led by teacher Richard Meyer.

The class is a science elective that students can take for credit—just like any other class at the high school—but rather than completing labs centered on titrations and solving chemical equations, a typical lab in the Food Science class involves garden fresh vegetables and a plethora of cooking utensils.

“Students are taught the whole process from seed to harvest. They learn how to grow the veggies, take care of them, and then either harvest for food or preserve them for later use,” says Meyer, referring to the fact that over the course of the year, students not only complete a variety of cooking projects ranging from canning pasta sauce to making fresh mozzarella cheese, but help maintain the gardens at BHS and take on growing projects of their own.

Fall garden clean-up at Burlington High School.

In the fall, when our garden is still producing, students often spend one class a week out in the garden. These visits typically involve everyone pitching together to tackle the maintenance project of the day—cutting back asparagus, weeding around the eggplant, harvesting over 100 pounds of squash for the cafeteria, picking basil for a pesto making project. In fact, many of the cooking projects that students take on in the fall feature produce that they’ve harvested from the gardens they’ve been caring for.

Interspersed amongst these maintenance activities are short lessons on plant and soil science. For example, before planting garlic last week we discussed the differences between compost and mulch. And earlier in the season when we harvested tomatoes and peppers for salsa making, students were shocked to hear that we often eat vegetables that are botanically fruits (our whole discussion about the plant parts we consume was mind blowing for many students).

The class also grows their own microgreens in our school greenhouse, a project they keep up all winter long. As their greens mature the students harvest and deliver them to the Champlain Cafe, a small restaurant next to our cafeteria managed by students enrolled in the Burlington Technical Center’s Culinary Program.

Flats of seedlings planted by Food Science students.

During the winter months my involvement in the class drops off to monthly guest lectures and cooking projects (discussing the history of sauerkraut before making it, for example). But come the spring, things take off again. Students return to the greenhouse to work with me to plant flats on flats of seeds, the future starts that will be transplanted into the gardens at BHS, Hunt Middle School and elementary schools across the district.

When asked why they enrolled in the course, many students say that they’re interested in learning more about how to cook or that they just enjoy spending time outside in the garden. “Many of the students do not grow any plants at home nor do they do much cooking,” say Meyer. “This class gives them a taste of both.”

And it appears that there are many others at BHS who share an interest in learning more about these topics. This past fall, enough students attempted to enroll in the course that Meyer could have taught two full classes. The high school only allowed him to teach one, but we all have our fingers crossed that in future years the Food Science class will be able to expand to reach more students, providing youth with an opportunity to learn valuable life skills and participate in our school food system.