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.


Gardening Resolutions for the New Year

garden resolutions

It’s not even the middle of winter and I’m already thinking about my garden plans for the next growing season. In between mulling over what varieties to plant and daydreaming about simply being outside in a t-shirt and shorts on a warm summer day, I’ve also been putting some thought into the things I want to improve. It seems like every year there are tasks that just slip by and I always end up saying “maybe next season I’ll get around to that.” Considering the new year is fast approaching, I figured I’d compile some of these resolutions into an official list of gardening resolutions:

  • Actually prune the tomatoes: Pretty much every year I’ve managed a school garden I haven’t pruned our tomato plants and they always end up turning into massive viney bushes. This past season I did much better at staying on top of pruning, but we had an incredibly dry summer so our tomato crop was measly at best. This year I’m keeping my fingers crossed for better weather and plan to integrate checking the tomato plants for suckers into my everyday garden routine. If you’re also looking to step up your tomato growing efforts check out our Tomato Growing Guide.
  • Minimize overplanting: I manage two large production gardens for the Burlington School District and almost all our produce goes directly into school cafeterias. And even though our chefs do a fantastic job using our fruits and veggies in meals, sometimes I just end up growing a little more than necessary. Kale, hot peppers, and summer squash tend to be the top culprits. This year I’m planning on consulting my planting records and cutting back on the number of seeds I’m sowing. (See above: that's a lot of hot peppers!)
  • Maintain the raspberry bushes: We have a number of raspberry bushes at one of our gardens and we always make an effort to restring our T-post trellises each spring. That being said, I don’t do the best job of training any new growth so that it’s contained by the lattice system. By the end of the summer most of the raspberry branches have escaped the trellis, defeating the purpose of our original work. Come the growing season I’m aiming to actually put a concerted effort into maintaining our raspberries.
  • Clean out the tool sheds: Both of the production gardens I manage have large sheds chock full of gardening tools. I spent most of last summer telling myself that one day I’d get around to cleaning out these sheds and taking an inventory of all our assorted equipment. Needless to say this cleaning session did not happen and so I’d like to kick off the next season with a big day of cleaning and organizing.
  • Plant some spinach: I love spinach and yet I never really grow it in our school gardens; we tend to shy away from greens in favor of larger crops that can have more of a presence on the lunch line. But for the first time in years I now have a little garden at home and I’m definitely looking forward to planting some spinach there and having it available for fresh salads and stir-fries all summer long.

Do you have any gardening goals for the new year? Feel free to share!

Mister Chris and Christine!

Mister Chris and Friends is a new children's show on Vermont PBS, and KidsGardening's education specialist Christine Gall appears in several episodes as Farmer Christine. She had a fantastic time working on the show, and we are so excited to share it with you.

Each new episode of Mister Chris and Friends is designed as an educational lesson on an aspect of the natural world, combined with the show’s foundational approach of creating a safe and welcoming environment in which to learn and explore.

The show is incredibly sweet, and if you need to unwind with the littles in your life, you should check it out! May we recommend episode 3, where Christine is the featured guest?

Seeds: In this episode, we wish with our friend Wishing Well that we could grow bigger... right now! Mister Chris will work with our farmer friend, Christine, to learn more about what a seed needs to grow, including time.

You can watch the entire series at Vermont PBS.

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!