Education Specialist Christine Gall brings a wealth of hands-on experience in garden and food-based learning, both in school settings and in programs at educational farms. Her blog posts will be drawn from her personal experiences as an educator as well as her passionate commitment to connecting kids with healthful food systems.
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...
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Every September, as the school year kicks off, I like to take stock of all the garden-based teaching resources that sit on my bookshelf untouched all summer. I do this partly out of necessity—flipping through pages to gather content that I can share with teachers interested in lessons on composting, life cycles, pollination, etc.—but I also do this to simply get inspired.
I love reading lesson plans but I realize that for many teachers, there just isn’t enough time in the day to sit down and read through an entire curriculum, and that’s assuming you’ve found a resource that resonates with you. And there are so many incredible garden-based curriculums and how-to books out there that it can feel overwhelming figuring out which ones to invest your limited time in. Which is why I’m sharing my five favorite garden-based curriculums in this week’s blog.
KidsGardening’s Math in the Garden: I love this book for it’s incredibly clear ties to math topics, everything from measuring with nonstandard units to graphing and data analysis. If you’re looking to integrate the garden into your classroom studies for the first time, this is a great resource to investigate.
Favorite Lessons: Area and Perimeter of Leaves and Locating Garden Treasures
Life Lab’s The Growing Classroom: In this classic text, lessons are grouped thematically and are even listed in an online database that lets you search by Next Generation Science and Common Core Math and English Language Arts Standards. The book also has an extensive appendix that includes companion planting guides, composting tips, instructions for building a root view boxes, an English to Spanish garden vocabulary list and much more.
Favorite Lessons: Seedy Character, Space Travelers, and Six of One, Half Dozen of the Other
The Food Project’s French Fries and the Food System: I constantly reference this resource for much of my work with middle and high school students. All of the units and projects provide an in-depth look at farming and food systems and are structured to build upon each other sequentially (though you can definitely facilitate lessons independently of the entire curriculum). The Food Project is well known for the incredible hands-on work they do in engaging youth in social change and cultivating personal growth through food and agriculture; their curriculum is a great guide for how to do the same in your own community.
Favorite Lessons: Trace the French Fry and Garden/Farm Planning Unit
Shelburne Farms’ Project Seasons: This compilation of lesson plans doesn’t just focus on gardening, it includes all sorts of seasonally themed activities focused on connecting youth to the outdoors and the concept of sustainability. And while some lessons focus on geographically specific topics (maple sugaring for example) the majority of activities are easily adaptable to any location.
Favorite Lessons: Grocery Bag Botany, Tomato Planet, and Meet a Tree
Project Food, Land and People: While this resource looks intimidating (it’s nearly 1000 pages) it’s incredible in it’s depth. Each lesson includes extensive “supporting information” and “additional resources” sections that give context to both the educator and student, not to mention ready-to-use worksheets and numerous suggestions for activity extensions. Like French Fries and the Food System, this mammoth curriculum tackles agricultural topics that stretch beyond a school garden.
Favorite Lessons: Buzzy, Buzzy Bee, Perc Through the Pores, and Tomatoes to Ketchup
These are just a few of the many garden-based resources available to educators. Check out KidsGardening’s other publications and lesson plans or share your own favorites in the comments.
It’s that time of year again, when you realize the summer has flown by and school is just around the corner! Are you planning for a successful year in the school garden? Whether your garden has been a hub of activity for the past few months or perhaps left a little neglected while students were away, it’s important to begin thinking about how your growing space will fit into the new school year.
While the start of school is undeniably busy (as are the weeks leading up to it) try to take the time to complete these five simple steps to help ensure that your school garden isn’t left in the dust.
If you haven’t already, begin planting crops for a fall harvest. If you want something that will be ready for young gardeners to pick right when they get back to school consider seeding a bed of radishes, which mature in 3-4 weeks.
Celebrate your summer volunteers! Send out thank you notes or emails letting folks know you appreciate all their hard work. Ask if they’re willing to spend time in the garden throughout the school year. Are any of them willing to support classrooms interested in visiting the garden for educational activities? Your goal should be to keep these volunteers engaged and connected.
Take stock of your garden situation. Set up a garden committee meeting (or consider forming one if you don’t have one already) to determine any garden goals or projects for the new year. Consider creating a plan of action or list of needs that you can share with the PTA, teachers or school administration.
A new school year often means new students and families, and sometimes new school staff, so make sure to spread the word about your school garden. Consider including a short write up about the garden in the first school newsletter; not only will it introduce new folks to the garden, but help remind others about how they can get involved.
Encourage classrooms to get outside! Depending on how bountiful (or weedy) the garden is, you might organize a school-wide garden work day as a way to tackle new projects or catch up on maintenance. Alternatively, facilitate fun activities, like scavenger hunts, that help students get reacquainted with your growing space.
Three weeks ago, the Fork in the Road food truck kicked off it’s fourth season, joining the ranks of food vendors who cruise the streets of Burlington, VT, during the summer months. The distinctive checkered pick-up truck and brightly painted trailer frequents many of the usual hotspots downtown and, like many food trucks, serves up delicious locally sourced foods. But Fork in the Road isn’t your average food truck—it’s staffed by high school students.
Four years ago, the Burlington School Food Project, a combined food service and farm to school program within the Burlington School District, launched Fork in the Road as a student-run food truck and culinary job training program. Since then, the food truck has employed eight or so Burlington High School students each summer—youth must submit a written application and teacher references and be interviewed to earn a spot on the truck.
Student employees earn wages while processing fresh ingredients (from local farms and our own school gardens), preparing complex dishes (everything from samosas to pesto pulled pork sandwiches), working weekly vending and catering events, and maintaining school gardens throughout the district. Youth also attend special team days, which include food safety trainings, resume writing workshops, mock interviews, and visits to local businesses where they learn the ins and outs of the service industry.
Fork in the Road is far more than a typical summer job; at it’s heart it’s a mentorship program.
For many of our youth, working on the food truck is a time where they not only gain concrete job experience, but valuable life skills and confidence in themselves, all while learning more about their community. Our aim is not only to provide students with something to do during the summer, but to give them the skills, confidence, and ability to find jobs in our community, to pursue higher education if they so choose, and to transition out of high school and into their adult lives.
And while the food truck may wrap up it’s season come the start of the school year, our Fork in the Road alumni often continue to participate in Burlington School Food Project organized activities, such as our Food Fighters afterschool program (this past year we spent many of our weekly meetings preparing meals at our local food shelf) or our Jr. Iron Chef team.
To find out even more about our programming and vending events, check out the Burlington School Food Project’s website or our Fork in the Road Facebook page. We’d love to see you if you happen to be passing through Burlington, VT, this summer!
In the past few weeks, I’ve had the pleasure to participate in and lead a handful of school-wide garden celebrations—full day events, where 200-300 students have the opportunity to kick off the growing season by participating in various garden maintenance projects. The lead-up to these garden work days can be undeniably stressful, but the payoff is always worth it. There’s nothing like seeing a group of youth realize they have the power to transform a weedy plot of land into a properly planted garden.
So, how do you successfully coordinate and facilitate a full day of gardening activities for your entire school? Here are some of the best practices I stick to when it comes to these events…
Start planning early. There are many moving parts to a school-wide garden celebration, so it’s good to give yourself (or your planning committee, if you happen to have one) a month to two months to get everything in order.
Get the school community excited. Once you’ve decided to host a garden work day, let students and parents know. Send home information in weekly newsletters and put up posters around school (you might find parents want to help out).
Create a simple sign-up sheet. Divide a school day into enough time slots for every class to sign-up for a garden visit. 20-30 minutes is a decent amount of time to tackle a small project without losing student interest. Decide if your garden is big enough to handle two classes at once or if the event has to take place over multiple days.
Brainstorm jobs and assignments. Figure out what maintenance tasks or projects each class will tackle during their garden visit, and who will be leading them. I’ve found it can be very helpful to have one dedicated individual out in the garden all day to help guide groups and coordinate garden tasks, which brings us to our next point...
Recruit volunteers! When working in the garden there are certain youth-to-facilitator ratios I like to maintain… when I say facilitator, I mean someone who knows exactly what needs to be done in the garden and is leading the activity, as opposed to someone who is simply there to support and provide assistance with group management. (For many of these school-wide garden celebrations that I’ve participated in, it’s the volunteer who will be taking on the facilitator role and the teacher who will help supervise their students). Ideally, I like to have no more than 10:1 for elementary school students and about 20:1 for middle and high school students.
Have more work than you think you can accomplish. It’s always better to have more tasks in the garden than necessary. Leave all those weeds untouched, don’t unpack all your tools just yet—turn everything into a task for students to take on.
But don’t rush. Take your time explaining what youth will be doing, why it’s important or helpful, and how they can accomplish these tasks safely. If the garden work doesn’t get done, it’s not the end of the world.
Divide your tasks and spread them out. Rather than assigning 20 kids to a single garden bed in the hopes that all those hands can get everything from weeding and cultivating to planting and watering done in one go, spread out the workload. Have 5 kids at each bed and let them take their time to accomplish a single task. Not only is it less chaotic, but it leaves room for exploration and discovery.
Incorporate a garden-themed game or activity. Not sure you have enough work for every class? Have students spend half of their time on a maintenance project and half their time on a garden-themed game or activity, like a quick scavenger hunt or relay race.
Feel free to contribute your own tips for planning and leading a school-wide garden celebration in the comments!
If you’ve been keeping up with any of our social media accounts, you’ll know by now that April is KidsGarden Month. We’ve been asking folks to share stories about how gardening has changed their lives and so I thought I’d share a little bit about what gardening has meant to me.
As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, I spent the six months after I graduated from college working on a farm in southern Vermont. My decision to pursue a farming apprenticeship was inspired by the two summers I’d spent working at a farm camp, a passion for intense physical activity, and a healthy dose of “I’m not sure what sort of career I want, but my limited experience with agriculture has been truly energizing so let’s give it a try!” I will honestly admit that an abiding love for vegetables and fantasies of tending a production garden all day did not factor prominently into the equation… in fact, I’d never been a huge fan of vegetables (I was a notoriously picky eater all through childhood and well into my teenage years) and had limited gardening experience.
This all changed during my six months on the farm. During my time there I spent a handful of hours each week managing a small growing space of my own, somewhat blindly stumbling my way through a growing season under the steady guidance of the farm manager. I weeded this tiny garden diligently, I planted seeds and transplanted starts, watered periodically, weeded some more, and made a ritual of harvesting produce at the end of my work day, selecting the ingredients for that evening’s dinner.
Slowly my diet began to change, until it came to consist almost entirely of products from the garden I tended and animals I took care of. For the first time in my life, I could say I actively enjoyed eating a wide variety of vegetables. Not only that, but I could say with certainty that gardening was something I inexplicably loved—the satisfying feeling of dirt under my fingernails and coating my hands, the joy of watching a sprout resolutely grow taller each day, the pride of knowing that I (with the assistance of the elements) was responsible for the food I was eating.
These six months of gardening revolutionized my relationship with food and inspired my burgeoning career. Gardening became a passion and key lens through which I began to view life. I found that growing food was a powerful and grounding force that connected me to the earth and to people in ways I hadn’t imaged.
Now that you know my story, feel free to share yours…
Take a short video telling us how gardening changed your life
For my blog this week I want to do something a little bit different and share a story. A story about a fierce competition we have in Vermont called Jr. Iron Chef.
Jr. Iron Chef VT is “a statewide culinary competition that challenges teams of middle and high school students to create healthy, local dishes that inspire school meal programs.”1 Teams of three to five students have ninety minutes to prepare a dish of their design and wow a diverse panel of judges who critique not only the taste and appearance of the final dish, but the professionalism and teamwork exhibited during the cooking process. Leading up to the competition, teams spend hours practicing under the guidance of their coaches who range from teachers and afterschool educators to school food service workers and professional chefs.
Back in late January I became the coach of a Jr. Iron Chef team, one made up of a handful of high school-aged culinary superstars. I’ve known these kids since the summer when they worked on our Fork in the Road food truck. Recently they’ve all been volunteering once a week at our local food shelf to help prepare meals. And since January they’ve added Jr. Iron Chef meetings to their weekly schedule—two intense hours of practicing preparing our dish, Tofu Tikka Masala with Homemade Paneer and Toasted Pita.
Our team has cooked and re-cooked this dish what feels like countless times, each week further honing the flavor and perfecting both execution and presentation. Adding that extra tablespoon of lemon juice to the paneer to get just the right tang. Cycling through different varieties of peppers until we nailed the desired heat in our dish. Figuring out if we should be dicing or cubing our sweet potato. Plating all our ingredients one way, then another way, then yet another way… tweaking the placement of that toasted pita so it leans at the perfect angle against the sauté topped rice.
And this past Saturday, we finally put all our hard work to the test as we joined over fifty other teams at the Champlain Valley Expo Center for the 10th annual Jr. Iron Chef VT competition.
Donning brand new chef coats, battered Fork in the Road baseball hats, and crisp white aprons, our team arrived just as awards were being doled out for the AM heat (there’s not enough space at the Expo Center for all teams to compete at once). At 12 o’clock sharp the giant corral that encloses the competition space was opened; we found our assigned table, efficiently set up our cooking station, passed our Brigade Check with flying colors, then eagerly waited for the cook-off to start.
And from the second the allotted ninety minutes began, our team performed with such professionalism and confidence that I am still in awe. There was just no stopping them—it was as if they had transcended some plane of existence. These kids worked with a precision, dedication and passion I have rarely seen in adults, yet alone youth. It’s hard to describe those ninety minutes as anything other than inspiring.
As we raised our green flag to signal we were done cooking and ready to have our samples delivered to the Judges Room, everyone on the team was beaming. We all knew something special had just happen. At that point, it truly didn’t matter if the team won any awards—in fact, for these kids it was never about that, they just love cooking together that much. And what they had just done during the competition was one of the purest expressions of love—for cooking and for each other—that I have ever seen.
That being said, our Fork in the Road team did win an award: Mise en Place, which goes to “the team that shows exemplary teamwork, order and professionalism.”2