Building Classroom Community through Cuisine

Building community

We're excited to welcome Carrie Strohl, the founder and leader at The School Garden Doctor to the KidsGardening blog today! We (virtually) met Carrie at the National Children and Youth Garden Conference this summer, and asked if she'd share a bit about her work with our audience.

As students, teachers, and parents prepare for another season of distance learning, food education may be just the antidote to social isolation and disengagement. Seed catalogs, nurseries, and professional organizations are reporting an increased interest in gardening at home. Economic realities and restrictions for restaurants also may have pushed more people to cook at home. 

Educators can take advantage of this opportunity to build community through cuisine. Teachers do not need to be accomplished cooks or expert gardeners to engage in food education. They simply need to be interested in using food as a way to explore students’ backgrounds and connect learning in real and meaningful ways. 

Many organizations are bridging the gap between virtual and experiential education during school closures, so there are already many lessons to choose from! For example,The Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley, CA, released a large repository of tried and true cooking and gardening activities. These resources were developed last spring to keep kids cooking and gardening at home. Likewise, the Food Literacy Center in Sacramento, CA, worked with multiple community partners to distribute veggie cooking kits to students challenged by food insecurity. 

The School Garden Doctor (based in Northern California) is promoting the program Common Core Cooking designed to empower teachers to find time in the school day to teach food literacy all year long. It uses a classroom-tested model — known as “Eat-Read-Talk-Write” — which aligns instruction to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for English Language Arts/Literacy and Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). 

Here’s a sample activity that can be done at home before a literacy lesson focused on reading comprehension and narrative writing. 

Theme: Trying New Things

Lesson: Triple Tomato Tasting 

Text: I Will Never, Not Ever, Eat a Tomato! 

  • Gather three different types of tomatoes. Select varieties of different colors, shapes, and sizes. 
  • Thoroughly wash and sanitize hands, tools, tomatoes, and preparation surfaces. 
  • Cut each tomato in half. Place one half of each tomato on a separate plate. Then cut the other half into bite-sized pieces.
  • Create interest by involving children in the preparation process or by asking probing questions, such as: “Do you think these tomatoes will taste the same?” 
  • Invite students to taste a piece of each tomato, one at a time. Never force or pressure students to taste. Let them choose, and reassure them that it’s okay if they don’t like it. (Remind them that no “Mr. Yuck” faces are allowed!)
  • After each variety, ask, “How did it taste?” Younger students may need you to provide vocabulary like “sweet” or “tangy.” Alternatively, ask for a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” rating. 
  • After trying each variety, take a vote. Ask each taster to select their favorite-tasting tomato. Make a simple representation of tasters’ “likes.” Invite them to take another taste of their favorite tomato. 
  • Read the book, I Will Never, Not Ever, Eat a Tomato, by Lauren Child. Discuss how amazing it is that Lola and Charlie eat their veggies! 

Even in a global pandemic, people need to eat, so putting food at the center of instruction can connect home and school in meaningful ways during distance learning!

Want to know more? Check out Carrie's YouTube playlist and be sure to follow her on Instagram!

About the Author

As the founder and leader of The School Garden Doctor, Carrie Strohl believes that all students deserve access to cooking and gardening in school. If you would like more ideas for tasting lessons or cooking activities for fall semester,  visit

Caring for Tomatoes, by Emma Biggs

Emma Biggs tomatoes

When I start my seeds in early spring, I’m full of energy and excitement that has built up over winter. At the end of the season, my excitement is replenished by fresh tomatoes. It’s that time in the middle that I find the hardest. The time when you spend most of your effort weeding, watering, training, and pruning‒not harvesting and eating. Here are a few tips to keep your tomato plants healthy to ensure a bountiful harvest.

As an urban grower with a limited amount of garden space, how I choose to train my plants affects how many plants I can squeeze into my garden and how much work I will have to put in. Training my plants also keeps the fruits off the ground so they don’t rot and are farther away from pests like slugs. It helps prevent soil-borne diseases from getting on the leaves. The three main ways to train tomato plants are:


Emma Biggs tomatoes

No, I do not mean the skimpy, three-pronged, knee-high “tomato cages.” For an indeterminate tomato, which will keep on growing and producing until killed by frost or disease, these are nowhere near big enough. Indeterminate plants can get 6-8 feet tall by the end of the season, so if you choose to train your plants with this method, you’ll need to find big cages, or make your own. For dwarf or determinate varieties, which get to about 4-5 feet tall, you can train them up until they reach the top, and then let them cascade over the edge. If that doesn’t appeal to you, look for a cage that is about waist-high.


Emma Biggs tomatoes

This is how commercial greenhouse tomato farmers often train their plants. This is my preferred method because I can fit the most plants into a small space‒about 1 foot apart. Basically, you grow your plants up a piece of dangling twine, and prune your plants so there is 1 main stalk, though sometimes I do 2 or 3. This requires more pruning and care, but lets you grow more intensively.


Emma Biggs tomatoes

I like to think of staking as the middle ground between trellising and caging. You can grow your plants closer together than with cages, but not as close together as trellising, and it’s more work than caging, but not as much as trellising. There are many different types of stakes, from wooden and plastic ones, to bamboo poles.

Additional care

It’s been a dry few weeks in Toronto, so watering has been very important. I know, this is kind of obvious, but it is so important, especially if you are growing in containers! One very important thing to note is to try and avoid getting water on the leaves as it can spread disease. Water in the morning or midday if you can so that any moisture you get on the leaves will evaporate.

Fertilizing helps your plants develop, become stronger, and produce more tomatoes, and is especially important if you’re growing in containers. There are many different types of fertilizers out there, but I’d go for an all-purpose vegetable one. As to how often and how to dispense it, that depends on which one you use, and will be on the label. 

To keep your plants happy, I’d recommend inspecting your plants daily. That’s the first thing I do when I go outside. I just walk around and see what’s ready to be picked, check for pests or diseases, and see what needs watering. This is a sure way to always know what is happening in your garden. Happy growing!

Emma Biggs tomatoesEmma Biggs is a 15-year-old Toronto gardener with a passion for growing unusual edibles, and lots of tomatoes. She gardens in straw bales on her driveway, on her garage rooftop, and grows tomatoes under a black walnut tree. Emma shares her love of gardening and hopes to inspire more gardeners in her book, Gardening with Emma, and on the Food Garden Life podcast, which she co-hosts with her dad, Steven Biggs. Check out her website and her Instagram: @emmabiggs_grows

Emma Biggs: Working the Room with Worms


Working the Room with Worms

There was a look of surprise on the faces in the audience when I dumped out a tub of worms into my hands and started walking around the room, with my hands out to show everyone. “Do you want to touch it, or hold it?” I asked, holding the worms out to each kid I passed.

Some smiled and touched the worms, but many gave a simple shake of the head. And a few moved back in their seat with an expression on their face like it was the grossest and most disgusting thing that they had ever seen.

It was 2015, and, at the age of 9, I was giving one of my first garden presentations with my dad. It really surprised me that so many kids and adults moved away from the worms.

But the worms got everyone’s attention! And it only took one little girl to touch a worm for the rest of the kids, who had previously said no, to move closer and think about touching them. Soon, almost all of the kids had gathered around me, eager to be part of the action and be near the wiggly little worms in my hand. Some kids let out a squeal of delight when I put a worm on their hand. A few of the kids took worms over to show their parents too, who reluctantly touched them, to set a good example. A few kids were so excited they didn’t even want to let other kids take a turn. They just wanted to keep watching the worms wiggle in their hands.

Worms were what caught the attention of those kids who were at my talk about gardening. They were a surprise to the kids. And they were fun.

Some of them were excited enough that they even wanted to take the worms home! It was easy to see by their reaction. That reaction--that excitement--is what to watch for when finding fun gardening activities for a kid.

It might be worms, or it might be something else. But there is something to make gardening fun for every kid. My brother Keaton loves bugs. He turns over stones to find beetles, and moves firewood to collect slugs. He’s even had snail races. That’s what gets him excited about the garden. My brother Quinn is interested in birds. He collects bird feathers, has a few bird feeders in the garden and is interested in plants that attract birds. A project such as a sunflower house or bean teepee will be fun for some kids. For some kids, it might just be mud, and that’s OK.

In my case, one of the things that made gardening fun was unusual tomatoes and neat edible plants such as Dragon Tongue beans that have beautiful colors, cucamelons that are thumbnail sized but look like watermelons, chocolate-scented mint, and Black Nebula carrot that is a super dark purple.  I love planting something in the garden, not knowing what to expect, and getting an amazing surprise – something like the heat-free habanero peppers I grew last year. I was never able to eat a habanero before and enjoy the fruitiness. And, of course, I love fresh veggies, particularly fresh tomatoes.

Getting kids excited about gardening is about finding something that is fun. They don’t have to like everything. And they don’t have to like doing things the way adults do. I don’t like weeding, and I don’t like eggplant. And I definitely don’t like having to share the garden with my dad because I want as much space as possible to grow unusual tomatoes!

Working that room with worms and seeing the reaction it got helped me see the importance of fun for kids. I’ve worked the room with worms at many kids events since that first talk when I was 9 years old, and when I know I’ll get them interested, listening and wanting to know more about gardening.

Emma Biggs raised over 130 tomato varieties in her Toronto garden in 2018—gardening in containers, in straw bales on a driveway, in a neighbour’s yard, in wicking beds under a walnut tree, and on her garage roof. Her latest book, Gardening with Emma, helps kids find the fun in gardening (and helps adults remember how much fun gardening is!)Emma is the co-host of The Garage Gardeners Radio Show. She is also a host of kids gardening videos on the From Dirt to Dishes gardening channel on YouTube. Stop by and say hi to Emma at, or on Instagram @emmabiggs_grows.


We are including Emma's fantastic book, Gardening with Emma, in our April 2019 Kids Garden Month prize packages! We're awarding weekly and grand prizes, so there are lots of chances to win. The KidsGrow contest is open April 1-30 2019!


Emma Biggs

Blog by: Emma Biggs

Meet Emma Biggs 

What do you tell other kids to get them interested in gardening?
I tell kids to make the garden fun for themselves by doing what they want to do, and following what interests. They should grow plants that attract bugs if they are like my brother Keaton. Or they could grow only pink vegetable if that makes it fun for them.

Why do you think all kids should garden?
Kids should garden because gardens don’t run out of batteries like my brothers’ remote control cars!

What do you love to grow the most?
Tomatoes, of course!! I really love growing unusual varieties of tomatoes.

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How a Science Experiment Grew a Garden Movement

Judy Sims in the garden

Judy Sims is a former elementary school teacher and garden educator from California who received one of KidsGardening's early Youth Garden Grants many years ago. Now in her retirement, living in Oregon, Judy continues to volunteer her time as a garden educator at her local school and is a regular donor to KidsGardening. Read on to learn how KidsGardening helped her grow her school garden movement, and why she continues to give back today. - Kristen

My third-graders’ classroom science experiment grew into a school garden!

That’s the short version of the story of how I became a garden educator, and why I have been a regular donor to KidsGardening for over 14 years. My third-grade class and I transplanted our pole beans from paper cups into a row of beans along a south facing nearby fence. As the years went on, I found myself infusing my teaching with outdoor education, and the garden area expanded. Garden-based learning became a regular part of our classroom activity, supported in large measure by parents and the community, and with two grants we received from KidsGardening.

It wasn’t until we received our first garden grant from KidsGardening that we were able to buy proper gardening tools and equipment for kids. Oh, the excitement we felt when the boxes of garden grant gifts arrived! Now we had much needed kid-sized tools, a garden cart, vegetable seeds, and more. The local newspaper even highlighted our garden and our grant award. This brought additional support and valuable networking with other school garden leaders.

Miss Judy in the garden with kids
Kids getting their hands dirty with Miss Judy!

We even had a visit from our California State Superintendent of Schools, whose goal was “a garden in every school.” Thanks in large measure to KidsGardening, and the continued development of our garden and food education programs, we found ourselves becoming a model program in what has truly become a school garden movement across America!

In my retirement years, now living in Oregon, I find great joy and purpose in volunteering as a garden educator, and in sharing the benefits of the garden with hundreds of kids each year. I can’t think of anything more important as we educate the next generation. I am only too pleased to be a regular donor to KidsGardening, having received significant support and valuable materials from this great organization, while also maintaining a relationship with people that understand the difference these youth garden programs can make in the lives of kids.

If you, too, have found value in KidsGardening’s hands-on activities, how-to gardening information, or grant programs, I invite you to join me in making a gift of support today. Your donation of any size will help to ensure that KidsGardening is able to continue providing these go-to resources to all of us, and to change the lives of countless kids across the country.

Meet Emma Biggs

meet emma biggs

On October 3, I had the chance to chat with the father/daughter duo Emma and Steven Biggs about Gardening with Kids on their weekly radio show Garage Gardeners.  You can listen to a podcast of the show online or download it as an Apple Podcast or from Google Play.  It was such a pleasure to learn more about their gardening experiences over the years and the unique bond they have formed through gardening together.  It was also so very cool to hear the excitement in thirteen-year-old Emma’s voice as she talked about her garden. I am pretty sure she was born with a green thumb. 

Below you will find an amazing interview with Emma by our KidsGardening Advisory Board Member James Baggett providing you with great garden ideas and tips from the heart and mind of a young gardener.  Enjoy!

Meet Emma Biggs

Thirteen-year-old Emma Biggs is nothing if not passionate about gardening and eager to share her passion with other kids. Emma lives in Canada and posts garden how-to videos on her father’s blog (, which led to her sharing her advice in a cool new garden book for kids. Gardening with Emma (Storey Books) is a kid-to-kid guide to growing healthy food and raising the coolest, most awesome plants while making sure there’s plenty of fun. With plants that tickle and make noise, tips for how to grow a flower stand garden, and suggestions for veggies from tiny to colossal, Emma offers a range of original, practical, and entertaining advice and inspiration. She provides lots of useful know-how about soil, sowing, and caring for a garden throughout the seasons, along with ways to make play spaces among the plants. Emma’s own writing (with some help from her gardening dad, Steve) capture the authentic creativity of a kid who loves to be outdoors, digging in the dirt. caught up with her recently to find out more.

Tell us about your earliest garden memories. 

One of my earliest memories of gardening is making what I called 'Cabander Stew'. It was a mixture I made of whatever I could find in the garden - carrots, chives, radishes - water, and of course - mud, all mixed together in a pail. I also remember doing a lot of watering, as it is the perfect activity to get kids gardening - all you need is a watering can, a place to fill it up, and something to water.

Top three plants that belong in a kid’s garden?

The top plant that belongs in every kid's garden (and adults) is the 'Mouse Melon", also called 'cucamelon', or 'Mexican Sour Gherkin'. My younger cousin Daphne loved them, always asking if we could go out and pick them, and when I gave some to my neighbour, her response was "Omg watermelon cucumbers!!!!!" They are easy to grow, plentiful, and a lot of fun to search for and pick. My next plant that belongs in every kid's garden is the Ground Cherry. It's such a sweet treat! You peel away the papery 'wrapper' or husk to reveal a cherry-sized sweet and tropical flavoured fruit. I can't get enough of them. Easy to grow, and totally worth it - probably my favourite fruit ever! My last kid's garden plant is beans. They are super easy to grow, productive, and can be stunning. My favourite bean is a purple and yellow striped one called "Dragon's Tongue". Beans are crunchy and delicious, easy to save seeds from, and fun and easy to plant. There are so many great things out there for kids to grow. So many great things. So choose one, or two, or 10 things you want to grow - and grow them!

What makes you happiest in the garden?

In the garden, it makes me happiest to see that my plants are growing well, to see that the squirrels aren't eating all of my tomatoes, and to harvest what I have put lots of time and effort into growing.

Favorite music to listen to in the garden?

I enjoy listening to music that is fun and jumpy, the kind of songs that get stuck in your head and make you want to dance. They make me want to garden more!

Describe your garden for us.

My garden is bigger than most peoples, but still not big enough for me. I always want more garden space, and keep stealing Dad's. My garden consists of one big veggie garden, three raised wicking beds for growing tomatoes, a container garden on my garage rooftop, and a few more in-ground beds closer to the house. That excludes my brother Keaton's melon house, my dad's front yard garden, and the three raised beds I am using in my neighbour's yard. If I keep stealing more garden though, it may all be mine in the end.

Quinn, with a bean. (Not a tomato!)

Most kids don’t like fresh tomatoes…how did you come to be such a big fan?

I can't believe how many kids (including my younger brother Quinn) don't like fresh tomatoes. To me, they're such a treat. And my brother Quinn won't even touch them. I think I just ate lots of tomatoes when I was younger and eat even more now. I can't imagine not liking tomatoes - but I can't image liking yogurt or cereal either.

Best advice anyone’s ever given you?

Lots of advice has been given to me over the years. And I try to take in all of it (there's a lot!). My Portuguese neighbour tells me to start my tomatoes a little bit earlier, and Donna Balzer advises me to not grow tomatoes beside anything in the cabbage family. I just try to take it all in, and then, someday, I might be giving other people advice.

What are some of your favorite garden apps?

I don't use technology in the garden, other than the latest backhoe, or watering can, but when I'm planning the garden, I love to listen to music. I also like to use Seedvoyage, an app that lets you sell your extra garden produce, and Instagram to see what other people are doing in their gardens, and to share what I'm doing.

The biggest mistake you’ve made in the garden?

I have made so many mistakes in the garden that I don't even know where to start. I like to try things and do experiments in the garden because, why not? That has led to lots of things, but also a busy life, and forgetting or not having enough time for watering, and that leads to dead plants.

 The coolest part of working on your book?

The coolest part of working on my new book is meeting and talking to experts on gardening. Writing a book gives you permission to call anyone you want to and to talk about gardening. I've met so many great people through writing this book, and I'm excited to meet more in the future.

What’s your next project? 

I always have something on my mind to do next. Whether it's selling my produce, writing a book on tomatoes, or attempting tomato breeding, I can't wait. I know it'll be fun.

Soil Can Help Fight Climate Change: Kids Need to Get Dirty and Learn About Soil

soil can help fight climate change

Switch to compact fluorescent light bulbs and plant a tree – these are some popular suggestions for practical steps people can take to help mitigate climate change. But the truth is, we are standing on one of the most overlooked, most effective and least expensive strategies available: store carbon in the soil.

The earth's soil contains the second-largest quantity of carbon (the largest amount is dissolved in oceans). Unfortunately, many of our modern day practices – including the removal of fossil fuels for use as an energy source and the tilling of land for agriculture crops – has resulted in an increase in carbon present in the atmosphere. This has led to global climate change.

How do we encourage the movement of carbon from the atmosphere to the soil? We need the help of plants to accomplish this. However, it needs to be the right plants in the right place.

Planting trees might sound like a flawless idea since trees absorb large quantities of carbon. But trees are not always the best solution. In areas that were originally covered in wetlands and grasslands, native, deep-rooted grassland plants are much more efficient in the sequestering of carbon. Native grassland plants also use water resources more efficiently, contribute greater amounts of organic matter to the soil, and are better adapted to handling drought conditions. The ecological lesson is that we should plant trees only where the soil will benefit from it.

Another way we can change the amount of carbon stored in soil is to promote techniques that reduce the release of carbon from the soil into the atmosphere. One example is "no-till" farming, in which farm-seeding equipment inserts crop seeds into slits cut into the undisturbed soil.  Farmers have reported that no-till agricultural practices delivered savings in just 2 to 3 years and increased crop yields by 10 percent. It also reduced fossil-fuel use for farm machinery by 90 percent.

No-till agriculture also leaves leftover plant matter on the land, which means the technique can add up to 1.3 inches of soil materials and organic matter per acre over the next 50 years. The many feet of new soil would be a sponge to hold back runoff and nutrients from entering rivers and lakes and hurting potable water supplies. It would also help reduce costly, damaging floods.

Ranchers can also contribute by using grazing practices that emulate the way bison used to graze. They moved quickly over the landscape – consuming then moving on-- and not returning to the same location for an extended period, often years. Ranchers now can graze their cattle on deep rooted native grasses and wildflowers, and keep the cattle and sheep “moving”, with short stops in each paddock, allowing a longer plant recovery period compared to conventional grazing where cattle may access the same paddock and wear down the energy and recovery potential of each eaten plant every day.

Scientific analyses show that recapturing atmospheric carbon into soil and plant communities is the easiest and least expensive method for mitigating climate change and that it provides many other economic, cultural, and ecological benefits. Restoring soils in currently farmed land can rein in 10 to 15 percent of the annual carbon emissions Americans create. Replanting native grasslands and restoring drained wetlands can reduce up to another 20 percent.  We need to follow nature's lead and put carbon where the earth has securely stored it for millions of years – in the soils. Among many other benefits, this will cleanse the atmosphere, taking a big bite out of the existing greenhouse-gas loads.

Unfortunately, few Americans are aware of the power of the land below their feet to help balance our environment. Teaching children about the importance of soil is another way educators and parents can help fight climate change.  Children need to be encouraged to play and explore soil so they will grow to appreciate its contribution to our global community.  It is never too early to begin learning about the importance of soil.  With the help of teachers, they will understand that what they stand to learn about soils is essentially important to their future and that of all other species on earth.

Steven I. Apfelbaum is a senior ecologist with Applied Ecological Services, Inc., in Brodhead, Wis. He and others at AES are part of a global team of scientists researching how to re-grow healthy soils for the benefit of people, climate, water cycles, biodiversity, and food systems on earth.  Steve co-teaches a course on the future of coastal ecosystems at Harvard Graduate School of Design, Cambridge, and lectures regularly at various other universities. For more of Steve's writing on soil as a carbon sink, enjoy The role of ruminants in reducing agriculture’s carbon footprint in North America, for the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation.

Is gardening the answer to the screen time epidemic?

kids play

North America has an epidemic on its hands. And gardening just might be the best antidote. Kids spend some 45 hours a week in front of the TV, computer, or tablet, with little to no time outside in nature. We know that spending hours sitting in front of a screen isn’t good for their physical, social, and mental well-being and numerous studies have proven the worth of outside play. The challenge for most parents and educators, however, is how to keep kids entertained outside with activities that are easy to manage and—above all else—fun.

A garden can be just that. It can be a place for creative discovery, imagination, and good-old physical activity. It’s also the perfect place for over-scheduled children to step away from their devices and engage with the quieter, slower-paced natural world.  A garden is a place to learn patience, true work, respect for the fragile, and how to pay close attention to the details of our natural world.

child playing in a garden
The author as a young child.

When I was nine years old, my family moved from Indianapolis to outside New York City in New Jersey. That first spring, perhaps in an effort to make us feel more at home, my younger brother and I were each allowed to order a packet of seeds from the Burpee Seed catalog. After poring through the glossy pages, I eventually selected annual forget-me-nots (I know) and my kid brother picked nasturtiums. We carefully planted our seeds…and both grew like Topsy (a Harriet Beecher Stowe reference) in our suburban backyard. Our simple success sparked my life-long love of growing plants, which I especially enjoy sharing with young people every chance I get.

Early on in my career as a magazine editor I was able to indulge my love of nature as an editor of Science World, Scholastic Inc.’s classroom science magazine aimed at junior high school-aged students, researching and writing all kinds of science stories (physics of baseball, pyrotechnics, the Chernobyl disaster), but my favorites were definitely those from the world of the natural sciences: sociable spiders, carnivorous plants, the science of tree rings (dendrochronology), hydroponics, and bioluminescence. And for years I wrote a bi-monthly kids gardening column for a national magazine (called Kinder Gardening) focused on garden projects for children like bark rubbings, how to make a rain gauge, and growing houseplants from produce.

These days I put all this work to good use with the curious young people who live in my neighborhood. I organize nature scavenger hunts and tree-climbing competitions. We look for praying mantis egg cases and Monarch caterpillars. We collect autumn leaves and identify bird nests and feathers. We look for fossils and four-leaf clovers and collect rocks and keep our eyes peeled for Cedar Waxwings. We sample daylillies and cherry tomatoes and chocolate mint. We open up dried milkweed pods and release the fluffy seeds on windy days.

Which is why I am so excited to join the KidsGardening Advisory Board.   I'll be ​shar​ing ​some of my favorite tried-and-true activities to get kids unplugged and outside in nature. I will be posting a series of blogs exploring fun and creative projects—broken down by age appropriateness—anyone can employ to help battle nature deficit disorder in our young people. I believe it is our responsibility to help young people become good gardeners and good stewards so they can help make this world a better place.

What You Probably Don’t Know About Sunflowers

Sunflowers are a youth garden favorite, but they are not always the best neighbors.  This guest blog post by Larry Hodgson explains how sunflowers can impact the growth of other plants in your garden.

Larry Hodgson is creator of the blog 'Laidback Gardener' and is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. After studies at the University of Toronto and Laval University where he obtained his B.A. in modern languages in 1978, he succeeded in combining his language skills with his passion for gardening in a novel career as a garden writer and lecturer. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. An avid proponent of garden tourism, he has lead garden tours throughout Canada and to the gardens of over 30 countries over the last 30 years.  He presently resides in Quebec City, Quebec. 


By Larry Hodgson

Not many people know about the dark side of sunflowers (Helianthus annuus). However, the beautiful bright blooms do hide a nasty secret: sunflowers are allelopathic, that is, they give off toxins (terpenes and various phenolic compounds) from all their parts (roots, leaves, stems, flowers, seeds, etc.) that impede the growth of other plants or even kill them. This is a protective system for the plant: they kill their neighbors, but not their own seedlings, so this gives the plant, an annual that only reproduces by seeds, a head start, making sure it can come back the following year without too much competition.

That said, if sunflowers are grown year after year in the same spot, even their own seedlings will eventually start to suffer.

The efficacy of sunflower toxin is such that the sunflower extracts are being considered as potential organic herbicides. Studies show that certain sunflower cultivars are much more phytotoxic than others, which suggests it might be possible to breed sunflowers specifically for their herbicidal effect.

Reducing Sunflower Toxicity

To reduce the effect of sunflower toxicity, cut back, chop up and compost the plants, including their roots, in the fall (yes, the sunflower’s toxic parts decompose readily in compost bins) and rain and natural decomposition will eliminate most of the toxins left in the soil before spring. Or continue to grow sunflowers on that spot.

Bird Feeders

The most obvious place where sunflower toxicity is visible is under bird feeders.

Sunflower seeds are favorites with birds, but the hulls fall to the ground over the winter, weakening or killing the plants below, notably lawn grasses. Then sunflower seedlings, originating from seeds the birds dropped without eating, germinate and grow: not necessarily what you had planned.

To prevent or reduce this effect, cover the ground under your bird feeders in the fall with a tarp or cloth and remove it, along with the hulls and seeds, in the spring. Or place your feeder over a surface free of plant growth: perhaps a patio or deck. Or grow sunflower resistant plants underneath.

You could also use hulled sunflower seeds (sunflower “hearts”) as bird feed, although they are more expensive.

One would hope that hybridizers could develop a toxin-free sunflower to be grown specifically for use in bird food, but this is not, as far as I know, being done.

Plants Resistant to Sunflowers

There has been little study of plants that are resistant to sunflower allelopathy, although I did find the following list on the site of Toronto Master Gardeners:

  1. Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia spp).
  2. Boxwood (Buxus spp.)
  3. Clematis (Clematis spp.)
  4. Coreopsis, tickseed (Coreopsis spp.)
  5. Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster spp.)
  6. Dahlia (Dahlia spp.)
  7. Daylily (Hemerocallis spp.)
  8. Dead nettle, yellow archangel (Lamium spp.)
  9. Echinacea, purple coneflower (Echinacea spp.)
  10. Heuchera, coral bells (Heuchera spp.)
  11. Iris (Iris spp.)
  12. Lantana (Lantana spp.)
  13. Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)
  14. Lupines (Lupinus spp.)
  15. Mint (Mentha spp.)
  16. Periwinkle (Vinca spp.)
  17. Pink, carnation (Dianthus spp.)
  18. Rose (Rosa spp.)
  19. Sunflowers (Helianthus spp.)
  20. Thyme (Thymus spp.)





Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens’ Innovative Children’s Garden

In many ways, Boothbay, Maine is a time warp. Long ago, my grandparents managed a resort there and I frequently traveled to Boothbay Harbor as a child. I now bring my family there each summer. As a visitor, it appears little has changed over the last few decades. Except one thing: the Botanical Gardens.

I am an avid gardener and a huge fan of botanical gardens. The Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay is one of the best I’ve been to. I go there every opportunity I get. The Garden is situated in its place—the dramatic granite coastline of Midcoast Maine—in a way that is unlike any other garden I have been to. It’s an exciting place for the plant nerd and the landscape architect alike. One of its many inviting features is its Children’s Garden, a topic highly relevant to the KidsGardening network. Erika Huber, Youth and Family Program Coordinator for the Garden, shares a little more about its founding and design below.


Emily Shipman

By Erika Huber

This year Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay, Maine celebrates its tenth anniversary open to the public. What started as a conversation between friends in 1991 and the willingness of ten founders a few years later to use their homes as collateral for the initial land purchase has become a botanical destination with nearly 190,000 guests visiting the 295 acre site last year. Situated on 3,600 feet of tidal shore frontage, this unique property encompasses miles of hiking trails and more than 12 acres of cultivated gardens, including a five senses garden, a perennial garden and a rhododendron garden to name a few.

Among these themed gardens is the much loved Bibby and Harold Alfond Children’s Garden. Designed by landscape architect Herb Schaal, who specializes in designing educational gardens for children, this two acre garden opened in July 2010. Its interactive features are inspired by children’s books by Maine authors. A Story Barn at the center of this garden contains these Maine titles, as well as more than 400 children’s books related to gardening, natural history, “green living,” and Maine cultural history. Children can get wet in the spouting whales from Down to the Sea with Mr. Magee by Chris Van Dusen, talk to a friend through a dragon’s nostril (The Stone Wall Dragon by Rochelle Draper) or hop in Burt Dow’s colorful skiff, the Tidely Idley, from Burt Dow, Deep Water Man by Robert McCloskey. Looking across the frog pond, children can pose for a picture with Sal’s bear from Blueberries for Sal, another McCloskey classic. A treehouse, bear cave, kitchen cottage and fairy village offer additional spaces to explore.

The Children’s Garden is full of colorful and curious-looking plantings like the Chinese Rhubarb in the Big Leaf garden or the weeping spruce, both of which look like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. The Rainbow Terrace is popping with thousands of tulips in May and becomes a magical landscape of brilliant colors and textures every summer. Learning happens in fun and creative ways with activities such as Garden Puppet Theater, Garden Quests and field trip tours that explore such topics as life cycles, pollinators, birds, the five senses, pond life and compost critters. Young artists hone their skills depicting plant and animal life in our Nature Illustration Camp.

Children participating in our Little Diggers program and Garden Explorers Camps get their hands dirty and learn about gardening as they dig, plant and harvest in our Learning Garden. There is even a little greenhouse nearby where flowers and vegetables are started each spring. Standards such as peas, green beans and tomatoes are grown here, along with some less common veggies. Pretzel beans, rainbow carrots, Magic Molly iridescent purple potatoes, Candy Striped popcorn, Tromboncino squash, mouse melons, Pineapple Crush alpine strawberries and Walking Stick kale spark the interest of kids and adults alike.

A mixture of flowers are also grown in the Learning Garden to highlight the importance of having a variety of shapes, colors and scents to attract a diversity of pollinators. Some of my favorite pollinator flowers are Mexican sunflowers (Tithonia) and Benary’s Giant zinnias for bumble bees, butterflies and hummingbirds; Frosty Knight sweet alyssum for bees and flower flies; and Blue Spice basil for honey bees. Speaking of herbs, an educational garden would not be complete without a variety of these odiferous plants. Our Learning Garden contains a mixture of Italian herbs, chamomile, chives, sage, dill, mint (in pots) and lavender planted nearby, which come in handy for on-the-spot five senses investigations and additions to snacks prepared by gardening campers. Who doesn’t love washing down a delicious snack of herbed popcorn with lavender lemonade!

Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens opens for the season May 1. Visit for more information about our programs for children and families.

Photos provided by: Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens

Hawaii’s School Garden Network Supports School Gardens

Guest Blog by Donna Mitts – Program Coordinator, The Kohala Center

For almost eight years I have been a coordinator for The Kohala Center’s Hawai‘i Island School Garden Network (HISGN). Founded in the year 2000, The Kohala Center is an independent, community-based center for research, conservation, and education. The Center works for a vibrant, sustainable future for Hawai‘i by focusing on four key areas: food, water, place, and people.

By supporting more than 60 school learning gardens on Hawai‘i Island through technical assistance and professional development programs, HISGN connects Hawai‘i’s keiki (children) to fresh food, healthier eating habits, and the ‘āina (land) itself. The Kohala Center also administers FoodCorps Hawai‘i and the statewide Hawai‘i Farm to School and School Garden Hui. These three initiatives support garden and nutrition programs and help schools procure fresh, healthy, locally grown food.

At public, private, and charter schools across the island—from cool, breezy South Kohala to tropical Hilo, from sunny South Kona to verdant Hāmākua—more than 16 acres of school learning gardens have been planted, annually yielding 30,000 pounds of food for these students and their school communities to enjoy. Concurrently, deeper learning of mathematics, social studies, language arts, fine arts, and the natural sciences is taking place in these vibrant, engaging outdoor classrooms.

Since it began in 2008 HISGN has been offering professional development and networking opportunities for our learning garden community. I remember when the network was first forming: I was still a garden coordinator at a small public school along the Hāmākua Coast. I was given a message from the school office to contact Nancy Redfeather, director of the newly formed Network. She contacted all of the schools on Hawai‘i Island to find out which schools had a garden. I think initially there were fewer than a dozen schools identified. The people heading those gardens were brought together to discuss forming a network. Many of us weren’t aware of other school gardens in existence at that time and were all just gardening with students. I led that school’s garden program for ten years, offering weekly garden classes for students in grades K through 9.

Eventually my position at that school was eliminated due to budget cuts and I began working at The Kohala Center as the HISGN program coordinator. It was a great transition that afforded me the chance to continue helping the school garden movement on our island. Hawai‘i Island is quite large and Nancy needed help doing site visits and offering support. We developed workshops in garden-based learning, offered school garden tours for inspiration, compiled curriculum, and identified many other opportunities for those in our school garden community. We started sharing our resources on our website and news on our Facebook page.

As our network developed, we asked the school garden community what they needed. We found they needed curriculum for connecting classwork with gardens, growing techniques for Hawai‘i’s unique garden challenges, networking opportunities, and inspiration from other school gardens.

We recently released the Hawai‘i School Garden Curriculum Map, created by teachers for their peers who may not be gardeners themselves but intuitively understand the benefits of inquiry-based, place-based, project-based learning for their students.
By listening to our Network’s needs we have been able to nurture and grow a movement in Hawai‘i, one school garden at a time.

Photos provided by: The Kohala Center