Let’s Grow Love!

Grow love

We all know gardens are fantastic learning laboratories in which to teach kids about nutrition, the environment, science, math, and many other subjects. But on this Valentine’s Day, as I have love on my mind (and in my heart) I’m reflecting on all the ways that gardening also nourishes the soul. So today, I’d like to talk about the mushy stuff (and no, I don’t mean compost).

Empathy. Compassion. Pride. Teamwork. These are a few of the words that come to mind when I think about how we use gardens to teach and grow love in kids.

I’ve written before about the importance of allowing children time outside to develop empathy for and a connection to nature. Watching and caring for a delicate plant as it grows from seed to harvest instills in kids a sense of empathy and compassion, of the interconnectedness of nature and their responsibility (as a part of it) to care of it.

Children take great pride in the process of nurturing their plants, in seeing the fruits of their labor, and being able to share their bounty with others. They learn to believe in themselves and to trust their instincts. We’ve heard from many educators that it’s often the children with the most difficulty in classroom settings who really thrive in the garden. This can be a tremendous source of self-confidence for children who might otherwise be struggling in school.

Working together and sharing responsibilities in the garden also teaches kids about cooperation and teamwork. It teaches communication, as well as respect for the diverse skills and perspectives that others can bring when working toward a common goal.

Empathy. Compassion. Pride. Teamwork. You’re nurturing these traits in kids just by providing an opportunity for them to get outside and learn in the garden, whether or not that’s the intention of the lesson. And for that, we thank you. The world could use a little bit more love right about now.

I want to send you off this Valentine’s Day with a note we received from a nine-year-old gardener during last year’s KidsGarden Month Dream Big contest:

In my dream garden, we grow love. Love in the flowers that makes everyone happy with their beautiful smell and colors. Love that grows in delicious and healthy veggies and fruit. My dream garden is for everyone, because everyone is happiest in a garden, and one of my dreams is to make the world a happier place for all forms of life. Kids will run around and feel free. Babies and caterpillars are happily crawling around my garden. They will both eat and grow big!! Then they will both take naps when they are full in beds made of lavender.

I don’t know about you, but a bed made of lavender sounds like my dream garden.

Blog by: Kristen Wirkkala

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Favorite Gardening Podcasts

cucumber vine on trellis

I just started gardening two years ago, so I’m still very green (haha) and eager to learn. One of the ways I’ve tried to absorb a bunch of gardening knowledge quickly, especially during the long winter season, is to listen to podcasts. After sampling quite a few, I’ve landed on these favorites. I listen on iTunes, but you can also find these on Stitcher, or most other podcasts apps. Enjoy!

The Joe Gardener Show – Hosted by Joe Lamp’l 

This podcast is devoted to all things gardening. National gardening television host, Joe Lamp’l, guides you through each episode with practical tips and information to help you become a better, smarter gardener, no matter where you are on your journey. This show has a strong emphasis on organic gardening and growing food, but covers a diverse range of topics from one of the country’s most informed and leading gardening personalities today.

The Living Homegrown Podcast – Hosted by Theresa Loe 

On the Living Homegrown Podcast, TV canning expert and national PBS TV producer, Theresa Loe, shares tips and tricks for “living farm fresh without the farm.” Through canning and preserving, artisan food crafting, edible gardening, and small-space homesteading (including backyard chickens), she shares how you can enjoy the flavors of the season and live a more sustainable lifestyle no matter how small of a space you call home. Alternating between solo episodes and interviews with the rock stars of the DIY food movement, each episode helps you live closer to your food.

Gardenerd Tip of the Week – Hosted by Gardenerd.com 

The Gardenerd Tip of the Week is your one-stop shop for organic gardening tips and tidbits. Seasonal, organic, and fun advice for your urban farm, homestead, and garden. They cover sustainable living, vegetable gardening, and more.

All Things Plants – Hosted by National Gardening Association 

In All Things Plants, our friends Dave and Trish Whitinger from the National Gardening Association discuss everything interesting and new in the gardening world. Each episode features regular segments, as well as occasional top 10 lists, interviews, and more.

Garage Gardeners – Steven and Emma Biggs 

This garden radio show talks to gardeners who are creative zone-pushers and season extenders. It’s hosted by our friends, father/daughter duo Steven and Emma Biggs, who use their garage to push their own gardening boundaries. Steve stores his dormant fig, lemon, and brugmansia plants in the garage over the winter, while Emma gets an early start with tomatoes on the garage roof. This show is about creatively gardening beyond your zone. 

As a thirteen-year-old who has experienced the life-changing benefits of gardening firsthand, Emma is passionate about getting other kids excited about gardening. She shares her advice in a new book, Gardening with Emma (Storey Books), which is set to be released next month. Check out our interview with Emma here; and don’t forget to check out their episode from October 2nd, when they interviewed KidsGardening Senior Education Specialist, Sarah Pounders, about gardening with children!

Blog by: Kristen Wirkkala

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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.

Blog by: Kristen Wirkkala and Judy Sims

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Winter Garden Activities

As I write this, it’s snowing here in Vermont for the first time this season. It was just a few short weeks ago that I put my garden to bed and said goodbye to my garden community; and to be honest, I was ready for the break and the coming season of rest and reflection. Even still the (at least) six months of cold weather here in Vermont makes for a little TOO MUCH time for rest and for being indoors.

Even if you don’t live in a climate quite this cold, we all feel the itch to connect with nature in new ways during the winter months. This is especially important for children. KidsGardening has a wealth of free activities that can be enjoyed during any time of the year, with or without garden space. With the holiday season fast approaching, I picked out a few following that theme that I thought you might enjoy. Check out KidsGardening Garden Activities for more ideas!

Make a Winterberry Wreath
The winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata) is native to North America east of the Great Plains. Unlike most hollies, winterberry is deciduous, dropping all its leaves during the fall season to unveil densely packed sprays of bright red berries along its bare branches. These berries persist well into winter and feed many different species of birds. These showy fruits also make winterberry an ideal plant for nature-made holiday decorations.

Art in the Winter Garden
Want to put a new spin on your outdoor winter fun? Sparking far more creativity than the typical snowman, introduce your students or family to the work of sculptor and photographer Andy Goldsworthy; then let your imaginations go wild in your own winter garden.

Wild Bird Holiday Decorations
Filling trees and shrubs with festive treats for the birds enlivens the winter landscape and supports our feathered friends. Berried garlands and seeded ornaments can last after the holidays, when the winter months are snowiest. Handmade outdoor ornaments also make great gifts for kids to make and give.

Kristen Wirkkala

Blog by: Kristen Wirkkala

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Growing a Garden Community

garden community

Last night, with a few rows of garlic planted and a few moments of gratitude, my garden was put to bed for the year. It’s a bittersweet time for me. I love my time in the garden and all of the abundance it brings to my life, but I also love the changing seasons and begin to crave the rest and rejuvenation that the winter time brings.

As I’m reflecting on this season, I thought it would be nice to share with you the special kind of gardening community I have been growing with over the last two years. I have been fortunate to be a part of the Vermont Community Garden Network (VCGN)’s Community Teaching Garden (CTG). VCGN is a wonderful organization (and a friend of KidsGardening!) that supports and grows our home state’s vibrant network of community and school gardens.

The CTG class is an immersive, 1-2 year experience in which you are provided with all of the resources and knowledge you need to get started as a gardener. The first year is intended for beginners. We each had our own plots, as well as some shared space to grow special items like potatoes and beans. I had wanted to garden for years but I didn’t know where to start. This class was perfect for me because it gave me everything I needed and walked me through an entire season. We met for two hours in the evening twice per week for 22 weeks. It was a big commitment, and totally worth it.

This year, I took the Advanced CTG course, and we had a bit of a different model. Instead of each having individual beds, we had shared space that we were responsible for caring for collectively. This model allowed us to learn to care for a much larger-scale garden and learn about different growing and pest-control techniques that are much more effective when you can plant, say one row of tomatoes all together, rather than a mixed bed. It was also nice to have a group of people with which to share watering, weeding, and other responsibilities. Many hands make light work!

But perhaps one of the most profound things I have gained from being a part of this class over the last two years is a community of people, from all walks of life, who I love and adore and might not otherwise have ever interacted with. There is a special kind of bond that’s formed when you are working together – especially over a long period of time – to deepen your connection to the earth and meet one of our most basic instincts: to nourish our bodies with healthy foods.

I’m so grateful for all of you who are growing these garden communities for youth in your schools, homes, and organizations. I know it’s impacting their lives and leading to a brighter future.

Blog by: Kristen Wirkkala

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Appreciate Abundance

appreciate abundance

Does anyone else have stress dreams about their garden?

I started my master’s degree a few weeks ago. I’m studying Food Systems at the University of Vermont and I absolutely love it so far, but going back to school on top of working full-time, keeping up with my garden, and maintaining my healthy lifestyle is A LOT.

I feel like I’m managing it well, but my stress is manifesting in really interesting ways. For the last few weeks, I’ve been having really intense dreams about my garden. I’ve spent many long nights tossing and turning with images of rotting tomatoes and eggplants dancing in my brain.

I think my mind is sorting through my (always present) fear of not being perfect and letting something slip, and it’s spitting out panic and guilt that I won’t have time to honor and appreciate the abundance in my life – of which my garden harvest is the most obvious symbol.

How am I going to deal? A daily gratitude practice and constant reminders to myself that perfection is unattainable, and my best is good enough. Also, that no matter how busy you are, there is no reason why food from your garden needs to go to waste! If you don’t have time to prepare it, someone else will. Give a gift to a friend or neighbor or donate it to your local food bank. This is a great opportunity to grow kindness and a love of service in your young gardeners. The Garden to Give initiative from our friends at Gardener's Supply can help guide you.

Happy harvesting!

Blog by: Kristen Wirkkala

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A Reminder to Enjoy Your Garden

slow down and enjoy your garden

Summer is winding down. The garden is bountiful, the harvest is prolific…and there is so much to do.

Water the garden, pickle the cucumbers, ferment the cabbage, remove the pests, seed the fall crops, repair the tomato trellis, wow there are so many weeds, give away zucchini, cook all the food…

STOP! Okay, I think we both need to take a deep breath. IN…and…OUT.

Woah! I have to admit, this summer my garden chores seem to have been relegated to just more items on my never-ending to do list. More things I need to “get done” as quickly as possible before moving on to the next.

Can you relate? My guess is that you can. Our fast-paced ever-connected world has trained our brains to think this way, to prioritize multitasking, productivity, and busyness over mindfulness and enjoyment.

Don’t get me wrong, I love eating organic, fresh vegetables; but if my garden is just a means to an end then I’d rather just go to my local food coop. We’re here for the journey and we should take time to enjoy it - and teach our kids to do the same.

A big part of what gardens teach us is to just be. To observe. To sit in stillness and enjoyment of all that nature has to offer. When our garden becomes just another item on our to do list, we lose that. Let’s honor our gardens and ourselves with some quiet time.

Blog by: Kristen Wirkkala

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Reflections of a Perfectionist Gardener

perfectionist gardener

I must begin this post with a confession: I am a perfectionist, and I have been my entire life. It can be very helpful. It keeps me organized, makes me ambitious and conscientious, and helps drives me toward success in a lot of ways. However, it often holds me back from just doing things – from diving in before I feel completely ready. It also causes me a lot of unnecessary stress and anxiety.

Gardening, on the other hand, is NEVER perfect. In fact, it’s often quite messy (dirty even), and that has taught me a lot about myself and how I want to live my life.

Here are some of my reflections as a perfectionist gardener:

Kristen’s reaction when she found out the deer ate all her beets.

It’s never perfect. You can spend all winter planning your perfect garden. You can map out what you will plant, where it will go, and all of your succession plantings for the entire summer, but it won’t turn out that way. Your row of carrots won’t be straight, things won’t fit how you expected, and deer will eat your beets and you’ll need to plant something new in that space. Gardening has helped me learn to go with the flow and bring some more flexibility into my life.

You need to start before you’re ready. I wanted to garden for years but kept putting it off because I didn’t feel ready. I didn’t have time. I didn’t have space. I didn’t know how to start. Finally, last summer, in the midst of planning my wedding and a busy travel schedule, I realized that starting and trying was better than not doing it at all. Was it messy? Yes. Was it stressful at times? Yes. Did deer eat my beets? Yes. What is worth it? Absolutely. Now is always better than “some day.”

Failure is, and always will be, a part of the process. You plant things too close together, seeds don’t sprout, plants get diseases, deer eat your beets (can you tell I’m feeling a little bitter?), and sometimes you are the only person in Vermont to not harvest a single zucchini all summer. You make changes and get better next year. Then you have new problems to solve!

Imperfection is BEAUTIFUL! An estimated six billion pounds of produce is wasted every year, and much of that is due to aesthetics. Over the last half-century, we have come to expect our produce to look like it has come out of a machine, rather than grown in the ground. We expect it to be symmetrical, clean, and one solid color. Gardening, especially with organic methods, teaches you that just like people, fruits and vegetables come in all shapes, sizes, and colors – and that diversity is beautiful! Real food (and real people) are not perfect. Thank gourd for that!

The lessons we can teach kids (and ourselves) in the garden go far beyond nutrition and traditional school subjects. Let’s remember to celebrate our imperfections.

Blog by: Kristen Wirkkala

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Strawberries in a Hanging Basket

strawberries in baskets
Kristen's first ripe strawberry!

I don’t have a lot of space at home to garden, so I do most of my gardening at a community garden. However, I do have a small porch at home and try to utilize that space as best I can. This year, I decided to try growing strawberries in a hanging basket. I wasn’t sure how it would go, especially since I have monster squirrels around that have been known to eat budding peppers and the heads off sprouting sunflowers, but I gave it a shot. I’m excited to announce that, last week; I ate my first ripe little strawberry!

It was a pretty easy and fun project and I highly suggest trying it if you don’t have a lot of space at home or school to grow. Plus, kids of all ages will love watching the flowers blooming and the fruits growing out of them and eventually turning into DELICIOUS little berries.

A puppers who likes to help with planting

I used Alpine strawberry plants. They are much smaller than other varieties and are better suited for draping over a hanging basket. I wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of taste, as I had never tried them before, but I was pleasantly surprised. When picked at peak ripeness, they have a brilliant tart taste. I think I might like them even more than June-bearing! They also produce for longer, so I’ll be able to enjoy them into the fall.

Strawberries need a lot of water, so I invested in a self-watering container. It was worth it because the basket is wider and I could fit three plants inside, and don’t have to worry about watering if I go away for just one night. However, I did need to add moss to soften the edges of the basket in order to prevent the stems from breaking as they draped over the side. It was pretty cheap and easy to do. Just use paper clips to pin it down.

If you have a critter problem like I do, hanging baskets can be a great way to keep them out of reach. Unfortunately, most places to hang a basket on my porch are still accessible to squirrels, so I bought a hook and hung it off the front! This left space higher on my porch available for flowers!

Dangling from the porch, and safe from squirrels!
Moss around the basket edges provides cushioning for strawberry stems.

When the cold weather returns, I’ll bring the basket inside to care for it through the winter – and continue to enjoy them next year!

What are your tips for maximizing food growing in small spaces? What unique garden projects are you trying out this summer?

Blog by: Kristen Wirkkala

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Learning to Love the Earth

love nature

Kids who spend more time near green space during childhood have more white and gray matter in parts of their brain, leading to higher scores on cognitive tests. These are the findings from a new study out of the University of California – Los Angeles that confirms what we at KidsGardening have known for years: the earlier and more often children are exposed to nature, the happier, healthier, and brighter they become. They also have a closer connection to and more respect for the environment.

I recently read David Sobel’s book, Beyond Ecophobia, Reclaiming the Heart in Nature Education, and it got me thinking a lot about the experiences I had in nature as a child and how they influenced the adult I’ve become. Sobel makes the case that children must develop a bond with the natural world through empathy and exploration before they are taught abstract - and often devastating - environmental concepts.

“If we want children to flourish, to become truly empowered, then let us allow them to love the earth before we ask them to save it.” –David Sobel

Growing up on a five acre horse farm in rural New Hampshire, I was outside nearly every day exploring, learning to care for animals, and connecting with nature on a level I would not comprehend or value until much later in life.

Many of my fondest memories took place in this small wooded area across the street from my childhood home. I know now that my time spent playing here and on that horse farm as a kid cultivated a connection to the natural world that laid the foundation for environmental activism. When I watched An Inconvenient Truth at age sixteen and learned about climate change, my mind, body, and spirit were primed to fight for the earth I had grown to love. I doubt my reaction to that documentary – which set the stage for my college education, career, and the rest of my life – would have been as strong had I not spent my childhood developing a bond with the natural world.

I am fortunate to have grown up with nature right outside my back door, but many children simply don’t have access to a farm or forest behind their house, nor to any green space at all.

That’s where gardens come in!

School and youth gardens can take many forms and are not just accessible to rural communities. In fact, eighty-one percent of children served through KidsGardening’s programs are in urban or suburban areas. Youth gardens can take the form of raised beds on top of pavement, gardens on the roof of a school, a living wall in a schoolyard, or plants under a grow light inside the classroom. They are an incredibly effective tool to connect all children, regardless of setting, socioeconomic status, physical ability, or learning differences to the natural world – laying the foundation for the environmental stewards on which the future of our planet depends.

Blog by: Kristen Wirkkala

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