Life Lessons from the Garden

life lessons from the garden

One thing a gardener quickly learns is that more is not always better. For example, if you over fertilize your plants, they will end up growing too fast and that new growth will be weak and more susceptible to insects and disease. Ideally you want to provide just the right amount of fertilizer for healthy growth. You also learn that different plants have different nutrients needs. If you try to treat them all the same, some may end up being over fertilized and others may not have enough.

Why have I been thinking about this lately? Well, school started back for us about 3 weeks ago and I feel like I am back on the crazy train of raising children in today’s society. My fifth grader has 2+ hours of math homework a night working on concepts I learned in 7th grade and her extra-curricular activities feel like they are trying to teach her to go Pro rather than have fun. As a parent I am feeling a lot of pressure to provide these opportunities for her to be successful, but honestly, I am afraid we are now over fertilizing.

There is much talk today about the rising anxiety levels of our children and we are quick to blame technology. But is technology really the reason we have increased the complexity levels of the content taught at each grade level? Back when I was in kindergarten if you knew your letters and numbers by the end of the year you were golden. Now, kindergartners are expected to leave already reading and completing basic math equations. Does it really make our society better for kids to master concepts at an earlier age? What’s the rush? Are all those extra activities really that beneficial? What does "success" really even mean?

Back to thinking in terms of the garden, I try to imagine what would happen if I tried to grow a diverse group of plants all in the same garden with the same environmental conditions and fertilizer treatments. I know some would thrive, some would survive and others would fail. So as a gardener would I be happy with those results? Would I keep doing the same thing knowing 2/3 of my plants were not thriving? No! I would be trying to find a way to provide them with the right growing conditions so that they could all reach their maximum potential and I would definitely let them grow at their own pace. So maybe we need a new book titled “All I Need to Know I Learned in the Garden” that encourages us to look to nature for tips on how to provide nurturing environments for growing healthy and happy kids. Let me just add that to my to do list.

Whew, it is only September and life already feels like a garden where the vines and weeds are growing out of control (like the picture of one of our butterfly garden containers above). I know I need to get in and weed, prune and transplant to get things back into shape, but it is a slightly overwhelming task and I am not even quite sure where to start. I can definitely tell you my family is some need of some unstructured outdoor time and a strong dose of gardening to combat the beginning of the year stress.

Blog by: Sarah Pounders

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New Beginnings for School Gardens

Planting seedlings at a school garden

My mantra for the 2018 – 2019 school year: “It’s worth it.”

I have been the parent volunteer garden coordinator at my kids’ school for the last five years. That first year, parents and fourth grade teachers sat down together in true garden team style and brainstormed plans for the garden. We tried a couple of different approaches, but then landed on a system that really seemed to work and take hold. Three years ago, we used the same approach to add on a third grade garden area. Last year was the first year I felt we had kind of found our groove. The students, teachers and parent volunteers had the process down.

It’s worth it.

Due to a number of different reasons, this year 4 of our 6 fourth grade teachers are new to our school and 4 of our 7 third grade teachers are new to third grade. All of the teachers that were part of our original garden committee have either retired or moved to new schools. I am happy to say that many of our dedicated parent garden volunteers are back for another year though (and in fact we had a few dedicated families and Scouts who bravely tackled the weeds in the Texas heat to get everything ready for the first day of school - it was amazing! I was so happy I almost cried!), but with 5 years under our belt, we are pretty much re-booting on the teacher side.

It’s worth it.

This summer our school was under construction. Taking inventory the first week the school opened back up, one of the shelves for the grow lights had disappeared along with our timer and power strip, the compost bin had been emptied and the water valve had been broken. I admit I was a bit discouraged by my first trip out to the school this year. I am happy to report that by the first day of school the grow light shelf reappeared and our wonderful school office administrator arranged to get the water fixed. What a motivation boost it was to have both of these things happen so quickly!

It’s worth it.

A new fence has been put up around the school. Please know I have no complaints about this as it is meant to add safety to the building, but it does mean we will need to rethink weekend and break watering schedules and probably also planting schedules too. It is yet to be determined how we will be able to access the site when the school is not open, but I am sure we will figure something out.

It’s worth it.

One of my favorite quotes of all time is from a social worker from the early 20th century Grace Abbott: “Perhaps you may ask, ‘Does the road lead uphill all the way?’ And I must answer ‘Yes, to the very end.’ But if I offer you a long, hard struggle, I can also promise you great rewards.”

Hmmm… perhaps not all of you will see that as inspirational as I do. But it helps remind me to focus on 3 truths that keep me motivated:

  • Our school garden is the first time many of our students ever see how fruits and vegetables are grown.
  • Our school garden has inspired a number of homes gardens resulting in more families growing their own fresh food and decreasing kids screen time while increasing their experiences in nature.
  • Our school garden may be the only gardening opportunity for many of our students until they are adults.

So is it going to be a challenging year? Likely, yes. But, I can already feel the support gathering from parents and administrators. Also, I am excited about the opportunity to work with the new teachers and think it is a great time to evaluate the garden and how we use it.  I know it is going to take a little bit of extra energy and enthusiasm to get things moving this year and I am going to be honest with you, even with 20 + years of youth gardening experience under my belt, the task seems a bit daunting. But, is it worth it? Hands down yes.

It’s worth it.

At KidsGardening it is our goal to try and provide the know-how and inspiration teachers and parents need to grow new and keep existing garden programs going. We know first hand it isn’t easy, but we want you to know it is worth it. We want gardening educators every where to know how much we appreciate and support their efforts and that their blood, sweat and tears are making a difference. A school garden is not a curriculum in a box, it is a living lab and an engaging tool that provides students with a connection to nature and our food system and our environment that lasts a life time.

Do you agree that it’s worth it? Do you want to help us inspire and motivate new and current garden educators?

If so, please consider giving to our Back to School Gardens Campaign. The money will go to support our foundational programs including our monthly Kids Garden News, the development of our online resources (lesson plans, garden activities, how-to articles and garden guides), creation of new curriculum materials (like our most recent Digging into Soil Guide) and our grant programs like our Youth Garden Grant that has been providing seed money and supplies to youth gardens since 1982.

Our goal is to raise $8,000. We need your help to keep doing what we do! Visit Back to School Gardens to learn more.

Blog by: Sarah Pounders

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Digging Into Soil

A couple of years ago, I shared my top tips for school gardens and one of them was “Invest in Your Soil." This was a lesson I learned through personal experience as the original soil placed in our raised bed gardens was of poor quality and had to be completely replaced the following season. Take my word for it, there is nothing like hauling 6 cubic yards of soil out of the tall raised beds and then shoveling 6 yards of soil back into the beds in the 90+ degree Texas August weather (after it had just been done in the spring less than 6 months before) to really drive home a point. 

This experience was what I would call an “Aha” moment. I sat through the required soil courses in college and over the years I have attended a wide selection of seminars on soil preparation and composting (and even taught a few myself). I have conducted soil tests both on my home and school garden soil and used the results to develop a best practices management plan. I ‘knew’ all the soil basics, but it was the sweat of the work (including the difficulty of finding and motivating volunteers) and then observing the difference between how our garden grew in the before and after soil that made the importance of soil real to me. We talk about how valuable experiential learning is for kids – never forget that it is just as powerful for adults too! 

My new enthusiasm for soil was further enriched by reading the book Teaming with Microbes by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis.  The authors magically explain a very complex topic - how both organic and inorganic matter interact in the soil – in easily to understand terms. I LOVE this book! Read it now!

Recognizing that garden programs offer unique opportunities for hands-on soil education, a little over a year ago, KidsGardening began collaborating with Dr. Steve Apefelbaum and Susan Lehnhart of Applied Ecological Services and The Lower Sugar River Watershed Association to develop a set of lesson plans for high school educators. The result of this work is Digging into Soil: A Garden Practicum.

Digging into Soil includes a set of 10 lessons linked to Next Generation Science Standards that are designed to not only teach students about soil basics, but also to help them understand the important role our soil and soil life plays in our ecosystem and why we must work harder to protect it.  Incorporating hands-on activities and extensive projects linked to current events, just like my “Aha” moment, the goal of this Guide is to make soil real to participating students. The lessons are flexible enough that they could be implemented with or without a garden program, but being able to see the principles presented play out first hand in the garden is extremely beneficial. Students’ sense of ownership and pride in their garden adds to the motivation to learn about soil health. We focused on keeping all activities and experiences hands-on, inquiry-based and practical.

For more detailed information about the lessons including how they are linked to Next Generation Science Standards Performance Expectations and to download a copy, please visit DiggingIntoSoil.org.

Blog by: Sarah Pounders

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Monarch Monitoring

About 5 years ago, our family planted a pollinator garden and although we started with an assortment of plants, the milkweed quickly took over. For the next 3 years, we enjoyed watching the seasonal onslaught of monarch caterpillars and we even got lucky enough to catch one right as it was forming its chrysalis (a very cool thing to watch live).

In the fall of 2016, we began to notice that our caterpillars seemed to be disappearing. One day we would see the leaves covered with them, the next we would only be able to find a handful. It was pretty obvious that something was eating our monarch caterpillars. I started bringing a few caterpillars indoors to grow in one of those pop-up butterfly cages and I would harvest leaves to feed them. Even though their numbers were down, we could pretty much find a continuous supply of caterpillars to stock our cage.

Unfortunately, that changed this spring. We began looking for caterpillars in early April like usual and finally about mid-April, I was able to find one lonely little caterpillar. I could tell that there had been more because I could see small little holes where it looked like they had started chewing, but even after an extensive search, we only found one.

monarch monitoring
A monarch emerging from its chrysalis

My youngest son is in kindergarten and as part of their science curriculum, they learn about butterflies, so I took the cage in to school so that his class could watch the caterpillar grow. That little guy put on a quite a show of mowing down leaves and pooping (the amount of poop they make is truly amazing). Finally one morning, they came in and he was hanging in his “J” formation getting ready to form his chrysalis. Of course that little stinker waited until the 30 minutes they were at PE to transform. To top it off, he also emerged from his chrysalis on a Sunday so they missed that too. Perhaps it is a survival mechanism to be able to sense a peaceful time to make these changes? Since it takes time for them to dry out their wings and get ready to fly any way, I left him in his cage until Monday morning, so the kids did get the opportunity to watch him fly away into the world.

monarch monitoring
A monarch egg on the underside of a milkweed leaf

The kids enjoyed the process so much, I told them I would bring them more. No problem, I thought, our milkweed always has some caterpillars at this time of the year. I began checking our milkweed every day. I did not find another crop of eggs until mid-May. This time I picked the leaves with the eggs on them rather than waiting for them to hatch. We ended up with 5 caterpillars with 4 of them making it to the chrysalis stage (not sure what was wrong with the last one, he just stopped eating and eventually died). Unfortunately, they once again transformed into their chrysalis form over the Memorial Day holiday and did not emerge until after school was over. Thank goodness for YouTube where you can find great videos of the transformations they missed.

While it was a successful learning experience for my son’s kindergarten class, it was also was an engaging lesson for me. I can’t help but ponder the very obvious signs that the monarch population has taken a significant dive in the last 2 years. I believe I have narrowed down the predator eating my caterpillars to wasps, but we have always had wasps, so are there more wasps now? Are there fewer monarchs? Did the caterpillar population use to be high enough to provide food for the wasps and still leave some to grow to maturity? Are the wasps emerging earlier so that the monarchs do not have time to get a foothold? This spring at our school garden we also saw a significant increase in the wasp population and a decrease in bees and butterflies. Wasps are pollinators too, and they can help control caterpillars we consider pests (like cabbage loopers and tomato hornworms). Is it wrong for me to dislike them because they are not as cute, are more aggressive, and they sting?

So many questions…so many learning opportunities. I hope this post will help convince you that you need a pollinator garden too. Pollinators are a fascinating group of animals to study for any age and are an important part of ecosystem and our food system. These are all facts I have known since, well as long as I can remember. But even for me, actually growing a pollinator garden and specifically observing the life cycle of one of its inhabitants has increased my interest in pollinators to a whole new level.

I am reminded of the quote by Baba Dioum: “In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand and we will understand only what we are taught.” We can preach words of doom and gloom about decreasing pollinators populations all we want, but youth need personal experiences with pollinators to be able to truly understand and respect them. This June, to celebrate National Pollinator Month, if you don’t already have one, start planning your pollinator garden today!

Blog by: Sarah Pounders

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Why Every School Should Plant a Pollinator Garden

We have had another exciting spring garden season at the Glen Loch Elementary Teaching Gardens in The Woodlands, Texas. First let me share a few before and after pictures with you. The first ones were taken about a week after planting day and the second ones were taken this week.

First, our Third Grade Tomato Recipe Gardens:

pollinator garden

The kids grew the tomatoes from seed starting them under grow lights at the end of January. We decided to plant all cherry tomatoes this year because last year the larger tomatoes did not ripen in time. Alas, we had a bit colder spring than normal (eye rolling from my colleagues in Vermont; it was cool for our standards), so we just had our first harvest on Tuesday of this week, but the plants are loaded down with lots of green fruit that I hope will turn by the last day of school. As you can see from the picture, they started out pretty spindly looking and we over planted because I was not sure if they would all make it through the transplanting process. Joke is on me though because those hardy things stuck it out  and took over all of the other plants. We now have a tomato jungle.

Next up, here are our Fourth Grade Salad Gardens:

pollinator gardenThis year we planted lettuce, radishes, basil, cilantro, beans and our experimental plant for the season was strawberries. You may recall from my last blog that we tried growing strawberries from seed and although they germinated fine, they will probably be large enough to plant outdoors by the fall maybe (slow growers), so we ended up buying small plants which was a bit pricey, but the kids were so excited it seemed like a solid investment. That being said, we quickly learned how many feathered friends live on our school grounds.  Though on the bright side, I do think the birds helped us fight back the worms that were destroying our lettuce plants. In mid-April, I finally broke down and purchased bird netting and we finally started getting some strawberries to harvest. Another challenge though is that the berries ripen just a few at a time and when they are ripe they are ripe, so it makes it a little harder to plan for classroom harvest sessions. We will definitely try them again – but may need to assign them to their own bed so that we do not have to put netting over everything.

So you may be thinking to yourself, I thought this blog post was going to be on pollinator gardens? I love our edible gardens. I love the fact that the kids get to see the cycle from seed to table. I love that they get to taste the difference between tomatoes straight off the vine and those they get in the grocery store. I love that they learn how much work goes into growing food and that they need to appreciate our farmers and be willing to pay premium prices for locally grown produce. But….

Seven. That is the number of times it has rained at our school garden since we planted it in March which means we have spent a lot of time watering.

Fifteen. That is the number of volunteers we needed to make sure our planting day was successful.

Four hundred. We spent about four hundred dollars on all the seeds, plants, soil, and fertilizer needed for our 23 vegetable and herb beds.

pollinator gardenAnd then here is our pollinator garden bed. This January we spent about five minutes cutting back all of the dead plant growth. We then sprinkled just a little bit of organic fertilizer on top and sat back and watched it grow. All of the plants you see in the picture either came back from seed or from the roots. So we spent about 5 minutes and maybe a dollar on organic fertilizer. It requires much less water and I know that even if we miss a day of watering, it can bounce back.

And this is why I think every school should have a pollinator garden. They require much less maintenance and once installed, usually require less annually funding while still offering you the perfect outdoor classroom teaching tool. Would I like to see a vegetable garden in every school too? Absolutely – but only if you have the resources (both financial and human) to make sure it is a positive experience. Limited on time and money? Jump into your garden adventures with a pollinator garden and then add on as your support grows.

Blog by: Sarah Pounders

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Spring Garden Preparation

For my last blog, I took a look back at our fall gardens, but in Texas the pause for winter is short and this month we are full steam ahead jumping into spring garden preparations.

Last year, our school invested in purchasing grow lights not only to allow the students to be able to watch the plants go from seed to fruit, but also to try and save some money and diversify the types of plants we can grow. In addition to starting tomato plants (enough so every 3rd grader can not only grow them at school but also take one home for their family to grow too), this spring we are also starting herbs including basil and cilantro along with flowering plants like salvia, cosmos and tithonia.

These little chive seedlings have an amazingly big smell.

It is so rewarding for the kids to be able to plant seedlings in addition to seeds on our big spring planting day, but the cost of providing enough small plants for approximately 250 students who participate in the garden is beyond what our little budget can provide. By growing our own seeds we are able to extend the season and offer fun plants that would be too expensive to purchase already grown. For example, this year the kids asked to grow strawberries. As a gardener, I know that getting bare root plants is the best way to have success with strawberries, but I just could not resist the $4 packet of strawberry seeds. They are going to be our big experiment for this season (and if it does not work out, hopefully we can find some money in the budget for bare root plants). Another plant we are trying to grow from seed for the first time is chives (also hard to locate at a reasonable price for the quantities we need). Did you know that even when they are less than 1 inch in height they still have that distinctive oniony smell? I guess I should not have been surprised, but honestly I was shocked the first time I removed the humidity lid and they delivered their powerful smelly punch.

Speaking of trying new things, we are also experimenting with a new technique for garden clean up. In the past we have always removed all of the old plants including the roots. We would of course try to shake off as much of the soil as we could before adding them to the compost pile, but without a doubt we would lose some soil. This year, instead of full removal, in some of the beds we cut the plants back at the soil line, leaving the roots in place. The idea behind this is that the old roots will slowly break down, returning nutrients to the soil while also decreasing the disturbance to the soil and helping prevent soil erosion. We removed the plants from about half the beds and cut them back on the other half. It will be interesting to see if we notice any difference between the two practices.

From brainstorming ways to offer more hands-on experiences to coming up with ideas for planting day stations, it already feels like our spring garden is in motion. The warm lights of the grow lab and fresh green of the seedlings are a welcome sight to help brighten up the cool (I live in Texas – we have more cool than cold), gray days of winter.

Have you started planning for spring yet? If you are looking for a new and exciting project for your school garden program, don’t forget about the 2018 Carton 2 Garden Contest from Evergreen Packaging and KidsGardening. You can register your interest to learn more about the contest here and we will also mail you some FREE SEED packets to help you get started.

Blog by: Sarah Pounders

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Looking Back at 2017

school garden

I want to kick off the New Year by sharing some of the highlights of the fall 2017 garden at my children’s elementary school in The Woodlands, Texas. Despite challenging weather, we had an amazing growing season this year. We started off in August with 30 inches of rain in one week from Hurricane Harvey and then we experienced higher than normal temperatures and minimal rainfall the rest of the fall (it only rained 4 times between September and Thanksgiving), so there was a lot of time spent watering, especially when our plants were first getting established. There were days when the plants would wilt even when the soil was moist because their young roots just could not take up water as fast as it was being used, but on the up side, the drier weather kept some of the insect and disease problems we have had in the past in check.

school gardenFirst let me start by sharing a picture of our amazing pollinator garden. My kids and I started a tray of pollinator-attracting plants in late summer and thinking I would remember what we planted and be able to recognize the young seedlings, I did not label the rows, so this was also a bit of a surprise garden (because of course I did not actually remember what we planted and had discarded the seed packets without thinking). We ended up with huge cosmos, marigold, and salvia plants in a wide array of colors (I am pretty sure we planted milkweed and coreopsis seeds too, but they apparently did not compete well with the others). Our plants attracted a diversity of bees and butterflies. We had a few young gardeners a little nervous about the number of bees flying around, but they quickly realized that the bees were very focused on the flowers and were not at all interested in the students. We will definitely be re-planting this area again this spring.

school gardenNext let me share a photo of our Third Grade gardens. We planted sugar snap pea teepees surrounded by marigolds. The marigolds took hold quickly, but the sugar snap peas really struggled with the hot weather. We planted them in mid-September, but they did not reach the top of our teepees until mid-November. We divided the kids into teams with each team having a different pole of the teepee--- the team whose plants reached the top first got an emoji key ring prize. As soon as the weather cooled down, they quickly made up for lost time though and began blooming up a storm so that all of the gardeners had a chance to snack on the peas before Christmas break.

And last but not least, our Fourth Grade salad gardens were total rock stars this fall. We started the lettuce and kale seeds inside for the first time and it was a huge success– we have never had a better harvest. Within a month of planting outdoors, the kids were able to bring home gallon-sized zip lock bags of kale, lettuce and radishes and they continued to harvest biweekly up to Thanksgiving. As the lettuce was beginning to bolt due to the hot temperatures, the broccoli exploded and took over the beds and the broccoli harvest soon school gardenbegan. We did have one disappointment this fall. Out of all the carrot seeds planted, only one garden plot ended up with harvestable plants. Another plant that also usually performs well for us that did not this season was the green bean. Did you know that green beans are a host plant for the Long-tailed Skipper caterpillar? It was the first time in five years that we have had a problem with them, but for some reason they were in great abundance this year (maybe because of our pollinator garden) and they really, really liked our green bean plants. Even though I think I am ready to give up on the carrots, perhaps we will try green beans again this spring and see if our plants can get some size on them before the caterpillar population can mow them down.

With 2017 behind us, it is now time to start working on our spring garden. I know it may sound early to many of you, but we start planting our spring garden seeds indoors in mid-January for an early March outdoor planting. Our fall garden has set the bar high this year so I am both excited and a bit nervous about what we can cook up for the spring. One of my favorite things about the garden is knowing that as many times as I have done this, I know I will learn something new right along with the students - that is the beauty of working hand in hand with mother nature – it is always an adventure!

Blog by: Sarah Pounders

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ProFlowers Volunteers Give Back

To celebrate the UN’s International Volunteer Day (Tuesday, December 5, 2017), KidsGardening teamed up with ProFlowers for an exciting garden expansion at Sequoia Elementary School in San Diego, California.  Giving back in their local community, close to 30 ProFlowers employees volunteered their time to spruce up a succulent garden, build compost bins, plant fruit trees, and construct four new raised beds to house pollinator-attracting plants.  With great enthusiasm, the garden club students joined the adult volunteers to add soil to the new beds and dig in the colorful array of flowering plants.  By the end of this beautiful morning, proud smiles and dirty hands could be found on participants of all ages.  Just take a look at these amazing photos.

The work of ProFlowers to support youth garden programs is just beginning this holiday season.  Recognizing the value of garden-based learning, ProFlowers will support youth garden programs across the country through their Gifts for Good™ Collection. For every arrangement sold from this special collection, ProFlowers will donate $5 to KidsGardening, up to a total donation of $50,000.*  Including both fresh flower arrangements and a glowing Giving Tree, consider shopping for a cause this year by purchasing one of these special gifts for friends or family.  Your holiday gift will last a lifetime as it is used to plant the seed of gardening in a young child.

*The Gifts for Good ™ Collection is available for purchase from 11/25/17 – 12/25/17, and is void in AR, CA & DC.

Blog by: Sarah Pounders

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Carton 2 Garden Contest

carton 2 garden

I have fond memories of making little gingerbread houses each December in elementary school using a milk carton as the base, then covering it with icing, graham crackers and candy.  Probably not the healthiest holiday activity out there (I fully admit that not all the candy ended up on the house), but it was one of my earliest experiences in turning something that would have been trash (yep, I am old, we could not recycle paperboard in those days) into a treasure. 

carton 2 garden
Carton 2 Garden past winner

Many years later milk cartons are still a staple supply in schools across the country and available to serve as inspiration for teaching kids about the value of reusing products to reduce waste. Repurposing cartons is a fun way to provide opportunities to learn about conserving our natural resources and protecting our environment.  Even better, through the Carton 2 Garden Contest you can win money for your school garden program through your environmental education endeavors!

I like to say that entering the Carton 2 Garden Contest is as easy as 1, 2, 3 (does anyone else hear young Michael Jackson’s voice with that phrase? I digress…):

  1. Save empty milk and juice cartons.
  2. Creatively re-purpose cartons to build or enhance your school garden program while engaging students in hands-on activities that foster environmental stewardship and healthy living (sorry, no candy-coated gingerbread houses).
  3. Capture the results of your efforts with photos and video, and complete the online entry form by Monday, April 16, 2018 for your chance to win one of 14 prizes up to $5,000.

I love how open-ended this contest is because it gives you and your students room to let your imaginations run wild. Reading through the entries is a delight because they always blow me away with their creativity and ingenuity. I highly recommend checking out some of our past winners to spark your brainstorming.  Click here to visit the Carton2 Garden Inspiration page. You can also read through some more in-depth program spotlight stories from our 2017 winners:

Lemon Avenue Elementary School

PS 135 Q The Bellaire School

Medea Creek Middle School Garden Club

The Carton 2 Garden Contest is open to all schools serving any grades from PreK-12. There is no entry fee.  You do not have to have an existing garden program at your school to enter. Visit Carton2Garden.com for complete details. 

Think you might be interested in participating this year?  You can complete our short online Interest Registration form to receive additional information and free seeds to help you get started. Questions?  Email us at [email protected].

Blog by: Sarah Pounders

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Youth Garden Grant Memories

successful year in the school garden

Every year when the new Youth Garden Grant application comes out, I think back to the first youth garden I helped with in a significant way. While I was in graduate school, I volunteered in a local classroom one morning a week, providing a short program and seasonal gardening activities. The school was unique in that it was part of a our local school district, but it was comprised of one main classroom teaching kids ages K-12 and was located at a shelter for kids who had been removed from their homes due to abuse and neglect. Some of the kids were there for a very short time before getting placed in foster homes, while others were there much longer because it was not safe for them to be in foster care for various reasons. The garden was in a courtyard of a highly secured building without any kind of markings on the outside. Since I never knew how many kids would be there or what ages they would be, I always had to plan for the full range of ages and bring extra supplies.

Working in small groups, we usually began with a short lesson or activity inside, and then we would go outside to work in the garden. The garden area consisted of eight vegetable beds, two compost bins and one large butterfly garden shaped like a U (Photo above. Sorry about the quality; this was taken in the pre-digital camera era).

Despite the challenges these kids faced, I can honestly say in the two years that I volunteered there there were only a few instances where I felt like our garden time was different than any other classroom. The kids were always excited about our activities and enthusiastic about everything we did in the garden. I was amazed at how engaged the kids were in the garden and by their expressions of joy when in fact most were dealing with circumstances that were beyond what I could even imagine. I never felt like I had to work to hold their attention, and I do not remember ever having to deal with any behavioral issues. After my volunteer time there, I was completely sold on the power of the garden as an educational tool.

I will be the first to admit that I probably learned as much, if not more, about gardening as the kids. Even though I grew up around gardens, I have to chuckle about some of the things I planned—like planting a raised bed of sunflowers against a fence that was not fitted to the ground so that all the soil washed away the first major rain we had; showing up to make butterfly baths without anything to stir the concrete mix with; drilling holes in the bottom of our worm bin without putting a tray under it to catch any over flow… I could go on and on. Fortunately for me, the classroom teacher at the shelter had a heart of gold and was so patient with me as I learned what worked and what did not. I like to think the kids enjoyed the fact that I did not know everything and was learning along with them.

So, circling back to the Youth Garden Grant. While I was volunteering at the shelter garden, with the help of the kids we applied for and received a Youth Garden Grant. This was when I got to see the magic of receiving national recognition for a youth garden program. The kids were so proud of their work, especially the ones who had helped write the grant—it was like Christmas when all of our award products were received! As great as the prizes were, it was the recognition we received that made the biggest impact. For the staff and myself it felt like a thank you for all of our hard work keeping the program going. Plus, after receiving the grant, we also received additional funding from the school district and the shelter specifically for the garden. It also led to additional donations of plants and soil. Those of us closely involved had seen the benefits and rewards of the program first hand, but all of a sudden administrators who were not directly involved saw its value and wanted to help. It solidified the program in a way that I had not anticipated, and I am happy to say that the garden continued long after I had graduated and moved on.

KidsGardening (prior to 2016 as an initiative of the National Gardening Association) has been offering Youth Garden Grants since 1982. It is the absolute highlight of my year to get to read all of the wonderful applications that come in … and honestly, the it's hardest thing not to be able to provide an award to every deserving program. The Youth Garden Grant is funded by the generosity of our individual and corporate sponsors. As a former recipient, let me just take a chance to say thank you to those of you who have contributed through donations in the past. I would also like to put in a plug to those of you considering end-of-the-year donations. Investing in KidsGardening helps fund programs like the Youth Garden Grants that both literally and metaphorically plant seeds in school and youth garden programs across the country. We help plant seeds of plants, seeds of learning, seeds of joy, seeds of hope, and seeds of love. Click here if you would like to find out more about giving to KidsGardening.

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Blog by: Sarah Pounders

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