Senior Education Specialist Sarah Pounders has been active in the field of youth gardening for more than 20 years and brings wide-ranging experience helping educators integrate garden-based learning into the classroom. And as the parent of a 9 year-old and a 5 year-old, she also brings a parental perspective to the world of kids’ gardening, both as the garden coordinator at her daughter’s school and as an avid home gardener. In her blog posts she’ll offer ideas for ways educators and parents can enhance the learning opportunities and fun that gardening offers.
This year, KidsGardening entered into an exciting new initiative with the National Head Start Association and The Scotts Miracle–Gro Foundation to grow healthy kids through early childhood education gardens – The Gro More Garden Grant program. Designed to bring the life-enhancing benefits of youth garden programs to at-risk youth across the country, the grants will support the creation of edible gardens in Head Start Centers to teach kids and their families about the health benefits of eating more fruits and vegetables while also helping increase their access to fresh, local produce. What a great addition to a program that is already making incredible contributions to the education of our youngest learners and their families (check out these amazing impacts of the Head Start program).
Although the grant funding is limited to Head Start organizations, the partners are working together to create resources that can support all early childhood educators working to implement garden-based programs in their classrooms. Some of the supporting materials include:
- Quarterly Webinars. We are hosting quarterly webinars focused on creating sustainable, early childhood garden programs. Our most recent webinar on February 13th was on Creating Edible Garden Programs to Support Nutrition Education. Click here to view past webinars or sign up for future events. Our next webinar will be on May 15th on The Therapeutic Value of Gardening for Children.
- Online Resource Toolbox. We have compiled links to some of our favorite early childhood education resources on a special landing page to help ease your search for additional support. Check out our new Early Childhood Educator Resources Page.
- SEEDS Curriculum. The Scotts Miracle-Gro Foundation and Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center have partnered to create a wonderful new curriculum just for early childhood educators with activities for Tiny Gardeners (infants and toddlers) to Garden Guides (Grades 1 to 3). This comprehensive (72 learning activities -Wow!), free resource is available at: https://scottsmiraclegro.com/foundation/seeds.
From my perspective, when it comes to planting the seed of gardening, the earlier the better. As a parent and an educator, I have always been amazed (and honestly, slightly overwhelmed from a parent perspective) at the growth and development that takes place in the first 5 years of life and the importance of providing nurturing environments, that is why I am so thrilled to be part of an effort to meaningfully help support all of the educators and parents dedicated to getting our youngest learners out into the garden.
Beyond reaching our youngest gardeners, The Gro More Garden Grant Program is part of The Scotts Miracle-Gro Company’s Gro More Good initiative that is committed to helping connect 10 million children (yep, that is 10million) to the benefits of gardens and greenspaces by 2023. With nonprofit partners Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, KidsGardening, Major League Baseball, National Farm to School Network, National Head Start Association, National Recreation and Park Association, and No Kid Hungry, the potential to grow a greener, healthier generation who loves to garden has never looked brighter.
On our website we have compiled a list of ideas for raising funds for your youth garden program through garden-related fundraisers ranging from simple things like selling handmade crafts to more complex projects like starting your own farmers’ market. Wearing my garden educator hat, I love exploring all the possibilities of turning an essential activity like fundraising into a fun, hands-on, real-life learning experience.
But this week, I put on my busy PTO mom hat and we held my favorite fundraiser of the year – we call it 100 Coins for 100 Days. I am not sure how widespread this tradition is, but at our elementary school, the teachers and students celebrate the 100th day of school usually with special projects and by dressing up like they are 100 years old. Our PTO decided to build on that event with a very simple fundraiser. On the 100th day of school we put buckets in each classroom and ask students to bring in 100 coins (in any combination of pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters) and the class for each grade level who has the highest percentage of students participate (not based on actually money brought in by the class– the teachers just record how many students dropped money in the bucket because we want to make it as easy as possible) gets as small prize (a prize for all students in the class regardless of whether or not they participated).
Promotion of the event includes a ½ sheet flyer and electronic communications. The buckets were donated and are reused every year. The prizes are also either donated or leftover from other events (this year for example they are 3-D bookmarks donated by a parent). Our very generous bank allows us to use their coin counting machine without a fee if we load it up ourselves (I learned to bring gloves – the coins are icky). All together, there are no direct expenses and it takes about 4-5 hours of volunteer time from start to finish. It truly is the easiest fundraiser ever!
What kind of results do we get? This year we raised $1141.76. This one event pays for our entire garden budget ($800) with some to spare. I realize this is not a huge amount of money necessarily, but for our Title I school that has a lot of challenges with parent engagement, this fundraiser is definitely a win and the funds raised to effort expended ratio is excellent. From my perspective, connecting the coin drive to an existing tradition and also making it a one-day, annual event are important factors for getting everyone excited about it. I am not sure it would be as successful if we tried to do it on a more regular basis.
I know this is a bit of a different ‘green’ suggestion than I normally share, but I can tell you that as we kick off our garden season this Friday by planting tomato seeds under grow lights, we will definitely be thankful for our successful 100 Days fundraiser that has ensured we will have plenty of funds for both this spring and next fall’s garden.
One week into December and whew the holiday race is on. The number of special activities and events for kids crammed into the month of December is really quite ridiculous these days. I wonder, will they even remember it all? Or will they even remember any of it?
That being said, I wanted to share with you one of my very favorite holiday activities of all times and one that I am really looking forward to this year. When my daughter was in first grade, they had a craft day organized by parents and I had the chance to teach her class how to make small flower arrangements. You can see the results in the above right photo. It was so much fun! The kids loved it and they were so proud of their arrangements. I did not realize until later, but Abby placed her candy canes so that they looked like a heart. I love this picture so much with her front tooth missing and wearing a cute outfit that there is no way I could get her to wear now. Priceless memories.
My son is in first grade this year and when the email to sign up for craft day came out, I dropped everything and hopped on to my computer to make sure I had the chance to do this activity again. Fortunately I had written down instructions so I could easily remember how I had organized everything (thank goodness since my memory is not what it use to be). I thought I would share those with you guys in case you might like to try it:
Here is what I did:
To prepare for the activity, I placed wet floral foam in small, plastic cups and added one strip of anchor tape across the top to make sure the arrangements would stay in the cups on the bus ride home. (See above left photo.) I divided up the flowers (red and white mini carnations and baby’s breaths) ahead of time and placed them in disposable drinking cups to make sure that each child got the same number of flowers. As an added decoration, I taped candy canes to floral stakes to be placed in after they arranged the flowers.If you were doing this at home, you could easily have your kids help with all of these prep steps. I was limited by space and time and I wanted to make sure everyone got equal supplies which is why I had to do this organization ahead of time.
Once in the classroom, I made sure to explain the steps before handing out any of the supplies through a quick demonstration. The basic tips I shared included:
I explained how the floral foam helps keep the flowers in place and provides water so they can stay fresh longer. I emphasized that they did not want to crush it and to try and only place the flowers once so that the flowers could get plenty of water and stay secure.
I showed them how to cut the ends of the stems at an angle and remove any leaves as the bottom so the tips slide into the foam cleanly.
I demonstrated how to cut leather leaf fern into smaller pieces and then place it on the foam to cover up the mechanics of the design before adding in flowers.
I also showed them how to create a skeleton for a basic round design with one flower upright in the middle and another four facing out like a clock at 12, 3, 6 and 9 o’clock. Then I explained how to go back and fill in around the structure with the remaining flowers.
After the demonstration, we handed out the cups of flowers, the containers, and two pieces of leather leaf fern saving the baby’s breath and candy canes for the end. The first time I did this activity, I thought some of students might rush and place the flowers haphazardly, but every single one of them took their time in considering where to place the flowers. Much to my surprise, some of the arrangements turned out so well that they looked like they came from a florist.* A special note - the kids finished at different times and so we grabbed some paper for the kids who finished quickly to make cards to go with arrangements. This time around I will ready for card making ahead of time.
After they were done, we carefully placed the arrangements in large lunch bags for the trip home.
An alternative if you don’t want to spend money on cut flowers, you can also harvest evergreen leaves (or even just save the scraps from trimming your tree) and stems with berries on them to make some very festive centerpieces. Just make sure to check on the toxicity of the plants if you have kids or pets that might be tempted to graze on your arrangements.
So hopefully in a couple of weeks I will have some new pictures and stories to share. Happy holidays everyone!
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 (StevenBiggs.ca), 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. KidsGardening.org 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.
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.
Let me also mention two organizations whose programs are designed to help you raise money by providing you with crowd fundraising tools – Seed Money and Annie’s Garden Funder.
As someone who has read a lot of grant applications over the years and also written a lot of applications too, I want to leave you with one thought. The number of amazing applications is always greater than the number of grants available. Both at work and in my volunteer life, I have applied for a lot (a lot) of grants and only gotten a small handful of them. I always have to remind myself that not getting a grant I have applied for is not a statement of the value of my program – just a sign that there was a lot of competition and that I need to keep looking for the best funding match. So even though I am sharing these grant opportunities with you today, I just wanted to mention that I know some times grants are a long shot (and a time consuming one at that), but keep in mind that having a strong proposal in your arsenal can also help you solicit local donations too. KidsGardening offers some additional grant writing tips if you're looking for help.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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:
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:
This 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.
And 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.