Winter Fun at Botanical Gardens and Arboreta

Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens

While much of the country is still under a blanket of winter, you may be on the search for ways to keep your garden activities going strong. A couple of weeks ago, KG’s Christine Gall shared some ideas for Indoor Garden-Based Activities to Get You Through the Winter, but if your family is like mine, getting outside of the house for even a little bit of time is also a priority. Need to get your garden fix this winter? Check out local botanical gardens and arboreta.

I use to tell my school group tours that botanical gardens and arboreta were like museums for plants, but although they may have started as places to house and display plant collections, they have evolved into so much more. From family-friendly programming, to widespread installations of children’s gardens, botanical gardens and arboreta are claiming their place as community centers designed to provide high quality, many times interactive, nature-based experiences. Providing displays to help people connect to both local and sometimes global ecosystems, gardens and arboreta offer inspiration and engagement for gardeners of all ages.

Our new Executive Director Rachel Stein captured the photos above while on a recent trip to Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Columbus, Ohio. In addition to offering the weather-protected conservatory space to explore, there is also fun to be had year round in The Scotts Miracle-Gro Children’s Garden along with a beautiful collection of glass artwork by Dale Chihuly. In my neck of the woods, my kids and I regularly visit the The Cockrell Butterfly Center, a conservatory located at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Although not usually as a reprieve from cold temperatures (we do live in Texas), my kids love the chance to explore the rainforest inspired conservatory and see what life is like in a different area of the world.

Botanical gardens and arboreta are scattered throughout the United States in all shapes and sizes. Some were started on public property while others began as private estates that were later opened to the public. You may find them connected to colleges and universities, zoos, museums or libraries. For example, in our community, our local public library created a small children’s reading garden with a maze that leads to an area for reading which we often would visit after checking out our books. Some offer free admission, others may have a charge. There is wide variation in both size of the space and complexity of programming, offering a wide variety of experiences to find the right fit for your family.

Regardless of your location, if you are looking for a fun day trip, you should be able to find a local botanical garden and or arboretum within driving distance of you. Although not a complete listing of all gardens, the American Horticultural Society’s Reciprocal Admissions Program website offers a great directory of many opportunities available (and you may want to think about investing in an AHS membership if you travel a lot and might take advantage of their reciprocal admissions benefit).

Keeping kids excited about gardening through winter months can some times be a challenge. But just think how much fun your spring and summer gardens will be when the anticipation of diving into their own gardening space builds all year long!


Tomato Time: Comparing hydroponic and grow light growth

tomato time

Hard to believe it, but it is tomato seed planting time in Texas (which probably sounds ridiculous to those of you shoveling snow in northern regions). Each year our 3rd grade gardeners plant tomatoes from seed under grow lights, usually around the third or fourth week of January, to transplant outside the first week of March before spring break. Our goal is try to get the plants ready to harvest before school lets out and also before night time temperatures stay above 75 degrees F (tomatoes will stop setting fruit when the nights are this warm thus tomatoes are spring and fall crops in our area). We usually plant cherry tomatoes because they have shorter days to maturity rates than most other varieties.

tomato growing comparison
Tomato seedlings under grow lights, after 2 weeks.

tomato time
Tomato seedlings, grown hydroponically, after 2 weeks.

This year, in addition to planting tomatoes under grow lights, we also have tomatoes growing hydroponically in an AeroGarden Farm hydroponic unit.  Contrasting the two has been an interesting endeavor. The hydroponic tomatoes have grown so much faster and look so much happier than the ones growing under lights. The pictures to the right shows both 2 weeks after planting. Eventually down the road, I know the grow light tomatoes that we transplant outdoors will over take those being grown in the hydroponic unit, but it is amazing how vigorously they are growing in water. Below (and above) are pictures of the hydroponic tomatoes at 3.5 weeks. The growth rate truly is remarkable and everyone is enjoying watching the tomatoes change daily using this new growing technique.

tomato time
Tomato seedlings, grown hydroponically, after 3.5 weeks.

Another first for our garden this year, we never had a true winter freeze so our fall gardens are still growing strong.  The lettuce beds are full and there are so many sugar snap peas on the vines that the plants are falling over. We are going to break some hearts in two weeks when we have to pull everything out to prepare the soil for our spring gardens (the sugar snap peas have been popular snacks at recess time). Our wildflowers are already blooming too. What will the spring hold I wonder? I am sure there will be many new lessons to share (and a healthy crop of weeds and insects too). Just goes to show that no two seasons are the same in a school garden. Even if we buy the same seeds, plant at the same time and provide the same care – the garden is an ever changing adventure for our young and young at heart gardeners. Never a dull moment in the garden classroom!

The Magic of Greenhouses


Greenhouses bring back fond childhood memories for me.  I can remember going with my Dad to water at the University greenhouses on weekends and loving the humidity, warmth and just the way they smelled.  The lush, green growth was a welcome sight especially when the world outdoors was dormant in winter months. Visiting Franklin Park Conservatory was also a Christmas tradition for our family and no matter how many times we visited, seeing bananas grow on trees was just so awesome!

With these experience etched in my brain, I can definitely relate to the appeal of creating year round growing spaces at schools that can be achieved through the installation of a greenhouse.  They can extend your growing season significantly and be especially useful for schools in northern climates. That being said, I am usually not quick to recommend them for most schools.  I have lost count of how many times I have gotten a call from a teacher explaining they took a job at a new school and inherited an abandoned greenhouse with no clue what to do with it.  Even more than regular outdoor school garden beds, when a school greenhouse loses its main champion, it seems like sustaining the program becomes a real challenge.  Although it is certainly not brain surgery, greenhouses definitely require more knowledge and maintenance than many garden spaces (and usually more expenses too).

I am very excited to have found a new resource to share with educators in search of support for new and revitalized greenhouse programs. The United States Botanic Garden, the National Center for Appropriate Technology, and City Blossoms have collaborated to publish a great a new Greenhouse Manual specifically for educators.  You can download it for free!

It walks you through the steps of getting started, provides a review of different types of greenhouses, offers basic growing instructions, suggests tips for trouble shooting problems and includes a plethora of ides for connecting it to the curriculum – a key component to making sure it is sustainable over time.  Throughout the guide they also offer program spotlights so you can read about real life programs in action.

So whether you are considering investing in a brand new school greenhouse or you fall into the category of needing to refurbish an existing greenhouse, make sure to check out this very informative Greenhouse Manual.  A big thanks to our friends at United States Botanic Garden, the National Center for Appropriate Technology, and City Blossoms for creating this much needed resource!

Holiday Gifts from the Garden

holiday gifts from the garden

As a parent, I always like to acknowledge my appreciation for teachers and other special mentors in my children’s lives with little gifts from the garden at the holidays. As a coordinator of volunteers, I also like to find time to provide a thank you to the volunteers I work with too for all the time that they selflessly give throughout the year (and to hopefully provide some inspiration to volunteer in the spring). The number of names on this list seems to grow each year which is a blessing of course, but I also find myself trying to figure out what I can accomplish in the budget I have available.

So I thought today I would share a few craft ideas we have on KidsGardening that can be used to create special homemade, garden-related holiday gifts. Whether I will have enough time this season to get these created is still to be determined, but we still have one weekend before school goes on break so fingers crossed.

Here are a few of my favorite gift-worthy, garden-related crafts:

Pressed Flowers and Leaves - It always amazes me how well some flowers and leaves can be preserved through pressing. Old phones books work the best for this, but since they are in short supply now a days, any book that is not your favorite will do (my college yearbooks are my go to for this activity). Please note that when you press flowers, the moisture has to go some where which is why you want to place them inside of tissues to absorb that water and hopefully keep your book safe (but also why you don’t want to use your favorite books for this activity). Once you have them pressed, you can use them on cards, bookmarks, craft boxes, the list is endless… get some decoupage glue and go. Unfortunately however, this is a craft that takes some prep time and needs to be done while you still have flowers and leaves to harvest. You can also find pressed flowers for purchase, but they do tend to be on the pricy side. So I am going to have to put a pin in this one and hold on to the idea for next year.

Homemade Botanical Paper – This is one you still have time to do for this year. Use old paper scraps to create new paper treasures like cards, bookmarks and ornaments. For a garden twist, add in a few seeds and folks can plant them when the weather warms.

Wild Bird Holiday Decorations – A present for your special friends and the birds in your community, this is another fairly quick craft you can do at the last minute. We offer instructions for 3 different types of bird feeding ornaments in this activity (cranberry millet spray garlands, suet cutouts, and seed encrusted pine cones), but you can also make bird feeders out of repurposed materials like old juice or milk cartons. This is a great present for those people on your list with a special love of nature or a great picture window to watch birds from.

Plant People – Making little homemade “chia” pets from panty hose, soil and grass seed is a great little present for young gardeners (or young at heart gardeners) and also a much enjoyed activity for those making them too. Hands down, of all the things we did in our garden program this year, this was everyone’s favorite. They are easy, inexpensive and a lot of fun. My kids would make these every day if they could.

Those are probably my top contenders for last minute gifts this holiday season. A couple of additional ideas you want to check out include:

The nice thing about all of these crafts is that the process of making them provides the givers with as much joy as receiving them provides the the recipients.  Happy holidays everyone!


Turning Trash into Garden Treasure

garden treasure

As we enter into the winter holiday season, I don’t know about you, but I find myself surrounded by more stuff and unfortunately, I also find that I am generating more waste too. Between preparing extra meals and treats for special events and visiting guests, gift exchanges, craft days, and my sad attempts at decorating, it seems like the paper, plastic, and cardboard especially in my life seems to grow exponentially. Although recycling is good, I think we are all quickly realizing that a better solution is to find ways to reuse products ourselves rather than having them enter the waste management stream at all.

So today, I thought I would share some of the articles and activities we have on KidsGardening for reusing and repurposing items to use in the garden. Perhaps some of these ideas will inspire you to stop and take a look at things before dropping them in the trash can or recycling bin this holiday season.

Carton 2 Garden Contest
The 2019-2020 Carton 2 Garden Contest is now underway. Schools can enter to win prizes for projects that come up with creative ways to re-purpose milk and juice cartons to either build or enhance their school garden. For inspiration, you can view projects from past winners or you can also receive a set of special lesson plans for using cartons by registering your interest in this year’s contest. Cartons can be from school or from home, so what better way to use all those extra juice and milk cartons you purchased for holiday guests. [Header image above is from a past year Carton 2 Garden winner.]

Reducing, Reusing and Recycling in the Garden
An awesome set of ideas from Annie Warmke, a former KidsGardening Advisory Board member, this article provides ideas for reusing jar lids, tin cans, campaign signs (another product of the month of November), baby food jars, metal baskets, plastic sandwich bags, soda bottles, grocery store bags, and much, much more.

Homemade Botanical Paper
Make paper out of paper and turn them into bookmarks, ornaments, stationary and other handmade gifts. You can also throw in a few seeds and the paper can later be planted in the spring to kick of your garden.

Garden Art Boxes
Boxes everywhere right? Turn them into activity kits that will help your young gardeners explore.

Compost Bins and Worm Compost Bins
Finally, don’t forget about all that food waste. You can turn extra food scraps into garden gold by composting them.  If your weather is not ideal for starting an outdoor compost bin, explore ways to construct a worm compost bin which can be (and in most cases should be) located indoors.

Peas, Pollinators, and (Hydro)Ponics

Fall finally made it to Texas (this is the first week that our day time temperatures have not been in the 90s) and our gardens are rejoicing.  In spite of the summer that just would not quit, we kicked off our fall planting the first Friday of October and we have had some unhappy plants the last few weeks including lettuce seed that has just refused to grow.  Honestly, I was tired of being outside too. We are all happy about the cooler temperatures!

For those of you new to the blog, in addition to my work at KidsGardening, I also help coordinate the gardens at my son’s elementary school.  This school year we are trying a few new things while also keeping a few fan favorites, so I thought I would share our line up with you.  

school garden pictures
Sugar snap pea races

First up, we started our annual Sugar Snap Pea races with our third graders.  Each class divided into four teams and each team planted sugar snap peas at the base of one of the poles of their class teepee.  The kids picked out team names and the team whose plants get to the top first will win a small prize (last year it was a bookmark).  In addition to garden planting, we also made plant pals this year (homemade “chia” pets with panty hose, soil and grass seed) and that activity was such a hit.  The whole school now wants one (teachers and parents included). We ring our sugar snap pea beds with blooming annuals and also talk about pollinators and companion planting. We did very similar plantings with our PreK classes (although without the contest portion and with a more informal lesson structure).

We are also trying two new things this school year.  With our second grade classes, we are working on the Cabot Pollinator Patch Program.  Created through a partnership with the great folks at Cabot Creamery Co-operative, this program provides a series of activities designed to promote and build awareness around the importance of protecting pollinators.

Pollinator garden at school
Pollinator garden

In the garden, the second graders planted a variety of blooming annuals along with sowing spring flowering wildflower seeds.  The kids placed small butterfly decorations where the wildflower seeds are planted in anticipation of the butterflies to come next spring (and also so everyone remembers that we did plant something there so the new sprouts do not get accidentally “weeded”). We also played many rousing rounds of the “Be the Bee” game to teach kids about some of the reasons why bees and other pollinator populations are declining.  We are going to follow it up in the coming weeks with additional activities from the program to hopefully firmly plant a love for pollinators in our young gardeners.

And last but not least, our fourth grade classes are getting a look at farming of the future as we explore hydroponics. KidsGardening is working with The National Farm to School Network and Scotts Miracle-Gro Foundation to help support their Gro More Good Hydroponics Pilot Project through the development of a guide to help elementary educators introduce students to hydroponic gardening.  Although not an official pilot site, our fourth grade classes are getting a chance to give hydroponics a try (and also play guinea pig on the new lessons). In addition to learning the basics of hydroponics through videos and activities, we have planted lettuce 3 different ways so that they can see the differences first hand. We have planted lettuce in an AeroGarden Farm hydroponic unit, in pots placed under grow lights and also out in raised garden beds. The photos I am sharing with you were taken after 2 weeks of growth.  Due to our extreme heat, the hydroponic and grow light lettuce plants are out pacing our outdoor plants by leaps and bounds. The students are definitely getting to see the benefits of being able to control environmental conditions like temperature and moisture. As the weather cools (and hopefully those outdoor plants will start growing), I know we will have lots of other opportunities for comparison like leaf color and thickness, pest problems and water usage. I promise to share more as our experiment continues. (Grow outdoor lettuce! Grow!).

The last few weeks have been busy and demanding, but as always, getting back into the garden reminds me why I do what I do.  The garden is the perfect hands-on tool for teaching kids about science in a fun way while also connecting them to their environment and helping them gain an appreciation for our food system.  Digging in the soil and watching the seeds and plants grow, is an experience that can not be replaced through virtual reality and it is an opportunity that every child everywhere needs.  

Lettuce under grow lights

Hydroponic lettuce

Lettuce sprouts outside in the hot Texas fall

Crowdfunding for School Gardens

crowdfunding for school gardens

The back to school season also means back to fundraising. The purchasing of school supplies and new shoes is quickly followed by efforts to help raise money to fund the educational needs and activities not supported by the school district. (For many of you, I bet this is an amount that seems to grow each year). At my children’s school, I am in the midst of volunteering for campaigns to help raise the funds to support this year’s demands and my energy and pocketbook are quickly draining. I have spent a lot of time this year researching fundraising options and thinking about the philosophy behind giving and knowing that many of you are probably in the same boat, I wanted to share some thoughts.

The traditional youth and school fundraisers centered on the sale of products are quickly getting replaced by crowdfunding alternatives. What is crowdfunding? Broadly defined, crowdfunding is fundraising efforts focused on raising small amounts of money from large numbers of people generally without the exchange of any type of goods. Frequently they involve the use of online platforms and social media or in some cases efforts are organized around events.

The administration at both of the schools I work with are fully behind (and strongly encourage) using crowdfunding techniques rather than product sales. They like crowdfunding campaigns because more of the money raised goes directly to the school – it is a great thing to be able to promote. That being said, one of the challenges I have found is that people do not fully understand the time and energy it takes to conduct a successful crowd fundraiser. You have to replace the reward of a product with the motivation to give just to give. To do this you have to be so very clear about the goals of your programs and expenses, why they are important and the critical need for the funding. Communicating this information is much more complicated than just throwing together a fun run or putting together an online fundraising website. It comes down to sharing your story and marketing it in such a way that folks who are not involved with it on a day to day basis truly understand the value of what you are doing. I can honestly say from working on both types of fundraisers, that the product fundraisers I have worked on have been less time consuming and tend to bring in the same if not more money. However, that being said, crowdfunding campaigns do something that product sales do not. A successful crowdfunding campaign creates a sense of community and cultivates feelings of ownership that, over the long run, expands the number of people invested in your efforts which will hopefully contribute to the sustainability of your program in the future.

So what are some tips for creating a successful crowdfunding campaign? KidsGardening recently participated in a webinar from the School Garden Support Organization on Crowdfunding for School Gardens and if you have the chance, check out the archive for more information. In addition to talking about a social marketing campaign we hosted using the Crowdrise platform, and sharing some of the tips I have gathered, Hillary Lyons shared information about the Embrace Joy and Justice Campaign from Slow Food USA, and Roger Doiron introduced us all to

If you are thinking about exploring the use of a crowdfunding campaign for your school garden, you really need to check out Specifically focused on helping garden programs (both in the United States and around the world), Seedmoney provides the platform and the assistance to help you conduct a month-long crowdfunding campaign (from November 15th through December 15th). On top of that, they also have grant opportunities for the chance to earn matching funds. The deadline to apply to participate is November 12th, so make sure to check it out now if you are interested.

I will leave you with these thoughts. As I begin to get weary in asking for money, I try to find ways to remind myself why it is important – I have to pair the tedious fundraising work with some time out in the school garden surrounded by the little smiling faces eager to learn to remind myself these efforts help create a school environment that is positive for teachers and students. Also, I try to always remember the importance of telling the story. It is important to remember that when you are knee deep in the weeds, not everyone has the same perspective, but that does not mean they do not want to help. And my last tip is to always remember the importance of saying thank you for every donation, no matter the size. Gratitude is a two way street. It is important to the donor, but it also fuels the recipient. It helps remind you that you are not alone and you have people supporting your efforts.

Teaching Kids to Protect Our Pollinators

Pollinator Patch

This summer at North Wind Day Camp in Canton, New York, 49 curious and intrepid campers, ages 7-12, earned the Pollinator Patch created by Cabot Creamery Cooperative and KidsGardening. The free patch program was developed to help children understand the importance of pollinators in our world and teach them practical ways they can help protect and preserve pollinator populations.

Pollinator PatchSeventh generation Cabot farmer, Allison Akin, of Five Mile Farm in Lisbon, New York led the pollinator activities. The campers worked hard to earn their patches, but also had fun learning about pollinators and their vital importance in growing food for people and animals. They learned that more than 150 of our common food crops, from avocados to zucchini, rely on pollinators to move pollen among flowers and facilitate fertilization, which leads to the development of fruits and seeds. Pollination occurs not only with bees, but also hummingbirds, moths, bats, butterflies, flies, and beetles. They all ensure the continued existence of millions of plant species. The campers learned that one of every three mouthfuls of our food depend on pollinators.

How did they learn about the work of pollinators? With fun activities and games. “Be the Bee” is a game that demonstrates how pollinators work, going from plant to plant. It was also a great way for campers to get to know one another and work cooperatively. They learned about the anatomy of flowers from those growing around them and went on to color and label each plant. And they learned about ways they could encourage pollinators to thrive in their neighborhood by planting gardens that would attract and support a healthy pollinator community.

Pollinator Patch Be the Bee Capturing the imaginations and commitment of young campers with the activities required to earn the Pollinator Patch is one more way we can encourage the health and well being of our communities and our planet. If you or your organization would like to learn more about how your group can help children earn the Pollinator Patch, go to the Cabot website’s Pollinator page for more information.

Inspiration for Early Childhood Gardens

early childhood gardens

Need a little inspiration for your early childhood garden program this fall?  Check out the Gro More Good Webinar Series we have been working on with the National Head Start Association and Scotts Miracle-Gro Foundation.

This month’s webinar featured resources for using garden programs as a tool for teaching literacy.  As an introduction, I expanded on many of the tips from our article on Creating a Reading Garden and Becky Schedler from Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens shared some amazing lesson and activity ideas they have used at their Nature School over the years.  You can view the webinar by filling out the registration form.  As soon as you register, you will be redirected to a recording of the full hour-long session, which you can watch at your convenience.

Becky presented on ideas from their vegetable gardens inspired by the book “Muncha! Muncha! Muncha!” by Candace Fleming, their flower gardens centered around Lois Ehlert’s book “Planting a Rainbow,” and my favorite, an imagination garden building on a variety of Jack in the Beanstalk books. To give you a sneak peak, here are a few ideas from their Jack and the Beanstalk garden.

The class:

  • read an assortment of  books inspired by the classic tale of Jack
  • researched different types of beans including pole and bush beans
  • created a set of instructions on how to plant beans
  • planted the garden and added labels and whimsical accessories like hanging baskets of white flowering plants to serve as clouds and small farm animals and tractors to help the kids imagine the towering bean plant
  • planted bean seeds in paper towels so they could watch the roots grow and explored germination
  • made lifecycle cards and practiced sequencing
  • retold the story using props both in the garden and in the classroom
  • hosted a sensory table featuring bean seeds
  • held a taste test of different types of beans and created a class chart of favorite
  • used beans in cooking activities
  • took beans and activity ideas home to share with their families.

So much fun!  And so well integrated into the classroom curriculum!  Our school NEEDS this garden! I can’t wait to share all these ideas with our school’s Head Start teachers!  (Can you tell I am excited about this?)

In addition to the webinar series, on our website, we have also created a landing page with links to a lot of our favorite early childhood related resources.  Also, if you are looking for recommendations for excellent garden and nature focused children’s books, make sure to check out the Growing Good Kids Book Awards from the Junior Master Gardener program and the American Horticultural Society.  An expanding collection since 2005 (and in 2005 they recognized classic books written before 2005), the 2019 winners were just announced in July and they are all delightful. Tying gardens to treasured books is an excellent way to engage young children in gardening activities and help fuel their love of reading by connecting books to hands-on activities. It is a win-win situation.

We are working with NHSA on a line up of new webinars for the 2019-2020 school year so keep an eye out for more to come soon!

Summer Photo Contest

As I look through the pictures that have been submitted for our 2019 Summer Photo Contest, I am reminded of the old saying, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” I love looking through all the photos of kids in their gardens showing off their beautiful spaces and prized harvest with faces full of joy. What do these pictures say to me? They say that getting kids gardening is important work and worth the time, energy, and resources I am dedicating to help make it happen. What do they say to you?

Photography has changed so much since I was a kid. I can still remember the suspense of picking up prints from the store wondering if your vacation pictures turned out well or, as usually was the case with the photos I took, were they out of focus with a thumb featured in them? With the evolution of digital photography, and especially the invention of the cell phone camera, the taking and sharing of photos has become an integral part of our world. Photos are powerful. We use them to communicate big stuff like expressing our thoughts and feelings, telling our stories and sharing news, documenting our joy and sorrow, and to hold our memories.

And just like any communication tool, we interpret images through the lens of our own experience and understanding. This is why different people can look at the same picture and yet formulate a completely different take away message.

So today I thought I would share a few photos of our family’s gardening adventures that are special to me and why.

The header photo above is a picture of flowers arranged by my son last summer. All on his own, he decided he want to make some arrangements and quickly picked every flower in our outdoor and indoor gardens. He proudly displayed them in a collection of assorted vases (which also each have a story of their own). He was so proud of his work, he then asked to borrow my camera to take this picture of his floral display. I love looking at this picture because we were going through a lot of struggles at the time and I can distinctly remember how light and happy we both felt doing this simple activity. It gave us a win when we really needed one.

Every fall, we plant container gardens of pansies – I love pansies so much – they are the happiest flowers around. This photo is of my daughter when she was 4 posing as we worked on our annual planting of bulbs and pansies. So it combines one of my favorite annual gardening activities with memories of her cute curls and sweet face.

Soil garden anyone? This photo is also from our annual pansy planting, but around 2 years later and it shows my son digging into the soil. The pansies never made it into his pot that year. Many of his earliest gardens were just pots of soil that he would enjoy digging through and watering … sometimes he would dress them up with some found natural items scattered about. Not exactly what I had planned, but a good learning experience for us both.


Lastly here is a picture from one of the early years of our school garden when the wood was still fresh and everything was new and exciting. After many years of watering, weeding and working to sustain the garden program, remembering how and why we got it started provides some inspiration to keep it going even when challenges abound.

Your turn! Please share some of your photos with us through our Summer Photo Contest!