Loving Lettuce

successful year in the school garden

I mentioned in my last blog that our school garden program was going to try something new this year by starting seeds under our grow lights for our fall garden, both to jumpstart our gardens and hopefully, save some money. Our fourth grade classes planted kale, dill and a variety of lettuce seeds. Our third grade classes planted marigolds. So, reporting back, I can tell you that planting seeds was a fun time and a great kick-off activity. I felt like the kids were more excited on planting day because they had already started thinking about the garden. Unfortunately, we had mixed results on the production side, experiencing both success and complete failure in our venture.

A week after seed planting our school closed because of Hurricane Harvey, and so no one was able to get in to water them for 10 days. Fortunately, the humidity trays had not been removed yet and the lights were on a timer (and the school did not lose electricity during the storm) or else we surely would have come back to trays of dead plants.

Amazingly enough, the lettuce, kale and dill performed like champs. By September 15 when the fourth graders planted their gardens, the plants looked very healthy. We divide up our fourth grade gardens into small plots, and the kids partner up and get to plan their own salad gardens (Click here to see our plant list and planning graphs). Since we have relied on starting the plants from seed, usually the beds do not look that different at the end of planting day. This year, though, since we started seeds indoors we had “instant”gardens. (We still planted some seeds too, of course.) It was rewarding for both the kids and the volunteers who showed up to help on our outrageously hot planting day—94 degrees! The picture at the top of the blog was taken about one week after planting day and it looks like we are going to have lettuce to harvest at the end of this week after only 3 weeks in the garden. So, success!

The marigolds did not fare as well with the neglect. Trapped under the humidity chamber, one of the varieties ended up very leggy. The stems were weak and tangled together, and most broke as the kids try to plant them (although a few have made it). The second variety we planted did not come up at all. A new garden experience for me – complete seed failure! Admittedly, the seeds were from 2015, so I was not expecting 100% germination, but I honestly have never planted seeds where not even one seed sprouted from a packet before. I was given the seeds last spring and I am not sure where they had been kept prior to that. Perhaps they were stored in conditions that were too warm or moist, but regardless, seed planting ended up being a bit of a downer for the third graders.

On planting day, we purchased flats of already blooming marigolds to plant in their beds. Our third graders engage in a sugar snap pea race each fall where we plant sugar snap peas on teepees and see whose vines make it to the top first. We also planted marigolds around the edges of each bed. In addition to planting the purchased marigolds, that day we also had the kids plant new marigold seeds that were placed under the grow lights. Not that we needed any more plants to take care of, but I did not want to end the experience on such a negative note. We will get marigold seeds to germinate and grow! Hopefully, they will be big enough for the kids to take home by late October.

So the fall gardens are under way at Glen Loch Elementary. Now, we are just waiting on the fall weather to kick in as well. Right now we are still topping out at 90 degrees and watering every day. Cooler temperatures are in the forecast though, and our plants are ready to take off!







Back to School: Fall Garden Planning

successful year in the school garden

Summer really flew by this year and it is hard to believe it is already time to head back to school. We are deep in planning and preparation for our upcoming fall garden.

Here in Texas the heat and undependable rain create poor conditions for trying to keep a school garden growing well through the summer. Add in the fact that our school maintenance crew stops mowing for those months and you end up with a weedy haven and habitat for insects of all kinds. To keep our sanity, we try to focus on growing plants that can reach maturity before school ends every year and then empty all the beds for the summer.

That being said, this year, we deviated from our normal routine because we had an exceptional tomato crop that matured later than we’d planned, so we did not get the beds cleaned out until July 8, about one month after school ended. Every plant and weed was removed that weekend, and I left the final work day feeling like things were finally wrapped up for the year. As much as I love our garden, I was really, really, really ready for a break (and I can’t eat another tomato!!!!). Next year, I assure you, we will be paying much closer attention to choosing quick growing tomatoes (probably cherry varieties) so that kids will have more time to enjoy the harvest before school ends.

We had a lot volunteer basil plants which I decided are the best weeds since they give off a pleasant smell when you pull or step on them.

With the final garden clean up later in the year than usual, I thought to myself, well at least that means things should be more under control when we return — right? That was just wishful thinking on my part. I came back one month later to find the garden in exactly the same state as the year before, when we had a two month break between the last and first work days (see photo). In the future, we may try using some type of mulch to try and prevent weed growth over the summer, but since we knew it would be a short turn around this year and because our garden budget had reached $0, we decided against it. One of our biggest weed problems is nutsedge and honestly, mulch is not much of a deterrent for that hardy plant any way.

Fortunately, with the help of some awesome volunteers who braved our hottest day of the summer (unfortunately, I picked a horrible day for our garden clean-up), we were able to tame every thing back. However, since school started earlier than usual this year, it is going to be too hot to plant for a while. Instead we turned to our trusty grow lights for our first garden project of the year.

Most of our fall vegetable plants grow best when direct-seeded in the garden, but this year for the first time we are starting lettuce, kale, dill and marigolds indoors for later transplant to the outdoor garden. We have not tried doing this before because those first few weeks of school are so hectic that adding in another task seemed like a challenge. I am also not quite sure if everything will have enough time to grow before we need to plant outside … and we will have the Labor Day weekend challenge of not being able to get inside the school to water our seedlings. On the flip side, perhaps our indoor seed starting will help build enthusiasm for the garden program and maybe even save us a bit of money, so we are going to give it a shot. The kids definitely had a fun Friday of planting and the seeds were already sprouting by the next Monday - so far it is a win! I promise to report back in September.

Finally, I just want to end this blog to remind you about the BEE the Change Summer Pollinator Garden Giveaway. With the help of generous sponsors American Meadows and High Country Gardens, educators and parents can enter to win pollinator plants to help teach the children in their lives about pollinators. Don’t miss this opportunity! Make sure to enter by August 31st at: https://www.kidsgardening.org/upcoming-grants-2/bee-change-summer-pollinator-garden-giveaway/







Our Family Butterfly Garden

A couple of years ago my kids’ Grammy brought us a milkweed plant she’d found at a nursery with a monarch chrysalis attached. Although the monarch butterflies sip nectar from a variety of flowers, their caterpillar stage feeds exclusively on milkweed plants. After hatching from an egg and feeding for a couple of weeks, the caterpillar transforms into a chrysalis to undergo metamorphosis. After an additional 10 to 14 days, the chrysalis cracks open, allowing the adult butterfly to emerge.

Not wanting to miss our butterfly’s debut (since we had no clue how long it had been in its chrysalis), we brought the plant into the house and set it on a sunny windowsill inside a mesh insect cage. Despite our careful monitoring, we were out running errands when the butterfly emerged, but after placing it outside, we did get to watch it warm up its wings before flying away. This little six-inch plant kicked off our family’s interest in butterfly gardening.

Ready for more and knowing that our milkweed would need additional space to grow, we decided to fill our mobile container garden with pollinator plants. Along with the milkweed we planted black-eyed-Susans (Rudbeckia), coreopsis, morning glories and salvia, but the milkweed quickly dominated the space. That first spring our garden had the most amazing population of monarch caterpillars! We even got to watch one of the caterpillars slip into it chrysalis, which happens so much quicker than I expected. By the time I thought to record it on my camera, it was almost done. (Check out this You Tube Video from Jeff Ormiston, Naturalist at Fox Island County Park to see the process from egg to butterfly – very cool!)

The new garden seemed to be a hit, and we eagerly awaited the return of monarchs in the fall as they stopped over on their seasonal migration to Mexico for the winter months. Much to our delight, in the fall we discovered leaves covered in little eggs and soon after, little caterpillars...and then they started disappearing! Through a quick Internet search, I discovered that ants, spiders and wasps, all of which are well represented in our garden, prey on Monarch caterpillars.

To keep the milkweed from wilting, we placed it in a piece of wet floral foam.

Trying to find a quick solution, we collected the remaining two caterpillars and placed them in a butterfly observation cage inside. Getting to watch them up close as they grew was quite an experience. It was amazing to see how many leaves we needed to harvest to keep them fed, and even more incredible how much poop they produced (just wow- they are pooping machines). We ended up with two chrysalises last fall, but unfortunately neither hatched. They both turned into a gooey black mess, victims of some kind of disease.

The following spring our monarch caterpillars were again falling prey in large numbers (in fact we never could find any caterpillars just small holes eaten out of leaves where we had seen eggs), so we went back to the butterfly observation cage. We put five eggs in our cage and from those, we ended up with four caterpillars. Despite watching them like hawks and checking the cage before we left each day and as soon as we came back, all four of them made their chrysalises while we were out of the house—those stinkers! From our four caterpillars, we ended up having two monarch butterflies hatch and fly away.

One of this year's butterflies emerging from its chyrsalis.

When I first embarked on this garden with the kids, I can honestly say I was not expecting quite as many challenges (like heading outside at 10 PM with a flashlight looking for milkweed leaves to harvest for the starving caterpillars). I also did not realize that the expected survival rate in the natural environment from egg to mature adult hovers between 2 to 5%. But we are not ready to give up! We are starting seeds of some native pollinator-attracting plants this summer, including native milkweed. We also plan to install an in-ground pollinator garden with the hope that a larger, more diverse habitat will provide more natural checks and balances against predators and disease. I promise to report back on our new garden this fall.

Despite our struggles, I would highly recommend a home butterfly garden if you have young kids. Not only has it been a learning experience for us all, it has also been lots of fun. For more information check out our KidsGardening article Grow Milkweed to Help Monarch Butterflies and the North American Butterfly Association’s Monarch Page.






School Garden Tip #5: Try Something New

The way that our school garden program is set up, each grade level has a different focus and different planting activities, which means that we could easily implement the exact same program every year and it would still be something new for the students. I will be the first to admit there would be benefits to keeping everything the same. It would eliminate the need for new handouts to be created, all of the teachers would be trained and know exactly what to expect with answers ready for common questions, left over seeds could be used (many seeds will germinate long after the sell by date listed on their packets) and it would be easier to predict the amount of volunteer labor needed and when it would be needed. Despite these added conveniences, my last school garden tip for you is to make sure to try something new every garden season. It could be a small change, like trying a new type of vegetable, or a big change like trying a different garden theme. But regardless of the size, I think there are two main reasons for shaking things up on a regular basis:

1. There is always room for improvement. Although finding time to evaluate your garden season at the end of the year seems like one more thing to do on top of an already long list, it is important to take time to gather feedback from students, teachers and garden volunteers and allow them to reflect on their experiences and give them a chance to provide suggestions for future gardens.

You can click here to download a copy of the end of the year survey that our school used this year. From this survey, I discovered that the most common responses for what they learned about growing a garden was that “it takes a long time” and “is hard work.” We had a beautiful crop of tomatoes this year with very few disease or insect problems, so quite honestly this was not the response I was expecting. However, I guess that by starting the plants from seed, transplanting them as they got larger, helping move them in and out of the building for a couple of weeks to help harden them off, planting and then making sure to keep them watered (we had a very dry spring so they needed a lot of irrigation water this year), allowed the students to get an up-close look at the work involved in growing your food.

Honestly, I was delighted with this answer. Not that I want them to think gardening is too much work (and since most of them mentioned how they were excited for next year and could not wait to grow an even bigger garden, I don’t think that was the case), but I do think it is important for kids to have a better appreciation of the farmers who keep our markets and grocery store shelves stocked. I hope this will increase the students’ perceived value of fresh fruits and vegetables and maybe encourage them to eat more.

I also think most of them enjoyed the added responsibility, and I know they were so proud of what they accomplished. That being said, perhaps we do need to spend a little more time on talking about the plant life cycle so that can get mentioned as an important lesson learned too. Through this survey I also got a lot of great ideas for next year. For instance, we had a lot of requests for strawberry plants so I hope to be able to make that happen next year.

Want more information on evaluating your garden program? The National School Garden Network recently hosted a webinar on “Measuring Impact” that provided a lot of great ideas, and the archive of the presentation will soon be available on their website.

2. The second reason to add something new to your garden each year is to keep it fun, not for the kids, but for you! Although with variables like weather and critters, you will never have the exact same gardening experience again, adding something new each year increases the interest and excitement of teachers and volunteers, translating into a contagious enthusiasm that shines through as they work with the students. It is a win for everyone!

In our fourth grade gardens this year we planted something new, Dragon’s Tail radish (pictured above), an Asian heirloom plant grown for edible seed pods rather than its roots and oops, I did not read the description very closely (some how I missed that they produce 3’ to 4’ tall plants), and they took over our vegetable gardens. The kids had an absolute blast with them. In addition to being large, they had beautiful flowers, colorful pods (although the consensus was that they looked more like rat tails) and a great spicy flavor. The teachers were as enthralled with watching them grow as the kids, and everyone wanted to try to save seeds to grow some at home. Just adding something a little unusual really added to the excitement of our spring garden.

So just to recap, here were my top 5 school garden tips:

Thanks for reading! I promise to take my advice and write about something new next time!

School Garden Tip #4: Allow Teachers to Chart Their Garden Journey

I went into my first meeting with the teachers at my daughter’s school armed with my vast collection of garden guides and curriculum books. I was ready with suggestions on how to integrate the garden into every grade level and every class. I proposed an extensive garden program, full of all the best activities and ideas I had ever seen in other school gardens across the country. Looking back, I just kind of roll my eyes at myself. What was I thinking?

Thankfully, the teachers were very kind, although I could tell the reception was a little bit less than enthusiastic. In our second meeting, I changed my approach and switched from trying to lead us in one direction to asking questions – lots and lots of questions. Through this second interchange, I was able to figure out what the teachers were interested in doing and how much time they had to spend on the garden. From there I was able to propose some garden program ideas from my bank of knowledge that matched their needs. Don’t get me wrong. I still try to plug some new additions each year, but I have definitely changed the scale of my suggestions.

Our 3rd Grade gardens feature tomatoes because learning about the life cycle of the tomato plant is part of the 3rd Grade required curriculum so it helps the teachers meet the standards.

My message here is not that what we do at our school will work at your school, but rather that each garden program needs to be designed to fit the needs of the teacher or teachers using it. The garden can be an amazingly flexible educational tool. Perhaps a teacher loves history. He or she could plant a Native American Three Sister’s Garden, a WWII Victory Garden, or experiment with raft gardens like those grown by the Ancient Aztecs. Perhaps his or her focus is literature. A storybook-themed garden for younger students or a Shakespearean garden for older students might help them bring classroom lessons life. Perhaps space exploration is their jam. Simulating the growing conditions found in space using grow lights might be the perfect addition to their classroom. The point is, there is not a one-size-fits-all garden program.

Gardens are not an effortless endeavor. You will sweat, you will get dirty, and you may need to work outside of the regular school day for maintenance (I know we will be up there watering this Memorial Day weekend). By and large the benefits of a garden more than make up for this additional work, but teachers really need to be invested in the program so they feel like it is a wise use of their time.

Is there anything more engaging than listening to a professional educator talk about something they love? You’ve had one of those teachers right? The ones who get so excited about what they are talking about they make you excited about it too? That is what I want for my kids – I want them to have teachers that are teaching from their hearts. I love this statement from the book “In the Three Sisters Garden” by JoAnne Dennee thanking the schools who participated in their pilot gardening programs for reminding them of “the critical importance of each teacher owning his or her own unique journey for integrated learning.” Exactly!

So my School Garden Tip #4 is to make sure to give teachers the opportunity to draw from their own passions and interests as inspiration in their own classrooms and in the garden. Take advantage of the flexible nature of the garden as an educational tool and allow it to be molded to fit your school’s unique curriculum needs. Never compare your garden program with one at another school. The only meaningful measuring stick is how well it is working for your teachers and your students!



School Garden Tip #3: Invest in Your Soil

My first volunteer experience at my daughter’s school garden involved removing approximately six yards of soil out of 10 raised beds. In the 90+ degree August weather in Texas, this was no small feat. We then had to move another 6 yards of new soil into those beds. Needless to say I had a great tan and added a bit of muscle that fall. Now why, you are probably wondering, would we completely replace our soil instead of just working to improve it?

The garden had been established the previous spring and all of the plants had really struggled. Over the summer, our lead garden teacher had sent a soil sample off to a local soil testing facility and discovered that the soil had a high pH and so little nitrogen that it did not even register on the scale. Bingo! Problem identified!

Removing the soil may sound like an extreme measure. The soil could be enriched with organic fertilizers and compost, right? The answer was probably “yes” to that question; however, the bigger challenge came when we looked at the soil composition using a simple “mudshake” test. The soil looked to be about 75% sand with a very miniscule amount of silt and clay, and the remainder appeared to be poorly processed compost that could best be described as mulch. (Also, surprisingly, there was a fair amount of rock scattered in. We suspect the truck that delivered our soil had delivered some kind of gravel on the same day.) You can check out my “before” soil picture above. If we had been dealing with in-ground garden beds and had years to slowly improve the soil, then working in compost and organic materials would have been a good solution. However, we needed to improve our growing conditions immediately to make sure our students did not experience another disappointing growing season.

So we went on the hunt for better soil and we found it at a local company called Nature’s Way Resources,  an organization established specifically to create superior soil mixes for gardens and landscapes. After a quick visit, we arranged for an order of their garden and flowerbed mix. Notice I said “garden and flowerbed mix.” Generally, the best choice for raised beds is not straight topsoil, but a lighter soil/compost blend that provides better drainage and aeration. Nature’s Way creates all of their own compost and carefully monitors nutrient and pH levels in their soils. Can you tell that I love this place? Just take a look at that beautiful soil in the “after” picture.

I know this information is not necessarily helpful to you unless you are located in the Houston, Texas region, so you may be wondering how did we go about finding a good supplier? Well, we talked to the Master Gardeners at our local Extension Office.

Master Gardeners are volunteers trained by Extension Offices and they are located in almost every county of the United States. Click here to find your local office. Their main mission is to help the Land Grant Universities in their state disseminate research-based gardening information into communities. Because of their network and enthusiasm for gardening, they usually have a great scoop on the best soil and plants around and are eager to share that information.

In addition to getting recommendations, I would also suggest that you go look at the soil before you purchase it. That may seem like a time consuming step when you have so many other details you are managing, and you may not feel like you are a soil expert, but with just a quick handful, you can determine if the soil has too much sand (does it feel like the beach), too much clay (is it heavy and clumpy) or un-composted organic materials (can you still see branches and leaves). Of course there’s more to soil quality than texture, so it’s also a good idea to do a soil test before you buy (or ask the supplier if they can show you test results for the soil you’re thinking of purchasing). You want to make sure that the soil pH is suitable for the plants you plan to grow; that there aren’t worrisome levels of contaminants such as lead; and assess whether there are any nutrient imbalances that need correcting.

Your next question for me is probably, “Was it worth it?” Yes, yes, yes! Having high quality soil has made all the difference. Being a school garden, we frequently have issues with watering (sometimes too much and sometimes too little) and overcrowding (as I mentioned in a previous blog, thinning plants is the most dreaded activity for any youth gardener). We also have to plan our planting schedule around what is the best fit for the curriculum rather than what is the best timing for the plants, but having high quality soil has helped our plants be a little more tolerant of all these challenges. Each season we incorporate a little more soil and compost into our beds to replace what was lost during the season. We also incorporate slow release organic fertilizers as needed.

What about soil donations you ask? Do you turn down free soil if it is not good quality? Trust me when I say I understand the struggles of trying to raise funds for your school (I feel like we have a different PTO fundraiser every week), but my answer here is yes, I’d turn it down if it wasn’t acceptable. Poor quality soil will end up costing you later down the road in terms of plant health and harvest. Insufficiently processed compost may also harbor weeds or disease-causing organisms – both of which you want to avoid.

So my third school garden tip for you is to invest in your soil from the beginning. I hope that you can learn from our experience and fill up your raised beds only once. Your soil truly is the foundation of your garden - don’t underestimate the power of soil!

School Garden Tip #2: My Favorite Tools

In my last blog post I talked about the importance of creating a strong sense of ownership for a successful youth garden program. In this post, I thought I’d tell you about my favorite school garden tools and equipment… and some of them may surprise you. Here are the tools we could not live without at our school garden:

Sturdy Trowels – Since we garden in raised beds, we very rarely need any tools bigger than hand trowels. We use them to till the soil, plant, weed, and clean out the beds. We do have a couple of larger shovels that are helpful for turning compost and adding new soil when needed, but honestly, we could probably get by borrowing those if we did not have them on hand.

The best trowels are lightweight but sturdy and have no sharp edges. The trowels we use with our older students are metal with wood handles, but for the pre-k groups we opted to go with plastic trowels from Fiskars, which have worked out very well. We probably have about 15 trowels, which is more than enough for each child working in the garden at one time to have his or her own tool to use. (Another helpful school gardening tip is to work in small groups in the garden.) Although sharing is an important lesson to learn, when they are out in the garden kids want to be active, and having enough tools for everyone keeps things moving smoothly. Fortunately, trowels are very affordable and can last a long time when treated with respect and cleaned after use.

Buckets- We use 5-gallon buckets in so many different ways – to hold our tools (our trowels fit in them well), to collect weeds, and to move soil. We have even had students turn them upside down and use them as seats when they need a break. We do not have the space to store a wheelbarrow, so when we need to move soil filling up buckets has been an effective way to get the job done. Each student quickly figures out how much they are able to carry at a time. Buckets clean up easily with a spray from a hose, and once dried, they stack so that they take up very little storage space.

If you are just getting started and have very few funds for a garden, you can even use buckets to make a container gardens (just add holes or cut off the bottoms). Make sure to use buckets that are made of food-grade plastic and have never been used to hold any toxic materials. You may be able to get food-grade buckets donated from cafeterias or local restaurants or bakeries, as many staple ingredients are packed in buckets for transport. (If shopping at home centers or hardware stores, look for buckets that are specifically labeled as food-grade, they will not all fall into that category.) The Harris County Master Gardeners in Houston, Texas offer an innovative program called Cylinder Gardening using 5 gallon buckets. I highly recommend you check it out if you are short on space or resources. Bucket gardening can be a perfect solution especially for an urban schoolyard with little or poor quality soil.

One word of caution about buckets–do not leave standing water in buckets. Very young children could potentially drown if left unsupervised, and in our area we have to be very careful that they do not become breeding sites for mosquitoes.

Ice Cube Trays- We plant a lot of seeds in our garden, and ice cube trays have been an amazing addition to our supply list. Before discovering ice cube trays to sort our seeds, we would fumble around with seed packets and petri dishes, and often ended up with seeds in the wrong place or even whole packets of seeds accidently getting dumped on the ground in transport. Now each season we use mailing labels to label the individual cubes in a tray with a different seed name. Then the kids pick out the seeds they need, place them in the correct cube of their ice cube tray, and carry the tray to their garden beds. Even if the tray gets spilled, usually only a few seeds at a time are lost. The ice cube trays are so cheap and are incredibly effective. Love these things! I know it may sound silly, but finding this solution seriously made my job as the volunteer garden coordinator so much easier!

Planting Grids- As I mentioned in a previous blog, each season we divide up our beds into smaller plots, and our fourth graders partner up, plan, and then maintain their own little salad gardens. When making the design, they use a graph with each square representing 1 inch (Click here to download a pdf of the graph we use). It was not until after our first planting experience that I realized how hard it was for them to grasp the idea of scale and how to translate what they created on paper into the actual plot.

To remedy this, we created planting grids from wire hardware cloth with 1 inch squares (with layers of duck tape around the edges to protect from sharp points). The students can now lay those grids over their space, and it helps immensely when planting. Don’t get me wrong – we still end up over-planting, but it is a huge help with spacing and makes planting much less frustrating, especially for first time gardeners. Usually by their second season of gardening, many of the students don’t feel the need to use the grids, but they are always available as a guide.

Drip Irrigation- Although certainly not a garden essential, installing drip irrigation has been a big help in our gardening experience. Our system is not set on a timer and must be reconnected to our faucet with a hose each time it is used, but especially on hot days, it makes it so much easier for one teacher to run out, connect the system, let it drip for 20 to 25 minutes, and then run back out and turn it off. In addition to the time savings, the water ends up getting deeper in the soil, and we do not lose as much to evaporation. However, I think the biggest benefit comes from directing irrigation water away from the leaves of the plants . When your beds are overcrowded (as ours always are, since thinning is a dreaded activity for our young gardeners), wet foliage and poor air circulation can lead to disease problems. We always see fewer problems when we are able to use the drip irrigation more than overhead watering.

So there are some of my favorite tools for our raised bed garden. I know this list would vary if you are planning an in-ground or container garden, so please feel free to use the comment section if you have a favorite tool to share!

Next up, School Garden Tip #3: Don’t Skimp on Soil.










School Garden Tip #1: Create a Sense of Ownership

We planted the spring garden in the raised beds at my daughter’s elementary school last week and we were all so excited to be able to dig in after weeks of preparation. We started our journey mid-January when the third graders planted our tomato seeds indoors under grow lights. Then a couple of weeks ago we began prepping the outdoor beds by adding new soil and repairing the drip irrigation. This is my fourth spring garden with the Glen Loch Elementary Teaching Gardens, and I thought over the next few blogs I could share with you some of the most helpful tips and tricks I have learned through the years, starting with a suggestion that I’ve found to be a huge contributor to the positive impact of the whole garden program:

Tip #1: Every student needs to have an in-depth, hands-on experience to develop a sense of ownership.

The very first year I helped with the fourth grade garden we use two different types of garden planning and planting techniques. That first fall, we divided the beds into individual plots and then let the kids plan their own little gardens with a partner. Everyone loved it and the kids took their harvest home to share with their families. The following spring, to save time amid busy standardized testing prep, we chose to plant theme gardens. Instead of working in pairs, every class chose a theme and all the students in the class planted one bed all together. I tried to have something for everyone to plant, but needing to keep costs down, we had very few seedlings, and some students only planted a couple of seeds. Not only was it obvious throughout the spring that the students were not as invested in the garden, an end of the year survey showed that the kids greatly favored the fall garden style. We have used the individual plot method with the fourth graders with great success since then. It has also been so gratifying to see how much they learn between the fall and spring gardens. Being able to repeat the planning/planting/maintaining/harvesting cycle experience twice in one school year has delivered amazing increases in both confidence and knowledge gained.

I was reminded of the importance of offering extensive hands-on experiences when we added third grade gardens this past fall. We received a grant to add beds for our third graders, but due to space and money, our expansion resulted in each third grade class only having one 3’ X 3’ raised bed. This meant that planting a class theme garden was pretty much our only design option. In the fall, we divided each class into four teams and each student planted a sugar snap pea seed around a teepee and we hosted a sugar snap pea race (the team whose peas made it to the top first won). We also planted marigolds around the border and discussed companion plants. Although I do like marigolds, the main goal of adding them was really to give each student an inexpensive planting experience to go with the seed planting. Although the kids enjoyed the fall gardens and they each had a chance to plant something, much like the response from the fourth graders when we tried a class-themed garden, they definitely did not seem to develop the same sense of ownership.

We used colored straws to identify different tomato varieties.

Since outdoor space is limited, we came up with an alternate solution for the spring garden by purchasing a light garden and having the third graders start their own seeds for the spring garden. Each student planted at least two seeds in a starting tray, and then a couple of weeks later they each transplanted at least one of the small seedlings into a larger pot. So they had two planting experiences before we started the outdoor garden. The result was close to 180 tomato plants! (Whew, this proved to be a bit more work than I was expecting, especially when it came time to move the plants outdoors for periods of time to harden them off.)

Each class chose a tomato recipe-based theme for their spring garden. Last week they had the chance to plant their tomato plants, along with additional ingredients for the recipe. Once again, I made sure each student had at least one thing to plant. Our spring beds include a Pizza Garden, a Salsa Garden, a Bruschetta Garden, a Pasta Garden, and a Tomato Basil Soup Garden. All of the gardens have tomatoes (we grew 7 different varieties), onions and garlic. We also scattered in basil, cilantro, oregano, parsley, and peppers where appropriate.

Third grade garden tomato recipe-based theme gardens.

Obviously, we did not have space to grow 180 tomato plants in our school garden! We planted as many as we could, and we had enough left so that every student had a chance to take a tomato plant home (with some left for the teachers too). Although the season is young, their enthusiasm for the garden already surpasses what I saw with our fall garden, and I can feel that sense of ownership taking root. I will check back in with you guys after our harvest in May to report our findings.

The take away message is this – finding a way for each student to have an in-depth experience in the garden is not always easy, but is key to creating a lasting impact with your garden program. Being surrounded by gardens and observing the growth and change throughout a season provides numerous teaching opportunities and benefits., But from my perspective, it is establishing the feelings of ownership that fuels students’ pride and plants the seeds of gardening in their soul.

Next up, School Garden Tip #2: My Favorite Tools.







Introducing Blogger, Sarah Pounders

I jumped into the youth garden world almost twenty years ago while I was in graduate school at Texas A&M University. My research was focused on using school gardens as a nutrition education tool. To gain additional hands-on experience, I also volunteered to conduct weekly gardening activities in a classroom based at a youth shelter for kids ranging in age from 5 to 18. Even with many horticulture classes under my belt and having grown up in a gardening household, I discovered just how much I had to learn during those weekly garden sessions. I have to chuckle a bit about some of the things I planned – like building a raised bed using a fence that was not flush to the ground as one side of the bed (what was I thinking? of course the soil eroded…) and forgetting to label the seeds we planted indoors so when we set out the transplants outdoors we had surprise plants everywhere – like eggplant in the flower beds (I am still sometimes label challenged, but I must say I am getting much better at identifying plants from just a couple of leaves). But, despite all my crazy mishaps, it is the memory of the kids out in the garden – the pride in their eyes and the excitement in their smiles –that stands out the most. All of the kids living at the shelter had been removed from homes because of severe abuse and neglect, but you would never have guessed the weight of their burdens from our time out in the garden where the plants and insects captivated their minds and imaginations. It was through this experience that I discovered there is magic in a garden.

After graduate school I continued to work with youth garden programs in a number of different capacities. I’ve conducted kids’ educational programs at botanical gardens, worked with Extension Master Gardeners in Virginia and Texas, organized trainings for volunteer educators and teachers, and written extensively on youth gardening and school garden curricula. Honestly it was not my intention to specialize in this area– I love plants and want everyone to love plants which is why I went into the field of horticulture education, but I think watching the significant impact of garden programs on kids kept me circling back to youth garden programs.

As we embark on this new Growing Ideas Blog series, I am excited to have this chance to share some of my current and past garden adventures. I am definitely living proof that you don’t have to know it all and that it is okay to make mistakes because you learn as much from your “oops” moments as you do from your successes. You can expect that many of my posts will share stories from current home gardening experiences involving my 9-year-old daughter Abby and 5-year-old son Graham and a yard that has way too much shade. I am also a volunteer at my daughter’s elementary school were we have 22 raised beds and conduct fall and spring gardens (which since I live in Texas means we are gardening for all but about 1 month out of the school year).

In my posts, I will share some of the ideas that have worked for us, resources I find particularly helpful, and I am sure I will have plenty of “oops” moments to pass along too. Don’t expect fancy and elaborate projects – my focus is always on activities that are easy, practical, and enjoyable. I hope you walk away from my posts with the inspiration and motivation to get started gardening with the children in your life whether that would be at home, school or in a community garden.

Coming up in my blog – you will get an update on our spring garden adventures. This week at Abby’s school we are preparing our raised garden beds by incorporating 2 yards of new soil and the following week we will plant, so by my next post I will have lots of new stories and pictures to share.

Blog by: Sarah Pounders

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Forging New Connections with our New Blog Format

One of our goals at KidsGardening is to establish a strong connection with those of you around the country—educators, parents, and community members—who are actively working to bring the many benefits of garden-based learning to youngsters through school, community, and home gardens. We want to develop dynamic and meaningful relationships with all of you who are out there “in the field,” cultivating children’s minds, hearts, and bodies as well as plants. We hope we can pass along information and ideas that will inspire you and make your youth gardening endeavors more successful. And in return, we hope that you’ll connect with us through your comments to let us know about your real-life achievements and challenges and to offer your suggestions for how we, as a national organization, can help you get the resources you need to connect kids to the garden and to keep the world of school and youth gardening growing and thriving.

To this end, we are excited to share news of some changes we’ll be making to our Growing Ideas Blog. For starters, you’ll now see posts twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays, instead of just once a week. Next, four members of our KidsGardening staff will be posting regularly in rotation. Each of these staff members will bring a specific focus to her posts, one that reflects her unique interests, expertise, and experience.

Executive Director Emily Shipman’s background in sustainable development, agriculture, food systems, and food security reflects her interest in youth gardening as a catalyst for social change. In her posts she’ll be exploring both what we know and what we’re learning about the transformative power of gardening with kids. In addition to writing from her own perspective, she’ll be talking with advocates, practitioners, and thought leaders across the youth gardening spectrum, sharing their inspiration and information we all can learn from.


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.


Education Specialist Christine Gall brings a wealth of hands-on experience in garden and food-based learning, both in school settings and in programs at educational farms. Her blog posts will be drawn from her personal experiences as an educator as well as her passionate commitment to connecting kids with healthful food systems.



Horticulturist Susan Littlefield brings more than 30 years of experience helping folks solve their gardening problems and get the information they need for successful growing. Her background as a garden writer and enthusiastic home gardener, along with the fun she had introducing her two now-grown kids to the world of plants, will help her connect in an accessible way with those active in school and youth gardening. In her blog posts she is looking forward to sharing practical tips and interesting ideas and information, as well as answering your gardening questions.


Please join the conversation! We welcome your feedback on our new blog format. We’d also like to hear suggestions for topics you’d like to see addressed or ideas for ways to make our communications with you more useful, as well as your thoughts and comments on specific blog posts. We hope our blog will become an on-going dialog, connecting the KidsGardening organization with the wide and wonderful world of kids’ gardening!