Smells like garlic season

3 Nov

My recent garden session with fourth and fifth graders at George Watts Montessori started with a question: “When you buy garlic at the grocery store, where do you think that garlic comes from?”

Just some of last summer's garlic crop

The students had never really thought about it, so they cautiously offered answers. One student said, “It depends on what store you go to,” which is probably true.

“Three out of four of the garlic heads you see in grocery stores are likely from China. That’s our main source for garlic,” I told them. “So, is there anything wrong with that? Maybe it’s perfectly fine that most of our garlic comes from China, or maybe it’s not. What do you think?”

The answers came quickly.

“No, that’s polluting the air!”

“That’s wasting energy, if it has to come all the way from China!”

“Everything comes from China these days.” (I’m not kidding; one of the students actually said that.)

I showed them what I had in the small paper bag I was carrying — 8 heads of garlic from local garden shop Stone Bros. & Byrd that cost about $3 total.

I told them, “We can plant our own garlic right here in our garden. It’s easy to grow. And when it’s ready for picking after a few months, we can harvest and dry it, and it’s ready for using in some of our favorite meals, like pasta and pizza.

“We don’t need to have someone in China do this for us and then put it on a plane and send it all the way over here.”

So that’s what the students did. They started by smoothing out the soil in our freshly turned garden bed. Then they measured and made holes 6 inches apart. They chose the largest and most viable garlic cloves, planted them 2 inches deep — with the pointy side up — and loosely covered them with soil. We covered the bed with straw and marked it with a kid-painted “Garlic” sign.

We should have about 50 garlic heads to harvest in early summer. ($3 investment + several months = 50 garlic heads.)

Last summer, we gave away lots of garlic heads from the garden at our summer farmer’s market at the school. With any luck, we’ll have a big crop again this year.

Straw protects the garlic bed over the winter.

Giving away garlic at the school's summer market


Are you ready?

20 Oct

Only 11 more days until the cooking-eating-gardening-crafts-and-music extravaganza known as …

Expect hands-on cooking lessons for kids, mind-bendingly good (and healthful) tastings, pumpkins for painting, games, crafts and live music! Kids can crank an old-fashioned apple press by hand and see the apples turn into juice before their eyes! Teachers will take to the stage for a performance you don’t want to miss! And the kettle corn and caramel apples will be as good as any at the State Fair!

George Watts Montessori wouldn’t be having this event if it weren’t for the organizations and businesses listed at the bottom of the poster — it’s as simple as that. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation gave us a grant to help enhance our grounds and outdoor education. Whole Foods is kicking in cases of apples and pumpkins. Chef Marco Shaw of Piedmont is donating his time and talent. SEEDS is bringing their apple press (operated by DIG kids). Boxcarr is bringing a special menu of items for the day — just for us. And NCCU students are devoting classroom time to coming up with some fun and educational booths for kids, which they’ll also be staffing on the day of the event.

Say THANKS to all these wonderful folks, next time you see them!

Picking tomatoes in October & other amazing feats

15 Oct

Even as I impatiently await the return of truly cold weather — so I can once again wear my favorite black boots — I marvel at what this extended warm weather has done for the school garden.

Every day, students are able to pick ripe tomatoes from the vine and eat them on the spot. I mean, would you just look at this abundance?

Tomatoes in October

Kids that start the year feeling lukewarm (to put it kindly) about tomatoes become more open-minded about this delicious treat they can pick right from the vine.

Another amazing feat of Mother Nature: The basil keeps growing and growing and growing. In my daughter’s Lower El classroom, students recently harvested some basil, took it back to the room and made pesto to mix with noodles as their afternoon snack.

Basil, as far as the eye can see

You, too, can enjoy pesto made with basil from the Edible Garden! I’ll be making pesto using the fresh basil and summer-harvested garlic grown by students in our Edible Garden — and selling it by the jar.

If you’d like to have your own jar of delectable Edible Garden Pesto, simply post a comment here!

I’ll sell them for as long as supplies last. All funds go toward the purchase of mulch to protect the school garden through winter. I’d ask you to give what you think is fair for this mini-fundraiser, perhaps $5-$10. Thanks for your ongoing support!

Fresh basil from the garden becomes ...


My, how you’ve grown

1 Oct

Fourth and fifth grade students are introduced to the edible garden with a lesson called “Garden Changes Over Time.”

It goes something like this: Measure the length and width of the garden. Use the measurements to create a grid over the garden map that divides the entire space into one-meter squares. (And voila — math.) Assign each student a square. Tell students that, throughout the year, they’ll observe changes in their small plots. They should draw and write about those changes in their journals.

Simple, right? Here’s what it looks like in action:


When I saw these students the other day, I couldn’t resist taking a few photos. You can’t believe how peaceful the scene was. No one was talking or peeking at someone else’s work or seeming distracted by the gorgeous weather. Everyone was peering down at their own plants and at their journals, trying to faithfully capture their plots in watercolor, while soaking up a little morning sun.

You think watering is simple? Think again

20 Sep

If you’re a plant, you’ve been out of luck the past couple of weeks. We haven’t had a hint of rain, and it’s been hot as blazes. Everything in my yard looks depressed.

More importantly, all the newly planted seeds and seedlings at my daughters’ school garden are in danger of withering up. I can hear them now, “What is wrong with you? Why did you plant us now? Any real gardener would have known to wait another week or two.” (That’s just my Inner Insecure Gardener, imagining what my plants must think of me.)

Anyway, the newly planted beds in the school garden need consistent watering to survive. And so, as the garden ringleader, I’m faced with a dilemma: How is that supposed to happen, exactly?

Option #1: Let classrooms manage it however they’d like.

When we planted seeds two weeks ago, I said to all 13 classrooms, “Water your seeds every day.” I think some teachers got it, and maybe some others who are new to gardening didn’t, meaning that some seeds may be getting watered while others aren’t.

Even if classrooms are watering daily, the heat has been so relentless that the seeds actually need watering multiple times a day. When I walk over to spot-check the beds (which I do every day), they are almost always dry. I wonder, “Did classrooms water this morning, only to be outdone by the sun four hours later? Or did classrooms get caught up in a particularly riveting multiplication lesson and forget to go outside at all?” It happens.

The truth is, while teachers and students certainly want the garden to thrive, they have other things to do. Keeping track of whiny, high-needs seeds isn’t at the top of their priority list.

Option #2: Set up a watering schedule for them.

Maybe my advice to “water daily” wasn’t adequate. Perhaps a watering system or schedule is in order. Should one classroom be in charge of watering everything, with duty rotating daily? Should all 13 classrooms go out daily to water only the seeds they planted, ignoring the rest? How many times should they water?

I could set up a classroom-by-classroom watering schedule, but that’s way too much work. And besides, what I really want is for people to go outside, notice “Hey, that soil looks like crushed, dry dog food,” and water the garden. Keep your eye on the garden, not the pre-printed schedule.

Option #3: Pick up a watering can and water.

And then there’s the ultimate cop-out: Walk across the street and help water myself. On the upside, I would know the seeds were being watered multiple times a day. But if I do the watering, doesn’t it keep the kids and teachers from learning about gardening themselves? That’s the sort of enabling behavior we want to avoid, right? Right.

That’s exactly what I did, though. I decided to slink over and water the beds myself — just in case. Mostly before and after school, but sometimes brazenly, right in the middle of the school day.

But don’t shake your head in disdain just yet. Let me explain.

What occurred to me is this: Not everyone needs to embrace the entire act of gardening. Maybe a select few will enjoy watering, while others will discover the joys of harvest, or warm up to a new, unfamiliar vegetable. But if we don’t grow healthy plants in the first place, people will never have the chance to make those discoveries.

Right now, the garden needs extra support, especially given the ridiculously hot weather. And many schools employ part-time gardeners to do this sort of thing, so perhaps it’s unrealistic to think that watering or anything else will just happen without a band of allies ready to support the effort. (While we’re on the topic of supporters, I should mention that parents Alexa, Silver and Tereza have been a huge help with watering.)

I still remind teachers to water. I tell them they’re going to feel so proud of those baby seeds for germinating into fine, upstanding plants.

Students in The Pittsburgh Edible Schoolyard.

And many teachers and classrooms are watering daily. I’ve checked in with some teachers and heard that they’ve brilliantly set up their own watering schedules, and I ran into two teachers before school who joined me in the garden to water. Yet another group of teachers — some of the assistants — have asked for a bit more training on “how to water,” so that’s a good sign. Maybe next year, I won’t be skulking around the garden with a watering hose.

The best indicator of all is that the seeds are actually sprouting, and the lettuce has stopped dying. Or maybe it’s dying more slowly, I can’t really tell. I’m feeling encouraged, though, so let’s not ruin this moment for me.

What I’ve learned: If you’re planting for a community/school garden, think multi-pronged attack, when it comes to watering: Offer hands-on lessons, email frequent reminders, check in face-to-face. And through it all, be ready on the sidelines with a watering can.

Also, our school garden continues to need its wonderful volunteers. If you’d like to help, but haven’t known how, here’s an opportunity — watering! Let me know if you’d like to become one of the weekend warriors who keep our plants growing.

Check out the size of that kid’s hippocampus

17 Sep

If we’ve learned anything lately about the relationship between fitness and academic performance, it’s this: There is a relationship.

Silver with her pre-kindergarten son

In a couple of recent studies by researchers at the University of Illinois, 9- and 10-year-old students were put on treadmills and then put into categories based on how fit they were. (Not my idea of fun.) Then students were given a series of cognitive challenges, or asked to perform tests that required using complex memory.

Both sets of researchers concluded that fitter kids had bigger brains — specifically, the hippocampus and basal ganglia regions. The new findings dovetail perfectly with past studies showing that aerobic exercise produces specific growth factors and proteins that stimulate the brain.

In parentalspeak, what they’re saying is that running can boost test scores. Maybe the best way to help kids learn more and perform better in school is to get them away from the Wii and playing hard in the schoolyard. (Read the full story on The New York Times.)

This morning I saw Silver, a mom at George Watts Montessori, with her son. Every morning, her pre-kindergartner does a lap around the new walking path before heading into class. “It’s intuitive,” she says, that this would help her son get his wiggles out and be ready for a day in school. Don’t you love this idea?

Natasha, a parent who happens to live across from the playground, says her sons bike or walk several laps around the path every morning before school. What started as a way for her family to have some personal space away from each other (“We’re not morning people,” she says) has become a morning fitness regimen. And her sons appear to relish their post-breakfast independence.

Besides a shovel, the most useful tool for a school garden

13 Sep

This is a gift. I’m writing this post for any teacher or parent in Durham or North Carolina who’s worked hard to establish an edible school garden. It’s tough work, so HOORAY for getting this far. Awesome job, you!

But if you’re anything like me, you may be realizing that the harder work has just begun. Because now you have to figure out how to get a bunch of already-overworked teachers, who may not know or care the least little bit about gardening, interested in taking classrooms outside to do … what exactly?

Our garden's first muscadine grapes

So here’s what I want to give you: a sequenced set of fall/winter 1st-5th grade lessons to use in a school garden, all of which correlate with North Carolina Standard Course of Study. Very easy, very relevant.

15 Lessons for 1, 2 and 3 graders (LCnG_Lower_EL)

15 Lessons for 4 and 5 graders (LCnG_Upper_EL)

I say “easy” because Durham teachers wrote these lessons with other non-gardening teachers in mind.

But I want to put the emphasis on “relevant.” You might believe that it’s important for kids to spend time outdoors and that it’s unquestionably worthy to provide fresh, garden-grown vegetables to children. And I would agree with you. But some might argue that there are more pressing, academic-type things to accomplish during the school day, and to those people I would say, “OK then, here! These lessons just might be the perfect tool for you!”

At our school, we installed an educational, edible garden. But teachers didn’t see how it related to curriculum. To some, it seemed like just one more thing they had to do. A few of them told me that, quite honestly, it simply “wasn’t their thing.”

Result: The garden was sort of a fun “extra” that didn’t connect with classroom curriculum. That’s why I asked four teachers from our school to write the lessons. So now, classroom teachers have a set of structured lessons, and each class has a scheduled weekly garden/science time slot during which they can use these lessons if they wish.

Our school was lucky enough to win a grant from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation for this lesson-writing project. And we want to share the series with anyone who’s walking down this road with us, trying to develop a school-wide gardening program.

The lessons are brand new, so if you notice anything that needs fixing, I hope you’ll tell me. I also hope you’ll tell me if you decide to use the lessons. It helps us make the case for more funding of these sorts of projects. We’re working on 30 more lessons now, for spring semester.

Every few pages, you’ll see a recipe for something healthful that classrooms can make using what’s ripe in the garden — or a fabulous dip they can make for fresh veggies, since so much of our garden’s bounty can be eaten raw.

Mostly, though, you’ll see lessons that accomplish two things:

First, these lessons connect students with the land and the seasons, and help them discover where food really comes from. (Answer: Not, in fact, Costco.)

Second, they allow teachers to teach a lot of the things they have to teach anyway — decomposition, plant life cycles, insects, weather, erosion, etc. Only this way, they get to do it outside in a hands-on, experiential way.

New garden beds and walking path on the playground

Teachers at George Watts Montessori have just begun to roll out the lessons, with each classroom doing one lesson per week, more or less in sequence.

Tip: If you want to try the lessons out, here’s what to get in the ground now: herbs, radishes, carrots, lettuce, spinach broccoli, onions and wheat (for 4th and 5th grades, and it doesn’t need to be planted quite yet). Why? Because these are the plants that students will grow, harvest, cook with, and use in the lessons. If you plant those things, students will have what they need to delve into some cool science and literacy lessons.

What do you think? Is this something your school and teachers could use?