Garden How-to: Teaching History in the Garden

Garden How-to: Teaching History in the Garden

teaching history in the gardenDownload: Teaching History in the Garden

There are many traditional tools to help you bring history lessons to life for your students, such as primary documents, historical documentaries and field trips. But what could be better than experiencing history through the hands-on activity of cultivating a garden?

Plants are the sustaining force of life on this planet.  Early humans relied on the bounty of nature as hunters and gatherers. As more complex civilizations evolved, agriculture emerged (or, arguably, civilizations grew because agricultural practices evolved).  Agriculture is the science and practice of raising crops, also known as farming.  Growing plants both for survival and for profit is a shared experience across history. Most humans in most parts of the world were directly involved in some aspect of agriculture right up until the Industrial Revolution.

As technology advanced during the Industrial Revolution, and continues to advance up to the present day, the amount of food farmers can produce from their fields has increased, so that a smaller percentage of the population must be directly involved in the production of food crops.  One positive result of this shift has been time dedicated to the development of other technologies, as well as the cultivation of other pursuits (art, music, literature, etc). However, one of the drawbacks is a lack of understanding of how our food is produced, and a decreasing appreciation for the interwoven cycles of nature. School gardens give students the opportunity to participate in an important historical activity, and to experience the emotions of success and failure of growing their own crops on a small scale.

There are many ways to integrate history lessons into your school garden.  In this article we present some ways to use the garden as a tool to:

  • discuss a particular era in history.
  • introduce life in a different culture.
  • explore an event.
  • research the historical value and travels of a particular plant.
  • study important people in history.

Discuss an Era

Gardens and farms evolved throughout history as people adopted new practices and grew different crops to match needs and available resources. Due to this evolution, agricultural practices can serve as a way to define different eras by exploring their unique planting patterns. Here are a few examples of time periods you could study using a garden:

The Age of Discovery
The 15th and 16th centuries were times of world exploration. European sailors set sail to find new trade routes to the Far East in hopes of finding precious metals and spices such as pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and cloves.  During this time, explorers found several plant crops, including potatoes, beans, peppers, tomatoes and squash, that they later brought back to Europe.  Grow some of these crops in your school garden, to bring their explorations to life. Research the many ways new food options changed our diets.

World War II
During World War II, there was a strain on the food supply. The United States was faced with shipping large quantities of food overseas to feed the troops, while at the same time many farmers and farm workers were part of the military deployment, decreasing the country’s food production.  As a way to increase the availability of fresh produce, the government encouraged citizens to cultivate food gardens, dubbed Victory Gardens.  Growing food at home meant that more farm-produced food could be sent overseas to support the troops.  It was publicized as fulfilling your patriotic duty to help win the war. Plant your own school Victory Garden as a way to explore this important era in our nation’s history.

Colonial Times
Gardens were very important to the survival of new colonists in the Americas, and not only for the food they provided. Many colonists also brought favorite plants with them from their homes overseas, and the familiarity of these plants offered comfort during difficult times. Learning how to adapt to American soils and climates was often a challenge for early colonists, but over time they developed skills and identified crops for consumption and for trade.  Research the crops grown by American colonists and discuss the importance of having successful gardens to their health and survival.

Introduce a Culture

In addition to changes in gardening and farming over time, each culture also developed unique agricultural practices and traditional crops.  By learning about the common plants and foods of a culture, students begin to increase their understanding and appreciation for the culture as a whole.  Students can grow traditional crops of the culture being studied ,and then harvest, prepare and enjoy special cultural meals.

Three Sister Garden
Many Native American cultures planted corn, beans and squash (referred to as the “three sisters”) in mounds.  The growth habitat and nutritional content of these three plants complemented each other, creating a successful garden design. Learn how to create your own Three Sisters Garden.

Aztec Floating Gardens
The Aztecs of Central America had the challenge of growing crops in poorly drained, swamp-like land.  They overcame this agricultural disadvantage by creating gardens that floated on the water.  Studying their unique gardens is a great way to launch into your own exploration of hydroponic garden systems.

Bonsai is an ancient art form originating in the Orient. It involves careful and diligent pruning of a tree’s roots and stems to mimic its natural growth habit, resulting in a miniature tree that resembles its full-size counterpart. The practice is associated with expressions of nature, religion and meditation, with many symbolic aspects reflecting culturally significant ideals. Bonsai is an interesting blend of art and science; check to see if there is a bonsai society in your area and ask a local expert to come share his or her work.

Explore an Event

There are many famous events throughout history in which plants were a major player. Cultivating these plants helps the event come alive to students.  Some examples include:

Tulips were a spotlight in an early consumer economic craze in Holland known as Tulipmania.  The popularity and scarcity of the tulip bulb led to a frenzy of speculative trading.  At the peak, people were paying the modern day equivalent of $76,000 for one tulip bulb.  Eventually the market crashed, devastating the economy.

Lewis and Clark Expedition
Commissioned by Thomas Jefferson in 1803, the Lewis and Clark Expedition gathered important information about the western United States, including the collection and identification of hundreds of native plants.  Introduce your students to this important mission by planting some of their finds, or practice collecting and cataloging plant material in your school garden.

Irish Potato Famine
Potatoes originated in Peru, but became an important source of food in Europe because they are easy to grow and high in nutrients. In fact, people became too dependent on the potato, resulting in the devastating Irish Potato Famine. Beginning in 1845, the potatoes in Ireland were destroyed by a blight caused by an imported fungus. The loss of the potato as a food source led to a multi-year famine resulting in widespread death by starvation, mass migration to other countries and financial ruin. This event in history not only highlights the importance of diversified agricultural practices, but also demonstrates the potential devastation of foreign diseases on plant species. Read: How the Potato Changed World History

Research History, Uses and Travels of a Plant

Just like people, every plant has its own story: its unique parts, growth habit and growing requirements; country of origin; list of uses by different cultures (the study of the uses of plants is called ethnobotany); and a log of travels as it was moved to different areas of the world. Texas A&M offers a fascinating publication from National Geographic called “Our Vegetable Travelers” that offers engaging historical commentary on many of our most common vegetable plants.

Study Important Historical Figures

Many famous historical figures have contributed to the body of knowledge related to plants.  Some examples include:

Thomas Jefferson
In addition to his great contributions in the founding of the United States and as the third President, Thomas Jefferson was also a farmer and avid collector of plants.  Research continues today through The Thomas Jefferson Center for Historical Plants.

George Washington Carver
George Washington Carver focused his research on sustainable agricultural practices to help benefit small-scale Southern farmers.  In addition to providing information on growing vegetables, he also created recipes for preparing nutritious and economical meals. Learn about some of his early research related to soil conservation and compare it to our current sustainable agricultural practices.

Dr. Norman Borlaug
Dr. Norman Borlaug directed research at the Cooperative Wheat Research and Production Program in Mexico. His focus was to develop more efficient farming practices and to introduce improved varieties of crops through plant breeding experiments with the goal of increasing food production around the world. His work resulted in the development of a wheat variety that was shorter, produced a higher yield and was more disease resistant than traditional varieties.  The new seed varieties were planted around the world to help increase food availability for an increasing world population.  In 1970, Dr. Borlaug received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work to decrease world hunger through the development of new plant varieties. He is credited with saving millions of lives by increasing food production in Third World Countries.

We hope these ideas will inspire you to begin thinking about how to incorporate history lessons into your garden program.  The more ties you can make between your school garden and your curriculum, the stronger your garden program will be in terms of sustainability and impact.


Garden to Give Lesson Plan

Garden to Give Lesson Plan

Download: Garden to Give Lesson Plan 

Overview: Growing your own fruits and vegetables is a great way to add fresh, local produce to your diet. Planting just a little bit more than you need also offers opportunities for you to help address hunger issues and to make a difference in your community.

Grade Level/Range: All ages


Students will learn that:

  • Planting a vegetable garden provides access to healthy and nutritious foods.
  • In spite of the wealth in our country, there are many Americans who are food insecure and do not always have access to healthy foods, especially fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • Donating a portion of your vegetable harvest to a local food pantry or other food distribution agency provides an opportunity to help those in need in your community.

Time: Lesson: 1 hour
Growing a Garden to Give: 1+ growing seasons


  • Internet access
  • Space and soil for a vegetable garden (containers, raised beds or in-ground)
  • Vegetable seeds

Background Information

Fresh fruits and vegetables are an important part of our diet, offering a wide variety of important vitamins and nutrients. Unfortunately, not all people have access to an adequate supply of fruits and vegetables. Based on 2016 data, the USDA estimates that 41 million Americans live in food insecure households, which they define as “households that were uncertain of having, or unable to acquire, enough food to meet the needs of all their members because they had insufficient money or other resources for food.” In addition to lack of funds, this number represents households that are located in what are known as “food deserts.” Food deserts are areas that are not within close proximity to a grocery store, which means that residents do not always have easy access to fresh, perishable food items.

Before modern day food systems that allowed for perishable foods to travel longer distances, home and community gardens were an important source of fresh fruits and vegetables. Often referred to as kitchen gardens, these small-scale gardens were designed with utility in mind, producing horticultural food crops such as fruits, vegetables, herbs and edible flowers. They are traditionally located close to the kitchen (and thus the name) to make it as easy as opening the refrigerator or pantry to access fresh supplies needed for preparing a meal.

Successful kitchen gardens were vital for the survival of early American settlers. Kitchen gardens provided fresh fruits and vegetables with essential vitamins and nutrients that were not always available from other sources. Without refrigerated transportation, most fruits and vegetables were too fragile to travel long distances, so local harvest was key. Additionally, most people had very limited surplus funds and producing food was much less expensive than buying it. For more information about the history of kitchen gardens, check out Harvest of Freedom: the History of Kitchen Gardens in America from Mann Library at Cornell University.

In the early 1900’s, as our society became more urban and as technology advanced to expand food transportation and enhance preservation techniques, kitchen gardens began to fade. All types of foods, including fruits and vegetables, became more available, and the cost of purchasing food became more economical in terms of the time it took to produce one’s own. However, kitchen gardens experienced a renewed popularity during World War I and War World II when food supplies became tight. Known as Liberty Gardens (WWI) and Victory Gardens (WWII), kitchen gardens once again became an important source of sustenance and were promoted as a way to help win the war by freeing up farm production for soldiers. In 1917 alone, the National War Garden Commission estimated that home gardeners raised 350 million dollars of crops in yards and vacant lots in 1917 and 525 million dollars in 1918. (Wow! If in a food crunch today, would we find the same success with home gardens?)

Since then, our farming roots have grown even more distance. We have adopted diets even more reliant on cheaper, processed and prepackaged foods and we have centered much of our fruit and vegetable production in pockets around the country such as California, Texas and Florida.

Planting fruit and vegetable gardens are a wonderful tool to reintroduce today’s youth to the importance of locally grown foods. Growing their own food:

  • strengthens their understanding of food origins and production
  • increases enthusiasm and appreciation for fresh fruits and vegetables through the pride and ownership of growing their own
  • provides the produce needed for hands-on cooking and tasting activities
  • gives them the knowledge and skills to supplement their own food supply
  • provides them with opportunities to share extra produce with their community

Renewed efforts to use home and community gardens to help decrease food insecurity began in 1995 with the Garden Writers Association’s program Plant a Row for the Hungry Program. The program encouraged gardeners to plant an extra ‘row’ of produce and then donate it to a local food pantry, shelter, or soup kitchen. In 2018, Gardener’s Supply Company launched their Garden to Give Program to continue to encourage gardeners to donate their extra harvest to those in need.

Laying the Groundwork

Use the following questions to get students to begin thinking about the benefits of growing your own fruits and vegetables and the opportunities for your garden efforts to benefit your community:

  • Why is it important to eat fruits and vegetables every day? (They contain important nutrients to maintain health.)
  • Does everybody eat enough fruits and vegetables every day? (No.) If no, why not? (Some people do not know what they should eat, others do not have access to the right foods because of their location or lack of money.)
  • Could we use our garden to provide fruits and vegetables for us and for people who do not have enough? (Yes.)
  • How would donating part of our harvest contribute to our community? (It would help members of the community secure a more nutritious diet.)


  1. Begin by researching the changes in food production at home over the years. The USDA has compiled data on the amount of money spent on food consumed at home since 1869, including the amount of money spent on food purchased at stores and the value of food grown at home. You can find a table with this information on the The ERS Food Expenditure Series Webpage. Download Table 2: “Food at home: Total expenditures.”
  2. Give each student a copy of the Food Grown at Home table. Ask them to discuss their observations about the data in the table. They should notice that the amount of money spent on food has increased greatly since 1869. Ask them why they think it has increased. (Possible answers: inflation, increase in population.)
  3. Ask them to look at the differences between growth of sales from food stores and value of home production. Is looking at the actual dollars the best way to compare the changes over time? Ask them to think of other ways to compare the numbers. For example, they could determine the percentage of the grand total comprised of the total food sales and home production and then compare the two. (In 1869 food sales represented 65% of the grant total and home food production 35%; in 2014 food sales represented 97% and home food production 3%.) More advanced students may want to discuss inflation and calculate adjustments. Check out for more information and calculators.
  4. How has our food system changed over the years? Based on this table, ask students to predict what they think will happen in the future.
  5. Introduce your class to the Plant a Row for the Hungry Program and Garden To Give. Discuss the benefits and challenges of using home and community gardens like their school garden to address food security issues in their community.
  6. Find a local food bank or food pantry that accepts donations of garden produce. Check out for leads. If possible, ask a representative from your local food bank or another hunger-relief agency to come and speak to the class about what they do, who they serve and why their work is important. Give your students time to ask questions about how they could help. Ask the representative for a list of vegetables they accept to distribute to their clients. If a classroom visit is not possible, as a class come up with a list of questions and either email them to the agency or see if you can conduct a phone interview.
  7. If resources allow, use this information to plan your school garden by including space to grow produce specifically designated to donate. If planting a donation garden at your school is not possible due to time, space, school policy or financial restrictions, you can brainstorm other ways to support donation gardening efforts, such as promoting the program or recruiting local gardeners to participate.

Making Connections

Here are some questions you may want to explore for further discussion:

  • How has home food production changed?
  • How much of your food is grown locally?
  • Should we be concerned about the fact that most of our food is not grown locally?
  • Is our current food system sustainable? How important is an inexpensive fuel oil supply to our food system? What will happen as the population grows?
  • Debate this statement: The sovereignty of our nation depends on our ability to produce food.

Branching Out

English: Ask each student to write an opinion paper discussing the benefits and drawbacks of home food production and whether or not they think it is a good way to address community food insecurity issues.

English: Create a recipe book for the fruits and vegetables grown in your school garden. Include instructions for growing each highlighted fruit or vegetable. Your books can be distributed at the food pantry where you donate your produce and/or also sent home with the youth.

Social Studies: The USDA has also compiled information about the amount of money spent on food consumed outside of the home. How has this trend changed over the years? What does this mean for our society? How important of a role do restaurants and other food service organizations play in our diets and in the overall health of our population?

Math: Many times food pantries equate weight of food with a dollar value to quantify the donation. Weigh your harvest before donating it and keep track of your donations throughout the season. Share the value of your donation with your gardeners, other classes, administrators and parents so they can see the impact of the efforts. For additional math practice, use different techniques to express the weight and volume of your donation. Conversion charts can be found at

Remembering Memorial Day

Remembering Memorial Day

memorial day lesson planDownload:  Remembering Memorial Day lesson plan

Overview: Plants have always played a central role in the Memorial Day activities, when families and civic groups decorate the graves of fallen soldiers with flowers and wreaths. After WWI, the red poppy became an international symbol of reverence and honor for these military heroes. Even now, 100 years after the end of WWI, many people in the U.S. still pin a fabric poppy to their lapel on Memorial Day as a sign of respect and remembrance. Use your school garden program to introduce students to the history and significance of Memorial Day.

Grade Level/Range: 6- 12th grade

Objective: Students will learn:

  • the history that led to the establishment of Memorial Day
  • the many ways plants are used as symbols in our culture
  • how to make seed balls with red poppy seeds (or other types of seeds)

Time: 30 minutes to 1 hour


  • Internet access
  • Copies of the poems “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae and “We Shall Keep the Faith”by Moina Michael
  • Red poppy seeds
  • Clay
  • Compost or potting soil

Background Information

Memorial Day has largely become known as a three-day weekend holiday full of picnics and department store sales. It’s true purpose is often overshadowed by the long weekend of fun events that kicks off the summer season. Memorial Day was originally known as Decoration Day starting in 1868. It was a special day set aside for Americans to remember the fallen soldiers of the Civil War, and to honor them by placing flowers and flags on their graves. Later the focus expanded and it became a day to remember all those who died while serving in the military. The National Holiday Act of 1971 established Memorial Day as an official federal holiday observed on the last Monday of May.

Although perhaps not as common as it used to be, the sight of a silk or fabric poppy flower pinned to a lapel on Memorial Day is still a meaningful reminder of the true meaning of the holiday. How did this humble wildflower come to be a symbol of remembrance?

In 1915, during WWI, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Allied Army named John McCrae wrote a poem titled “In Flanders Field” about the red poppies blooming in the war-ravaged battlefields. In 1918, an American college professor named Moina Michael was so moved by the poem that she responded with a poem of her own titled “We Shall Keep the Faith.” She began a campaign to adopt the red poppy as a national symbol and started selling silk poppies to raise money for disabled soldiers, and urged Americans to wear red poppy flowers on Memorial Day to show their support. Across the sea in France, Anna Guérin was also advocating to have the poppy recognized by all Allied countries. The History Channel offers a detailed summary of the events.

Laying the Groundwork

As a class or individually, read the two poems that inspired the adoption of the poppy as a symbol of remembrance.

“In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

“We Shall Keep the Faith” by Moina Michael

Oh! You who sleep in Flanders fields,
Sleep sweet – to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died

We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a lustre to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders field

And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We’ll teach the lesson that you wrought

In Flanders field

Ask students to discuss the poems. Here are a few questions to help begin the discussion:

  • Why do you think the poppies made such an impression on the authors of these two poems?
  • Why is it so important to remember soldiers who have died in war?
  • How can knowledge of historical events help us in the present?


  1. Research the growing habits of red poppies. They are hardy wildflowers that can grow almost anywhere. Ask students to consider how their characteristics contribute to their value as a symbol of remembrance. Can you grow red poppies in your area? If so, when is the best time to plant them?
  2. Make seed balls as a way to distribute poppy seeds in your community. Seed balls are seeds wrapped in a ball of clay and compost or potting soil so that they are conveniently “packed” for easy distribution. The shell protects the seeds from animals, insects, and too much moisture when they’re sprouting. Seed balls are particularly useful in areas where rainfall is unpredictable. They can be dropped onto the top of a soil-filled container or in a cultivated garden and watered by hand to initiate sprouting, or thrown into an empty lot or field where they will patiently wait for enough rain to begin the germination process. The clay keeps the seeds from blowing or washing away, and protects them from hungry critters. It also keeps the seeds from sprouting until adequate water is available. The compost or potting soil adds a bit of nutrients to help give them a jump start.
    Seed balls were used in ancient times, and were rediscovered in the 1900s as a way to introduce vegetation on a large scale to uncultivated land, such as areas devastated by fire or floods. Seed balls are also being used in the Guerilla Gardening movement as a way to beautify vacant lots and urban common areas.
  3. Gather the supplies of clay, compost or potting soil, and seeds.
  4. Divide your materials so you have:
  • 5 parts air-dry clay
  • 1 part compost/potting soil
  • 1 part seeds
  1. Combine the clay and compost. Add a little water if your mixture is dry. The mixture should be moist but not dripping wet, with the consistency of cookie dough.
  2. Add the seeds to the clay and compost. Thoroughly work the materials together with your hands.
  3. Shape the mixture into a ball the size of a golf ball.
  4. Allow the balls to dry on waxed paper or a cookie sheet.
  5. Once the balls are dry, creatively package them in scraps of cloth or paper bags decorated by the students. Add a small ribbon or a red poppy flower crafted from cloth or paper, along with a note about Memorial Day.

Making Connections

  • Find out about the Memorial Day observations in your area. Discover if there are ways for your gardeners to share their new knowledge about red poppies with the community.
  • Distribute the seed balls in your community. This could be a volunteer project, or you may even consider making it a fundraiser to help support your garden program or to donate in honor of veterans in your community.

Branching Out

History: Learn about other examples where people have used flowers as symbols such as state flowers. Each of the fifty states adopted an official flower to represent the state and its people. Look up your state flower and find out why it was chosen. For example, according to state historian Leon Anderson the purple lilac received the designation as the state flower of New Hampshire because it “is symbolic of that hardy character of the men and women of the Granite State.”

Art: Ask students to draw or create a flower (using whatever media you have available) to be their symbol. They can either choose an existing flower or create a new flower. After they finish their drawings, ask each student to explain to the class why that flower represents them.

2018 Youth Garden Grant Winner: Indian Run Elementary, Dublin City Schools

2018 Youth Garden Grant Winner: Indian Run Elementary, Dublin City Schools

Grow2Serve GardenThrough their Grow2Serve Garden in Dublin, Ohio, students at Indian Run Elementary School are providing their local food pantry with a nutritious supply of fresh fruits and vegetables. Sparked by student and faculty interest in contributing to their community, the planning process began in 2010 with school staff members contacting the Dublin Food Pantry to inquire about their interest in receiving produce donations. The garden is still flourishing eight years later; over 700 students and 50 volunteer families grow approximately 200 pounds of food each year to share with members of the community.

Grow2Serve Garden “We donate all the produce to the Dublin Food Pantry, except for the occasional tasting event in our school cafeteria for our students,” shares Intervention Specialist and Garden Coordinator Mary Anne Brown. “The pantry is located across the street from the garden. The produce is very fresh — sometimes families can enjoy produce harvested the same day. Grow2Serve is an invaluable asset to the Dublin community, introducing students to agriculture and the plant life cycle, encouraging an appreciation for fruits and vegetables, fostering an environment of service and compassion, and nurturing friendships of all ages.”

The garden is closely integrated into the school’s curriculum, including science, math, art, reading, health, and special education. The space includes eight raised beds, each 4 feet by 12 feet. Plants grown in the garden include tomatoes, green peppers, banana peppers, lettuce, squash, zucchini, cucumbers, eggplants, pumpkins, green beans, beets, radishes, Swiss chard, cilantro, basil, and parsley. “We work closely with teachers at Indian Run and representatives from the Dublin Food Pantry in an attempt to grow what’s most beneficial to the community.”

Along with the vegetable plantings, the garden includes a raised bed dedicated to a sensory garden that accommodates students of all abilities. This bed hosts engaging plants like Orange Fizz geranium (scent), lamb’s ear (soft touch), sedum (rubbery touch), purple coneflower (sight), tri-color sage (smell and taste), New England aster (sight, butterflies), milkweed (sight, Monarch butterflies), and English lavender (scent).

Grow2Serve GardenThe garden is quite an undertaking for an elementary school. In addition to the students at Indian Run, Grow2Serve also has volunteers from West Bridge Academy students (a non-traditional education center) and post-secondary students who are involved in a peer mentoring program. Mary Anne shares that they are also hoping to begin involving a local retirement community and the Dublin Senior Citizens Council to foster intergenerational relationships.

When school is closed for summer vacation, around 50 Indian Run families volunteer to maintain the garden. According to Mary Anne, “Our summer family volunteers cherish the time spent together in the garden. None of this would be possible without the continued hard work and dedication of our many volunteers.”

We asked Mary Anne if she could provide a few tips for schools considering creating a donation garden and she suggested:

  • Try to get as many people involved for volunteering: various student groups, adults, and administration and community volunteers.
  • Make a plan for summer volunteering with an electronic sign-up system with email reminders. If possible, overlap volunteers in case one of them can’t be there.
  • Hold a training session explaining expectations, what is planted, when to harvest, watering procedures, and donation instructions.
  • Have a binder with pictures of vegetables and herbs planted, and watering and harvesting instructions.
  • Research local food pantries and other hunger-relief organizations that might be in need of fresh produce in your local community and contact them before you begin.

Essential Kitchen Tools to Enjoy Your Garden

garden kitchen tools

Gardening has opened me up to a whole new world of healthful foods and how to enjoy them. After one season of gardening, though, I realized I was missing some key items in my kitchen that would make using what I grow in my garden a lot easier and more fun. I’ve spent the winter collecting the following items to help me do just that:

Fermentation Kit – I love my billions of friends in my gut and I do my best to keep them healthy. I’ve brewed my own kombucha for a few years, but growing my own cabbage inspired me to make sauerkraut and kimchi as well! It’s easy enough to make, but I found it difficult to keep the cabbage underneath the water line while waiting for it to ferment. This kit by Kilner makes it very easy, and I love that I can fit more than two whole heads of cabbage in there at once, rather than having 10 different mason jars sitting around my apartment.

Salad Spinner – There’s nothing quite like the taste of fresh greens from your own garden, but they can be difficult to rinse clean and store safely. I found that it took a lot of extra time to wash what I needed each day, and often they were still dirty or just too wet. If I washed them all at once, then they would be too wet to store in the refrigerator. This salad spinner allows me to wash and dry all my greens at once so they are clean and crisp when I’m ready to make a salad or smoothie. And nobody loves salad spinners more than kids! Beth says there’s always a battle in her house over which kid gets the first turn. You can even get a mini version for your kids’ play kitchen, or if you have a small amount of greens to clean.

French Press – I’ve been interested in learning more about herbalism for years, and gardening has given me a great outlet to do so! I started to make my own tinctures with the herbs I grew last year and have been using a french press to make the solution. It makes it super quick and easy!

I also picked up an herb drying rack, an herb stripper, and herb scissors to make preparing my herbs much easier (and more fun).

If any of these items sound like something you’d like to have in your kitchen for your next harvest, I have great news! You can purchase any of these items on Amazon and benefit KidsGardening at no cost to you. From now until March 31st, when you sign up for AmazonSmile, they’ll TRIPLE the donation for your first purchase! It’s an easy way to support garden-based learning. Simply select “KidsGardeningorg Inc” as your designated charity at and a percentage of your Amazon order will be donated.

What are your favorite kitchen tools to help preserve and enjoy your harvest? Let us know in the comments!

Why Moms and Kids are the Future

moms and kids

Moms and kids are a powerful force. I became a mother in 2015 and right away issues I was most passionate about became causes I wanted to advocate for on behalf of my son, and other vulnerable little people. More than anything, I want clean air for my son to breathe, healthy soils to grow our food and fiber in, a livable climate for plants and animals, and clean, uncontaminated water to drink and grow crops. These are the most basic things, but they are not a guarantee in so many places.

I’m not without hope, though. So many kids I meet in my role at KidsGardening understand the importance they play in ensuring natural resources are sustained into the future. In my experience, teachers and parents are working hard to instill in young people an understanding of what it means to live within the planet’s limits.

And I am so proud that KidsGardening is a part of this solution. We enable educators to establish and sustain youth gardens as a tool to foster environmental stewardship. For over 35 years, we have seen firsthand that youth garden programs grow a generation of young people who understand how to live responsibly in local and global communities. 

Each year, KidsGardening surveys our grant winners. We’ve learned that 91% of educators we serve notice gardening results in improved environmental attitudes in students. How do these attitudes hold up over time? A study by Lohr and Pearson-Mims out of Washington State University indicated that participation in gardening activities in childhood was closely linked to appreciation and respect for nature in adulthood.

And the other thing that brings me hope? Moms. I would argue that as caretakers and nurturers of children, no one is more powerful than a parent. Individually and collectively, moms have achieved amazing things. Recently I met Kelsey Wirth, of Mothers Out Front, a grassroots coalition of moms working to ensure a livable climate for all children. Kelsey explained that Mothers Out Front is, “led by our local teams of dedicated volunteers, who determine their community’s needs and choose their own goals. We empower them with training, coaching, and ideas to move their communities and states from dirty to clean energy. Team members come together to learn, strategize, meet with elected and business leaders, testify at hearings, and plan and show up at rallies and other events.”

And of course, in many cases, parents are the primary educators for their children. We can lead by example and show our kids how critical it is to protect natural resources by advocating for the environment with groups like Mothers Out Front, choosing environmentally friendly products, switching to clean energy, recycling, composting, biking, carpooling, or taking public transportation to school and work.

And of course, one of the most important things you can do to raise a young environmental steward is to spend time in nature. Those positive associations children make with the natural world are what will propel them to be caretakers of it as adults. Want a fun and practical outdoor family activity? May we recommend gardening?

What can you do?

There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather

With a busy work life and a toddler at home, I don’t have as much time as I’d like for reading. I spend a lot of time in the car though and recently listened to There Is No Such Thing As Bad Weather: A Scandinavian Mom’s Secrets for Raising Healthy, Resilient, and Confident Kids (from Friluftsliv to Hygge). I ate up every minute of the book and thought you, KidsGardening’s community of parents and educators would enjoy it as well. So I reached out to the author, Linda Åkeson McGurk with a few questions:

Linda Åkeson McGurk, author of “There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather”

Emily: Do you garden with your kids? As a mother, writer, and now author of an important book on the benefits of getting kids in nature, what role do you think gardening can play in a child’s life?

La: I think gardening is a wonderful way to connect children with nature and help them understand where their food comes from, as well as how they fit into the eco system. We also know that there are beneficial microbes in the soil, which can trigger “happiness hormones” in the brain and improve our mood and even help protect against anxiety and depression. This is huge considering that these mental disorders are on the rise among children. My mom is a big gardener, so growing vegetables was a natural part of my childhood. Unfortunately, I haven’t inherited her green thumb, but I try to grow a few things with my kids in our backyard every year. I don’t strive for perfection; I think the most important thing is to get out there with your kids and get your hands dirty together. I try to choose crops that are easy to grow and don’t stress too much when we have a crop failure. There are a lot of things to learn from those too!

Emily: What are your family’s favorite outdoor activities in each season? How have these changes over the years?

Linda: When my kids were little my main focus was to make sure they had time for unstructured outdoor play every day. During the week, that typically meant getting outside in the backyard and just doing whatever my kids wanted to do – climb a tree, explore the creek, or play in their “mud kitchen.” This type of free play outdoors offers everything a child needs in the early years and even today, at ages 7 and 10, this is what my kids do outside a majority of the time, all year round. On the weekends, when we have more time, we may go for a hike or bike ride, have a picnic at the park or tend to the garden during the warmer months. In the winter, we enjoy sledding, downhill skiing and hiking. How we recreate outdoors actually hasn’t changed that much, but what has changed is the girls’ mobility. From hiking with one baby in a carrier, I now have two children who are both very mobile by foot, ski and bike, which makes things a lot easier. 

The author and her children

Emily: Sometimes kids drag their feet when asked if they want to play outside. In your book you acknowledge that even your girls, who grew up spending time outdoors from a young age will still protest. What advice would you give to parents and educators who feel discouraged by this?

I think the most important thing is to make outdoor play a part of your daily rhythm, so that the kids will come to expect it. I’ve always been pretty firm with my kids that we go outside every day, regardless of the weather, even if it’s just for a little while. I also talk to them a lot about why we do it, and now that they’re older the health aspects are ingrained in them. My advice is to stay positive and not give up – a lot of time the hardest part is just getting out the door. My kids rarely protest anymore, but when they do I can usually convince them by suggesting that we play a game of tag or hide and seek. Kids usually want to be where their parents are, so if we go out with them and show that we’re excited about it, they can usually be won over. 

Emily: We know that getting outside is easier for some families and communities than it is for others. Where I live in Vermont, it is very easy. For my friends who live in densely populated cities, it is much more difficult. What are your thoughts on how we address these barriers? What are some small steps teachers and parents can take?

As parents we can only do so much to ensure that our kids get enough outdoor play every day; it has to be a community effort. Many kids spend the majority of their day with other caregivers – for example at daycare or school – so it’s absolutely crucial to get others on board as well. Bringing about change in schools and other institutions won’t be easy, but there are examples of schools where a single passionate teacher or administrator has made a big difference by creating a school garden, a natural play space or an outdoor classroom, or by advocating for more recess or taking the students to the forest once a week. Use these successful cases as a starting point for your own school and see if and how they can be replicated. Creating these types of opportunities for nature connection at school is even more important in bigger cities, where green spaces can be few and far between. I also think we need to rethink nearby nature, and by that, I mean that we should do a better job of utilizing all the little pockets of wild spaces that can be found in cities as well. Kids don’t need manicured parks to have a good time outside, they just need places where they can run wild.

Linda Åkeson McGurk is a journalist and author of the parenting memoir There Is No Such Thing As Bad Weather: A Scandinavian Mom’s Secrets for Raising Healthy, Resilient, and Confident Kids (from Friluftsliv to Hygge). She believes that the best childhood memories are created outside, while jumping in puddles, digging in dirt, catching bugs and climbing trees. McGurk blogs about connecting between children and nature at Rain or Shine Mamma, and hopes to inspire other parents and caregivers to get outside with their children every day, regardless of the weather. Follow her on FacebookPinterestInstagram and Twitter.

Growing Guide: Edible Flowers

edible flowersDownload: Growing Guide – Edible Flowers


  • Nasturtiums are originally from Peru, where the leaves as well as the flowers were eaten by the Incas.
  • People have been cooking with flowers for centuries, but the concept became especially popular in Victorian times. Crystallizing or candying flowers to make decorative sweet treats was especially popular.
  • The Aztecs used marigolds in their religious ceremonies and as a medicine to treat hiccups.
  • When we eat a head of broccoli, we are actually eating the plant’s flower buds!

Do you think there is a distinct line between the vegetable garden and the flower garden?  Think again! Some plants bear edible blossoms that can add color and zing to dishes and drinks as well as beauty to the garden. Below are descriptions of easy-to-grow plants bearing edible flowers. These are best grown in among your vegetables or in containers. Be sure to label them at planting time; this is especially important if you choose to grow them in a garden bed with non-edible flowers.

Important notes:

  • Not all flowers are edible! Some are poisonous, including common garden flowers like datura and foxglove. Teach children to check with you or another knowledgeable adult before eating flowers.
  • Be mindful of possible allergic reactions. Those with seasonal allergies may want to avoid eating flowers.
  • Make sure that the flowers and nearby plants haven’t been treated with pesticides.
  • Go slow when introducing children to edible flowers by offering them in small quantities, one type at a time.
  • In most cases, eat only the petals. Avoid eating the pistils and stamens, which are often bitter and may contain pollen that can trigger allergic reactions.


  • Harvest flowers in the morning after the dew has dried.
  • If possible, eat the flowers soon after they’re picked. They can be stored in the refrigerator for several days if you gently wrap them in a moist paper towel and place in a sealed bag or airtight container.
  • Harvest flowers regularly to encourage the plants to continue blooming.


All of the plants are annuals that grow for one season, with the exception of chives, which is a perennial that will live from year to year. All do best in well-drained soil in full sun.

Borage (Borago officinalis) There are so many reasons to grow borage! Its lovely sky-blue, star-shaped flowers add a beautiful color note to the garden, and they are also a magnet for visiting bees. The flowers have a faint, cucumber-like taste. Try scattering some atop a salad or freezing individual blossoms within ice cubes to add to summer drinks.

Borage is easy to grow from direct-sown seed. Plant seeds after your last spring frost date, placing seeds ¼ to ½ inch deep and 6 inches apart. When seedlings are established, thin plants to stand 12 to 18 inches apart. Mature plants will reach about 2 to 2 ½ feet tall.  Let some of the flowers go to seed and borage will happily resow itself from year to year.

edible flowers

Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus) There is a gardener’s saying that you should “be nasty to nasturtiums.” This refers to the fact that these sturdy plants will thrive in the poorest of soils. In fact, when grown in very fertile soil, they often produce a lush crop of leaves but few flowers. There are many varieties, with flowers in a range of colors, from creams and yellows to reds, oranges, and mahogany. The spurred blossoms are great for attracting hummingbirds to the garden. Both the leaves and flowers of nasturtiums are edible, with a pleasantly peppery taste. Scatter them as a colorful accent in salads, atop frosted cakes, anywhere a little color is needed.

Nasturtiums are easy to grow. Choose from vining varieties (great in a window box or hanging planter) or compact, mounding varieties. Sow seeds directly in the garden when the danger of frost is past and the soil is warm. Sow seeds 1 inch deep and about 6 inches apart. Thin to about 10 inches apart when seedlings are established. Plants can be started early indoors under lights in biodegradable pots (such as peat pots) 3 to 4 weeks before the setting out date for your area. Harden off plants before moving them outside and try to disturb the root system as little as possible when you set plants in the ground.

Signet Marigold (Tagetes tenuifolia; also called T. signata) The small, single flowers of the ‘Gem’ marigold series are considered the best for eating. ‘Lemon Gem’ sports bright yellow flowers; ‘Tangerine Gem’ is orange and ‘Red Gem’ is tomato-colored with a gold center. The flowers have a citrus scent and a slightly bitter taste with hints of citrus and spice. Pluck the petals off individually to eat; avoid eating the base of the flower, which is especially bitter.

Plants grow about 10 to 12 inches tall, with blossoms held above mounds of ferny foliage. Sow seeds outdoors after the last frost date about ¼ inch deep and 4 inches apart. Thin seedlings to 12 inches apart. You can also sow seeds indoors about 4 weeks before your last frost date. Set them outside when the soil is warm and the danger of frost is past.

edible flowers

Calendula (Calendula officinalis) Also called “pot marigold,” calendula blooms in a range of hues, including brilliant golden-yellow, orange, and red. A sprinkle of petals adds color and a touch of tang to soups and salads as well as rice, egg, and pasta dishes. Calendula is sometimes referred to as “poor man’s saffron,” alluding to the similar taste and color it lends to foods.

Sow seeds outdoors 2 to 3 weeks before your last frost date; seedlings can tolerate a light frost. Or, get an early start by starting seeds indoors about 6 weeks before your last frost date. Sow seeds ½ inch deep and 4 inches apart; thin seedlings to about 12 inches apart. If flowering wanes and plants begin to look rangy in mid-summer, trim the stems back to about 6 inches and they’ll re-grow, producing another crop of flowers into fall. Calendula readily self-sows; allow some flowers to mature and go to seed and you’ll likely see seedlings popping up nearby the following spring.

Johnny-Jump-Up (Viola tricolor) These dainty little violas bloom in early spring. Their cheerful violet, mauve, white and yellow flowers have a wintergreen taste and make a lovely garnish. Flowers can also be candied. Plants flourish while the weather is cool and self-sow readily, coming back from year to year. Sow seeds early in the spring as soon as the soil can be worked (in the fall in mild winter areas), placing seeds ¼ inch deep. Seeds can take two to three weeks to germinate. Thin plants to 4 to 6 inches apart.

Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) The lavender flower heads of this familiar perennial herb are edible; not surprisingly, they have a mild, oniony flavor similar to the edible leaves. To use the flowers, pull the florets apart and sprinkle them on food as a colorful garnish. To start plants from seed, sow clusters of 6 to 10 seeds ¼ inch deep in early spring, leaving 8 to 10 inches between clusters. You can also start plants early indoors under lights 6 to 8 weeks before your last spring frost date and set hardened-off plants outside when they are a couple of inches tall.

edible flowers
Summer squash flower

Summer Squash (Cucurbita pepo) The flowers of summer squash and zucchini can be eaten raw in salads or cooked in a variety of ways. Their mildly sweet flavor lends itself to many culinary uses. They can be sautéed, stuffed and baked, dipped in batter and fried or added to dishes like casseroles, soups, pastas and frittatas. To prepare flowers for eating, give them a quick rinse, pat dry, and peel open gently to make sure there are no insect stowaways. To grow plants, sow seeds directly in the garden when the soil is warm and all danger of frost is past. Place 4 to 6 seeds 4 inches apart in a hill, thinning to the two strongest plants when seedlings are a few inches tall. Leave about 2 feet between the hills.

Tips for a School Garden on a Tight Budget

school garden tight budget

As the growing season approaches I find myself eagerly looking forward to starting seeds in our school greenhouse and eventually planting the garden. And as fun as this process can be, I and maybe other garden educators, classroom teachers and school PTOs need to ask a very important question first: what does our garden budget look like? And so loyal blog readers, today I’m providing five tips to help you think about how you can get your school garden going on a tight budget.

  1. Consult your records and adjust accordingly: Each year keep careful track of everything growing in your garden. Did you have a shortage of peppers last summer? Maybe plan on adding 3 or 4 more plants. Was the carrot bed too crowded? Perhaps only go with one pack of seeds this year rather than two. Were there too many cucumbers? Cut back on the number of plants you grow and look for a variety with a smaller yield. Having an accurate estimate of the number of plants you’ll need based on the size of your space and the demand for any given variety will greatly aid the planning process and prevent unwanted expenses on excess materials.
  2. Before buying seeds and/or veggie starts reach out to the community: Cooperative Extension offices, community gardening groups, and garden stores might be willing to donate seeds from last year or the year before to your program. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with using older seeds; many times germination rates are just as high as newly packaged seeds! Alternatively, if you don’t have the time or capacity to start your own plants, nurseries might offer up their surplus seedlings if you ask.
  3. Use what you have: You might not even need seeds to start your garden, instead try your hand at kitchen scrap gardening and grow celery, various leafy greens, potatoes and even pineapples from leftover food scraps.
  4. Get creative with recycling: Rather than buying new growing flats or plastic pots to start seeds, make your own newspaper pots or reuse yogurt containers that students bring in from home, K-cups from the teachers’ lounge, or milk cartons from the cafeteria (check out our Carton to Garden contest if you use cartons to start your garden). You can even make a watering can out of recycled materials by simply poking holes in the screw-on cap of a plastic gallon milk jug.
  5. Connect with parents, teachers and other school community members: Interested in adding more supplies to your garden arsenal, look no further than the school community. Ask people to look around their basement and garages for any tools they might want to donate—even old sandbox or beach toys can be effective gardening tools for Pre-K and lower elementary school students. Simple 5 gallon buckets can be perfect for everything from transporting garden debris to container gardening projects. And an old plastic storage container can be the foundation of a worm composting system.

You don’t need to have the nicest watering cans, high tech grow lights, or matching trowels and rakes for a garden to have an impact. The simplest garden and tools can still offer meaningful and exciting experiences for youth of all ages.

Garden How-to: Design a Garden that Honors Individuality and Fosters Connection

fosters connectionDownload: How to Design a Garden that Honors Individuality and Fosters Connection

Many children now spend a majority of their time indoors, staring at TVs, computers and cell phones. They grow up bombarded by visual and auditory chaos, and may find themselves at a loss without that constant stimulation. In contrast, a garden feeds all the senses. Spending time in the garden can awaken the senses of touch, smell, and taste, and attune a child to the subtler sights and sounds of nature.

And while electronics and the Internet provide limitless opportunities for making connections, communication is often done in the digital realm, usually with peers of similar backgrounds and interests. Children miss out on practicing face-to-face cooperation, problem-solving and conflict resolution, especially with those outside their virtual social circle. The garden offers a much-needed antidote by nurturing life skills that can help heal this fractured world.

Gardening helps kids connect with each other. Research shows that young people are increasingly experiencing feelings of loneliness and isolation — even the kids with hundreds of virtual “friends.” Research also indicates a growing gap in our youth’s ability to interact with people from different backgrounds. With a future grounded in a global economy and communities becoming more culturally diverse, it’s imperative that children have opportunities to spend productive, enjoyable, in-person time with diverse populations.

Gardening helps kids connect with nature. Parents are increasingly wary of letting kids spend unstructured time outdoors, and many kids are reluctant to do so anyway. However, being exposed early, and often, to the beauty and wonders of the natural world fosters a connection to nature and helps ground them in their sense of belonging to the larger world. Gardening is a perfect gateway, by bringing a tamed nature into their lives. Kids — and adults — can experience and appreciate its wonder, without the fears many have of the dangers of the wild. Spending time in nature helps kids feel more connected to their physical bodies, which can help them stay grounded in times of chaos. And an appreciation of nature is the first step in teaching children the vital role each of us can play in the stewardship of natural areas, both in their communities and around the globe.

Designing a Garden to Meet the Needs — and Dreams — of Diverse Populations

A garden that is truly accessible is a special learning place for all children. This includes kids with physical limitations, but also other youth who may feel challenged and marginalized in traditional classroom settings. A dream garden is one where every child can shine!

Kids with limited mobility. Designing gardens with wide, smooth paths, gentle slopes, and plants at heights children can reach allows kids in wheelchairs and other movement aids lets them participate fully in all the garden has to offer. More information (link to new article): How to Create an Accessible Garden for Those with Physical Limitations.

Kids with different learning styles. A child that struggles with math in the classroom may love to sit by the garden and figure out how many seeds to plant per square foot of garden space. If feasible, allow “hands-on” learners to participate in constructing beds. Invite visual learners to participate in designing the layout and planting plans. Encourage creativity by including walls for murals and space for sculptures. More information: Designing Garden Programs for All

Kids from different cultural backgrounds. Gardens present an ideal environment for cultural inclusivity. For example, you can invite each child to write down a list the vegetables and fruits they eat at home. Collect the lists and note any regional and international foods, and then try to incorporate some of the crops into your garden. These foods may be unusual to many of the kids in the class, but they will bring the flavor of home to those whose grew up with them. They may also spark curiosity and interaction between kids.

Kids with different sensory sensitivities. Some children may become overwhelmed or feel uncomfortable speaking up in a boisterous setting. Or they may feel overwhelmed and overlooked during the chaos of a large group project. By incorporating special “retreat” areas, you’ll create quieter spots for the one-on-one and small-group conversations and activities that let quieter kids participate and more fully enjoy all the garden has to offer. Read Designing Garden Programs for All, which includes a section on gardening with children with autism.

Kids with different activity needs. Some kids love to be extra active and enjoy being outdoors, but they don’t enjoy competitive sports. These kids may especially enjoy the physical activities of shoveling soil, making trips to and from the garden shed to retrieve tools and supplies, and doing any of the more active gardening tasks. Gardening offers opportunities for activity that fosters cooperation, rather than competition.