The School Garden

May 3rd, 2011 § 3 comments § permalink

Happy Bean

Early last spring, through a local educational grant, I helped students, teachers, parents and administrators establish a vegetable garden at our small grade school.  Permanent above- and below-ground fencing surrounds our 25’ x 40’ garden to guard it from hungry critters.

MulchingWe designed and installed an underground high-efficiency drip irrigation system to water our 9 rectangular wood-framed raised beds.  Following garden construction, we all helped weed the garden beds, plant seeds, transplant seedlings, maintain the beds and harvest the veggies.

Preparing bedsOur small gardening program provides benefits that reach well beyond the garden gate.  In addition to enhancing the classroom curriculum, the program inspires personal and social responsibility.  It nurtures community spirit, common purpose, and cultural appreciation by building bridges among students, school staff, and local organizations.

Many handsKids learn from maintaining the garden throughout the year: weeding, thinning, fertilizing, mulching, composting, monitoring pests and diseases, and harvesting.  Kids gain a sense of ownership and accomplishment and a willingness to try new foods.  As well, they obtain life skills.

Planting herbsThe kids experience a deeper understanding of natural systems and become better stewards of the Earth by designing, cultivating, and harvesting with their own hands.  Our small garden helps teach an environmental ethic, helps demystify the concept of food production, and helps get kids really dirty.

Garden handsThis week I am busy dirtying many small hands—preparing the beds and planting lettuce, radishes and sugar snap peas.



April 11th, 2011 § 12 comments § permalink

Eggling zinniaWhoa, finally.  Spring has sprung. For short-summered gardeners like me, it is particularly important to get started early.  My gardening team and I start many tender annuals indoors.  We avoid purchasing seedling trays or pots and try to start most seeds in biodegradable handmade pots.  Cardboard tubes, newspapers, grapefruit halves are great options—we use eggshells.

To get crackin’, eat lots of eggs.  Prick a small drainage hole in the bottom of the shell with a pin or needle.  To remove the contents, create a small opening in the shell—about the size of a dime—with a sharp knife.  Reserve the egg contents for cooking my friend Jenny’s Back Pocket Quiche.  Carefully pinch the opening until 1/3 of the shell is removed.  Wash each eggshell.  Surprisingly, it does not take long for hungry, motivated gardeners to have a full carton of clean, empty shells.

Select some seeds.  Really, any annuals will do.  For a nice selection, see previous post on Spring Planning.  My gardening team is partial to fancy pinkish flowers and cherry tomatoes.

Egglings dozenWith small green fingers and thumbs, fill each eggshell with damp seed-starting mix to about ¼ to ½ in below the shell opening.  Place the soil-filled shells into an egg carton.  Using tiny finger, create a small indentation in the center of the soil. Follow the instructions on the seed package for proper planting depth.  The general rule is to plant three times deeper than the size of the seed.  Place a seed or two into the indentation and lightly cover the seed with soil.  Use a permanent marker to label each eggshell with seed type.  Moisten the soil again gently with a few drops of water.  Allow the water to saturate the soil before adding more water.  Be careful not to drown them!

Seed MorphologyThere are so many many types of seeds.  In a typical dormant seed, like a French bean or sunflower, two future cotyledons occupy most of the interior.  The outer covering is called the seed coat.  The seed coat is usually hard and protects the softer parts of the seed.  There is a tiny hole in the seed coat called the micropyle.  When the seed is ready to germinate, water is absorbed into the seed through the micropyle.  Rapid growth of the seed’s embryo ruptures the seed coat, allowing the radicle to emerge in search of nutrients.  The radicle becomes the root of the plant.  The hypocotyl, the space between the radicle and the colyledons, extends and emerges from the soil.  The hypocotyl is exposed to sunlight, straightens out and develops into a stem.  The cotyledons, two thick, leaf-like thingies, become new green leaves.  The tiny plumule rises up between the cotyledons and develops into the plant’s true leaves.

Seedling growthClearly, seed germination is highly dependent on water.  So, to help retain necessary moisture, cover the egg carton lightly with a large transparent plastic container. Monitor your seedlings daily for growth and water needs.  They should be kept evenly moist, but not saturated.  You should begin to see sprouts in 10 to 14 days, depending on seeds selected.  When the seedlings emerge, they will need space for growth, and sunlight for photosynthesis.  In general, sunlight on a warm windowsill is best.  Keep them in inside until they have 3 to 4 true leaves.

Eggling bunchBy the time playground weather comes around, your eggshells will house a flock of able-bodied, rosy-cheeked seedlings.  Before moving them out of the hen house, take a few weeks to “harden them off”—gradually introduce them to their new growing conditions. Move the “egglings” to a shady spot for increasing amounts of time, several days in a row.  Bring them back inside or cover them if temperature looks like it will drop.  Progressively increase the amount of time and sunlight they receive outside until they appear ready to venture out on their own.  This gives the seedlings a chance to acclimate to sunlight, drying winds and climate changes.  On a cloudy day, plant them directly in the ground, crushing the bottom part of the eggshell so the roots can emerge.  Water the transplants well, but gently.

Why use eggshells?  Eggshells provide good moisture retention for germination, less transplantation shock, a good source of beneficial calcium (especially important for fast-growing tender annuals), and the obvious environmental and monetary advantages.

Cheap cheap.


On Hunger

January 27th, 2011 § 9 comments § permalink

TomatoI think we are off to a good start.  At this time, I’d like to come clean with something that may be of some concern.

I do not like to cook.

Now, I’m not sure if this is due to the fact that our teeny kitchen has just two functioning stove burners and one single (semi-working) drawer, or if it is because, at this point of my life I am enveloped by things I have produced that either unfold, get dirty, get taken out and put on the floor, are un-made or get thrown away within minutes of me feeling the satisfaction of completing the task.  Maybe I am simply searching for something with more of an appreciated value (Uuk!  How many of THOSE do I have to eat…..).  Or, perhaps I am just not woman enough to appreciate the sheer beauty of stuffing grapevine leaves with peeled and cored eggplant and squash while a little person is tugging at me hungry hungry hungry.

In any case, for me every meal is a trial.

There have been a few times when I actually have enjoyed my time in the kitchen.  Most have involved a glass or two of wine.

But soup.  Soup is another matter altogether.  Any sort of soup—mixed bean, lentil, wild mushroom with barley, curried pumpkin, sweet potato, carrot and yam bisque, tomato, hearty spring vegetable—I could happily drown in a sea of soup, let it toss me about for a while and then spit me out.  Happy.

My friend Jenny (who, unlike me, loves to cook and is really good at it) makes a mean Butternut Squash Soup with Apples—easy and perfect for a cold wintry night.  My old standby is Vegetable.  Nothing fancy—just a beautifully basic soup that can accommodate whatever combination of freshly picked or frozen veggies I have on hand.  It tastes different every time.

Simple Vegetable Soup:

3 Tbs olive oil

4 cups chicken or vegetable broth

Handful of carrots (chopped)

3-4 celery stalks (chopped)

4 ears cooked corn (kernels removed)

4 medium sized potatoes (cut into chunks)

Can of kidney beans

Can of chick peas

¼ cup chopped fresh parsley

Salt and pepper to taste

Heat the oil in a large saucepan.  Add celery and carrots and cook on low until they start to soften (about 10 mins).  Stir in the broth, corn, potatoes, beans, chick peas and salt.  Bring to a boil.  Reduce heat and simmer, partially covered, until the veggies are almost tender (20 mins).  Stir in the parsley.

Other great additions include: cabbage, parsnips, turnips, zucchini, lima beans and bell peppers.


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