School Gardening

One of my favorite teachers at my children’s elementary school was able to sense when the kid’s energy level reached a non-productive level. Her go-to response was to head out to the school garden to weed, water, and mulch. Usually they would go for just 10 minutes – but that was enough. Marta, who was named the 2015 Formal Environmental Educator of the Year, intuitively knew the power of outdoor time, gardening, and fresh air on student’s ability to focus and learn. More and more studies are coming out that prove her intuition was right. One recent study suggests the microbiome in soil can actually function as an antidepressant. Another meta-analysis of over 20 unique research studies shows there is a “significant positive effect of gardening on health outcomes.” And, it seems not just Marta, but teachers and school administrators are catching on. The number of US public schools that make use of a school garden went from 12% in 2007 to 31% in 2014. The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction put out a publication in 2014 that touts, “school gardens offer a wonderful medium for students to get their hands dirty and learn about food, agriculture, and nutrition.” It goes on to cite increased science achievement scores, improved social skills and behavior, and improved life skills as benefits to school gardening.

Communities are catching on, too – and getting involved. For highlights and news on advancements in garden education, I turn to my friends and experts in the field at Community GroundWorks. They’ve recently collaborated with the UW Environmental Design Lab in creating the Wisconsin School Garden Network (more on that later – see For Educators) which, among other things, works to document and collect Garden Stories that inspire and encourage more school gardeners. Their latest story of community action and collaboration was submitted by Renata Solan, Communications Director at the School Garden Network, who tells of a school, a nature center, and a farm working together to foster garden learning and exploration:

Borner Farm Project and Carpenter Nature Center Partner to Bring Garden-Based Learning to Malone Elementary Students

For years, Malone Elementary School students in Prescott, Wisconsin have had access to top-quality outdoor education thanks to annual fiend trips each season at Carpenter Nature Center. This school year, a creative collaboration with Carpenter Nature Center, Malone Elementary School, and Borner Farm Project expanded outdoor education for first graders to include garden-based learning.

For 35 years, Carpenter Nature Center has been educating students in the Prescott school system. Currently, all Malone Elementary School students from pre-K through 5th grade go to the nature center three times each year for seasonal programs that build on students’ classroom curricula. “Our main goal is bringing people to the outdoors to heighten awareness and incorporate stewardship aspects to help people learn more about their own backyards and surroundings and inspire kids to take care of the Earth,” said Mayme Johnson, Carpenter Nature Center’s Program Director.

In 2013, Borner Farm Project purchased land just blocks from Malone Elementary School. Diane Webster, founder and director of Borner Farm Project, was familiar with the educational programs at Carpenter Nature Center. “Ever since we moved to Prescott I’ve spent a lot of time over at Carpenter,” said Webster. “I’ve been so impressed. They have continuing classes and workshops. They teach and work in the community at the same time.”

A decade after starting Borner Farm Project, Webster was ready start incorporating educational components for youth at her site. However, unlike Carpenter Nature Center, the farm did not have staff trained in developing curricular activities.

The timing was also right for Veronica Justen, who is a parent of children in the Prescott school district, and the Wisconsin School Garden Network’s Northwest Regional Coordinator.

Photo credit: Borner Farm Project

Justen saw an opportunity to bring garden-based education to Malone Elementary School through Carpenter Nature Center’s existing outdoor education programming in partnership with the nearby Borner Farm Project. “The school has no garden. So this seemed like a way to give the students farm and garden education,” explained Justen. She organized meetings with school administrators to talk about potential for collaboration with the nature center and farm, and sought funding so that a field trip to the farm would not add an additional financial burden on local families. United Natural Foods, Inc. provided funding allowing Carpenter Nature Center staff to develop curricular activities for 1st graders visiting the farm that are consistent with Next Generation Science Standards and teach the children during field trips to the farm.

“Borner Farm Project has the farm,” said Johnson, “and we have the naturalist staff with the training to develop age-appropriate educational programs. The result is that 90 kids got to taste the vegetables right on the farm. We hope this will become a regular part of the elementary school curriculum.”

“I was blown away by how well organized it was and how fun it was for the kids,” raved Webster. “Kids learned about the price of the plants and plant life cycles. We took them out into the compost area, which was a highlight for them. We listened to the compost piles and could hear the worms! We walked through the gardens and pulled up some carrots for kids to taste. I didn’t see a single kid that wasn’t participating and engrossed in the process.”

Both Johnson and Webster see potential to incorporate farm- and garden-based education into the Malone Elementary School curricula. Their hope is that this collaboration can continue for first graders and, eventually, expand to include more elementary school students.

Article written by Renata Solan from Wisconsin School Garden Network, which is a project of Community GroundWorks and UW Madison Environmental Design Lab, funded by the Wisconsin Partnership Program at the UW Madison School of Medicine and Public Health.

Here’s a little more on community collaboration in from PBS Kids:

Did you know…

Regenerative Agriculture, which is also on the rise, is defined as: “Practices that (i) contribute to generating/building soils and soil fertility and health; (ii) increase water percolation, water retention, and clean and safe water runoff; (iii) increase biodiversity and ecosystem health and resiliency; and (iv) invert the carbon emissions of our current agriculture to one of remarkably significant carbon sequestration thereby cleansing the atmosphere of legacy levels of CO2.” Find out more from Regeneration International.

Wisconsin’s first major agricultural crop was wheat. Farmers in the mid 1800s grew one sixth of the nation’s wheat. Because wheat farming was taxing on the soil (and because the chinch bug showed up in the 1860s), many of Wisconsin’s agricultural fields were transformed into dairy farms.

One more fun fact: I was wondering what ever happened to Michelle Obama’s White House Kitchen Garden where she welcomed hundreds of children to join her in growing, harvesting, and enjoying fresh, garden-grown produce, and worked to promote healthy eating and living habits. I was happy to find out that the garden was not turned into a “putting green” as Anne Coulter once suggested, but that First Lady, Melania Trump, has embraced the garden and she, too, works with children in the garden. She recently stood among the peppers and broccoli sprouts and told youth from a Washington DC Boys & Girls Club, “I’m a big believer in healthy eating because it reflects on your mind and your body.” Way to go, Melania – check out the photos here. Learn more about the garden, which is considered a part of the President’s Park National Park here.

To Do This Month:

April 9th: Learn to Stargaze @ Tenney Park 7-8 PM – Do you know how to find the Big and Little Dippers in the night sky? How about Orion the hunter or the queen Cassiopeia? Well, here’s your chance to find out! UW Space Place leads each session that begins just after sunset with a 20-30 minute talk and slide show about astronomy. At the conclusion of the talk (if the sky is clear) they will set up one of the moderate aperture (8″-10″) telescopes and provide park visitors the opportunity to view astronomical objects. All ages welcome. Register online or by phone: (608) 266-4711

April 13th: Evening @ Cherokee Marsh 6:30-8:30 PM – Join us for an evening at Cherokee Marsh! We are likely to see cranes, observe the courtship flight of woodcock and snipe, and see several spring migrants. Waterproof footwear is recommended. This trip is sponsored by Madison Audubon and Friends of Cherokee Marsh. Led by Levi Wood and Peter Fissel.

April 14th: Annual Midwest Crane Count 6:30-7:30 AM – Join over 1,000 volunteers across the upper Midwest for the Annual Midwest Crane Count. As a citizen scientist, you can help us monitor the return of Sandhill and Whooping Cranes to their northern breeding grounds. Click here to learn more and to get involved!

April 21st: Work Play Earth Day @ Mackenzie Center 12-3 PM – Celebrate earth day at the MacKenzie Center this year. Come volunteer with us to help remove invasive species, clear brush, pick up garbage and participate in other earth-friendly activities. Families, individuals, scout groups, 4-H groups, businesses and other organizations are all welcome to attend. Meet in the Badger Den parking lot.

April 28th: Bird and Nature Outing @ Edna Taylor Conservation Park 10-11:30 AM – Join a naturalist for a free and easy, family-friendly walk from Aldo Leopold Nature Center into the beautiful Edna Taylor Conservation Park and enjoy a bit of nature education along the way. Meet at Aldo Leopold Nature Center, 330 Femrite Drive. Park in the first lot on the right, gather in the nature center lobby, or on the back deck. These nature outings are free and no registration is required!

Community Groundworks

Corn Craft

Favorite Agriculture Books

April Events

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For Educators:

Wisconsin School Garden Network

Teachers and classrooms looking to get started with schoolyard gardening will find tools and inspiration from the Wisconsin School Garden Network. This network supports educational garden programs at early care sites, schools, community centers, and organizations throughout Wisconsin by providing free resourcesworkshops, webinarsstories, and more. They define “garden” broadly, including everything from indoor containers, greenhouses, and a few raised beds, to aquaponic systems, and large-scale outdoor gardens.

The Network is supported by many agencies, including Nature Net member, Community GroundWorks. Their current efforts include mapping the growing garden-based education movement in Wisconsin – which now includes more than 200 garden programs – on the Wisconsin School Garden Network Map. The map provides a visual representation of how important gardening, nutrition, and physical activity have become in educating Wisconsin’s youth. You can add your school garden project to the map, and “help to define education in Wisconsin.”

PS: Every week, through the end of April, the Wisconsin School Garden Network will be choosing randomly from those listed on the map to win prizes, including heirloom seeds, Fiskars trowels, and more! Add your program and check out other programs on the map here.
If you need more help with where to start, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services’ “Got Dirt? Toolkit” should do the trick. The Health Services’ website explains: “In an effort to increase fruit and vegetable consumption in Wisconsin, the Department of Health Services Nutrition and Physical Activity Program developed “Got Dirt?,” a program designed to assist with the implementation of school, community, and child care gardens.” They followed up with a “Got Veggies” nutrition education curriculum, and offer funding ideas, along with statewide and national resource links. In addition, you can search here or here for interactive maps of planting zones in the United States to help you determine what plants will be most successful where you live!

For Families:

School Garden Booster

If you’re interested in helping your child’s school get hip to the school gardening trend, there’s articles out there from sites like Scholastic and PTO Today that recommend the following steps:

  • Reach Out – to teachers, administrators, facility and grounds workers, and other parents to ensure there’s support and buy-in. It’s not mentioned in either article but I would suggest that students become involved at this point, too.
  • Create a Proposal – that ties the garden and garden work to curricula, state and national standards, and figure out who will coordinate upkeep (especially in the summer). Determine how it will be funded, and how it can be sustained once your child graduates (and you move on with them).
  • Get Permission and Map your Garden – depending on your school district you may need permission from the superintendent, but the principal is a must. The garden at my kid’s school was started as simple raised beds that could be removed if the program should fail. It has only grown since, and now also features a grove of fruit trees and an adjacent pollinator garden. A sunny spot is required and most schools also include a place to store supplies, a nearby water source, and a place to compost weeds.

You might also consider supporting a Gardener-in-Residence at your school or, if you’re more interested in community gardening – instead of working with a school – the Milwaukee-based Victory Garden Initiative has plenty of tips and inspiration to get you going. Also, the Green & Healthy Schools program may provide resources and ideas for greening your child’s school in addition to the school garden.

Wondering when to get started putting seeds or seedlings in the ground? You still have time – the average last frost date for the Madison area is May 13th. That means in the Nature Net area (Plant Hardiness Zone 4), you can start broccoli, carrots, kale, and tomatoes indoors this month for transplant in May. Carrots might even be ready for harvest before the last school bell rings in June. Learn more about ideal planting, transplanting, and harvesting times with the Wisconsin Garden Schedule.

Betsy bylineCopy of Betsy bylineBetsy Parker is an environmental educator who supports all children, families, and classrooms getting their recommended daily allowance of #VitaminN.
Funding for Nature Net and the Nature Net News blog is provided by American Girl Fund for Children.