Practicing what you preach

About a year ago, I was looking through the newly published list of Whole Kids Foundation’s first round of school garden grants to see if any Chicago schools were listed. As I was scrolling through the Illinois winners, I was thrilled to see that West Suburban Montessori School  in Oak Park won a grant. My daughter was just about to start her school years there. I emailed the school immediately to see how I could help.

For those of you who know me, you know that through work for the City of Chicago and Openlands, I have helped well over one hundred schools start a garden for outdoor learning and connection to nature. I truly believe that school gardens can be the start of lifelong wonder and caring for our world. But I had never worked on my own child’s school garden. That was about to change.

Fast forward to four months in to  West Suburban Montessori School’s edible garden’s growing season. There have been so many meaningful experiences, memories made, and chances to try out what I share with the schools that I work with professionally. Since swiftly joining the Landscaping Committee as a co-chair, we’ve tackled the usual clean up, weeding, annual planting and watering of our school garden. But we also did many other things to expand what was already being done.

During a fall garden workday, our families dismantled the wooden ground-level vegetable beds and replaced them with Learning Garden beds to work with better soil, provide a more playful design and create better boundary definition for young children. We found a good balance between school-time, staff and child care of the garden during the week and family support on the weekend. There was also a successful spring crop harvest that the children were able to truly be involved in and enjoy. We’ve even changed our name from the Landscaping Committee to the Garden Committee.

It has been a great year of further supporting a child-centered garden, where the children start the seeds, transplant them (more than once if you’re my daughter), water, harvest and eat the vegetables that they’ve grown. Two of my favorite memories: receiving an email from the head of school that included a photo of some children with large bowls of lettuce and radishes before them; and having an entourage of lettuce eaters while weeding and planting with my husband before we headed out on vacation. Last week zinnias were harvested

Through my work in Openlands’ Building School Gardens program, we have created a great manual of our lessons learned and have documented the great successes of the schools that we work with. But this year I was able to truly practice what I preach. Thank you to each one of you who have made this year a good at our school garden. You were all necessary for our success and for teaching me lessons along the way.

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Another season

Since I last wrote here another round of seeds was started inside and transplanted in the garden, salads of spinach, lettuce and arugula have been my lunch, Sofie and her friends have eaten strawberries and peas daily, and cilantro and chives were picked just to add to avocado for guacamole. It has been too long since I have written here and documented the growth of the garden and its inevitable yearly expansion.

One morning's harvest of strawberries and peas.

One morning’s harvest of strawberries and peas.

This year we added a berm for tomato, squash and corn growing. Our apple, green gauge, apricot and peach trees will have their first growing season. And our raspberries and blackberries are looking exceptional. Take a little tour of Zap Gardens here.


This year’s expansion included a new berm, three new blueberry bushes and more fruit trees.

Indeed we are almost three months into the growing season of 2013. It’s another season filled with promise, and the hope of the harvest to come. The last three seasons have been unpredictable, subject to drought, dramatic temperature swings, down pours and hail. This year feels different. The frost didn’t damage the midwestern fruit orchards, and I feel like we may have our first real chance to can tomato sauce, pickles and beans from the garden.

A new year, a new crop for the budding farmer.

A new year, a new crop for the budding farmer.

Every new growing season is filled with hope. May this  year be a good one for all of us.

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Inspired winter gardening

It’s a sunny January day. That means that it is cold, but the sun is energizing and gets us outside. After taking photos of our “cold frame”, my husband decided he could do better. So he did.

With scrap material from various home improvement projects, he created two row tunnels with plastic instead of fabric, aluminum instead of PVC. The idea is that some sunlight can make it through the plastic while at the same time trapping the heat to keep the temperatures within the row tunnel several degrees warmer than the ambient temperature. The row tunnels also capture and release the air’s humidity, acting as a watering mechanism of sorts.


Stapling the plastic around the frame


The tools, gathered


Almost done…

The finished product over our spinach

The second finished product, over our spinach

It is amazing what a couple of extra hours, some sunshine, and the pure will to “grow your own” can inspire in each of us. What have you been inspired to do this winter?

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Still growing

It’s January 1st. Chicago has recently broken records of above freezing temperatures and days without snow. Both of these weather patterns – should they stick- mean that our local ecosystem will need to make adjustments more quickly than evolutionarily possible.

In the meantime, we keep growing.

Gardeners make their mark on the world, one small plot at a time. We’re stewards who increase the vitality of the soil we work with and increase habitat for insects, birds and animals to ensure pollination. We grow food that is alive with flavor and freshly picked.

Even on January 1st in Chicago, there can still be life in the garden. Insects and bacteria are breaking down organic material in our compost piles, and season extension is possible even now. At our house, we’re using old windows, 2″ x 4″s and our front yard raised bed as an imperfect cold frame to continue growing through the winter this year. We’re growing spinach and cilantro. The growth is slow due to the lack of sun, but they’re still growing.

Inside, our mizuna and arugula micro greens are growing quickly, just waiting to be added to a salad.

Are YOU still growing?

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The end of another growing season

October is winding down. This garden season was highlighted by bulbs that bloomed way too early as a result of our warm March. There was barely any rain in May and June. And this fall feels like fall for a change.

But this garden season isn’t over just yet. If you planted your garden properly there are still fresh goodies to harvest. There still will be more to eat from your own yard or containers for a good 5 weeks or so, maybe longer if you use row covers and high tunnels.

Yesterday Joe dug up our Jerusalem artichokes and brought in another huge crop of lettuce mix and arugula for our daily salads. Today we have our eyes on the broccoli shoots that Sofie eats right off of the plant as we take down the sunflowers that the birds finally finished picking through. Our last sowing of radishes will be ready soon, and we should have spinach to add to our fall salads shortly. It’s so satisfying to eat and live like this.

We had a great season this year – even though neighborhood kids used some of our eggplant and tomatoes for balls, and we had one massive ransacking in early summer that left tomato cages on end. Our blueberries produced so much fruit that we’re going to add 3 more bushes next year for a total of 5, hoping to reduce the amount that we buy and freeze for yearly use. We added raspberries from our family’s Crooked Row Farm, blackberries from edde and Lorrie, apple and green gauges from Christy Webber’s Farm and Garden Center. The volunteer butternut squash plant gave us a dozen fruit and the carrots grown over by the plant still grew.

Even our late July experiment of potato growing yielded great results.

Good luck in these last few weeks of gardening for the year. Hope to hear from you soon.

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A potato growing experiment

A few weeks ago we had a great outdoor dinner at our friends’ Jeanne and Verde of The Organic Gardener. As our growing season has been so warm, our potatoes were hit by the potato flea and in decline, so we were harvesting smaller potatoes much earlier than usual. We asked Jeanne and Verde what they thought of planting potato seeds for a second harvest in…July.

They said, “We’ve successfully planted potatoes as late as the end of June for clients.  It’s worth a shot.”

You see, we usually plant our potatoes in late March or early April. The spring rains then give them all of the water that they need to thrive. Harvesting of large potatoes then typically happens in August. How would it work if we planted a second harvest of potatoes this month?

We used the area that we’d just pulled up our mature garlic for the planting. My husband Joe made great rows for the potatoes and put straw in between the rows like we’ve done in our most successful potato growing years. And…

Our mid-July planted potatoes sprouting in less than two weeks.

Are you growing things differently this year as a result of the heat? Let us know in the comments below.

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Mail order seedlings, the update

So, I owe you an update. I know that you were on the edge of your seat waiting to hear how those mail order vegetable seedlings were growing, weren’t you? If you don’t know what I am talking about, find out more here.

And the verdict is…? We LOVE how our seedlings from Cooks Garden are performing. The India Paint eggplant and The Godfather green peppers are producing beautiful fruit, much earlier than our scraggly self-started eggplant and peppers did last year. We’ve harvested more green peppers already than we have in an entire past season. Hooray! See two of the lovelies below. And let me know if you grew anything new this year.

India Paint eggplant, in the cages.

Green peppers, gathering sunlight to ripen fully.


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Seed planting with little ones

Little fingers don’t have the dexterity to plant seeds easily. Young kids are usually much better at putting seedlings in the ground. But, sowing seeds outdoors is just something that is part of gardening and our kids will want to help.

Big seeds, like squash, sunflowers, zinnias, peas, and beans are a great way to include your child in planting seeds. If you try this, just be patient. Spilled seeds (see photo below) can be picked up easily when they are large enough to not be camouflaged by the soil. And seeds are cheap, so if some are lost along the way, there isn’t much “loss” after all.

See some easy steps here, in the form of photos.We planted edamame seeds this week.

But I want to see the seeds NOW, even if I AM nowhere near the raised bed they are going in.

Sofie spills the seeds out

Taking a seed from hand, instead of from the packet

Putting one edamame seeds directly into the pre-dug hole.

When planting things like lettuce and carrots – which are very small seeds – consider making some seed tape. Organic Gardening Magazine has a great “recipe” here.

Do you have different tips to share?

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Sensory plants for kids

Over a year ago, my daughter participated in a Garfield Park Conservatory activity where she was able to bring home a chocolate mint plant. We potted it up and kept it indoors on a sunny, south facing windowsill with promises that it would last longer than it would outdoors. (This is because chocolate mint is more like an annual here in Zone 5-Chicago, and it usually dies over the winter.)

Our chocolate mint lasted about 18 months before it was sampled too many times and couldn’t photosynthesize enough to keep going. Alas, Sofie still looks at that empty pot on the windowsill and asks about her chocolate mint.

Last weekend we bought two mint plants – a sweet mint (yes, the aggressive type that we all know/fear) and a chocolate mint. I dug while Sofie planted these herbs in Earth Boxes. Gardening with plants that arouse the senses – in this case, touch, smell and taste – is a great way to get kids of any age interested in gardening. Just make sure that the plants that you choose are safe to ingest – kids can’t help wanting to eat what they plant – and that they have no allergies to what is selected.

Mint leaves are rather course, fragrant, and of course edible. And, mints are really pretty tough, as long as your little one(s) don’t eat ALL of the leaves. Try this or another herb in a pot if you don’t have outdoor planting space. All it takes is some regular watering and some sunshine to get your little gardener going.

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The value of dirt

Two weeks ago the National Wildlife Federation released their Dirt Report (warning, this is a PDF). I can’t stop talking about it, professionally or personally.

My work at Openlands intersects with my family and passion for gardening. This condensed research report shows just how important playing and being outdoors are for the health of our children. From my perspective, here are The Dirt Report highlights:

  • Exposure to dirt and pathogens at a young age increases the strength of immune systems and decreases adult health issues.
  • Bacteria found in soil activates serotonin release in the brain, making us all happier.
  • When children are too clean they are more likely to have allergies, asthma and autoimmune diseases.

I think this means it is time to make a play date with our kids and the outdoors. Let’s get dirty!

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