Category Archives: school garden

On being food renegades

P1000178The U.S.D.A. in its infinite wisdom pays farmers to NOT produce food.  To keep the prices high, the consolidation of growers of (let’s give a relevant example) sour cherries all stick their fingers to the wind and decide how MUCH of their harvest to pick on a given year.  This year, it’s 60%, which means that 40% of your crop is not to be sold and must rot on the tree.

Rot on the tree!

Well, we fruit renegades did a bit of patriotic tea-dumping and picked 150 pounds of cherries on the Fourth of July for our school.  We in no way even dented that 40% of this particular farm’s trees. Having the full support of the farmers, we pickers had to be surreptitious about it, parking our cars way out of view and picking in the dead middle of the orchard early in the morning.  At one point a plane flew over and I had a true Goodfellas moment, getting somewhat paranoid.

P1000186About a third of our harvest

So for the price of pitting them at another farm, we have a nice huge stock of cherries to make into snacks for the school.

P1000193KathunkKathunkKathunk:  This 1937 pitter can process a ton of cherries in an hour


Food preservation season has begun

P1000064Daikon radish pickles: RECIPE NOW IN COMMENTS

Yes, it is that time of year again:  big pots of boiling water on the stove, zero counterspace available due to all the green and fruity produce coming in the door.

Interestingly, however, the preservation being done today (Saturday) is not being done for this family.  No:  the school garden is just as busy as our home gardens, and many of those lovely Asian vegetables planted in April are ripe and ready.  Likewise, it’s strawberry and rhubarb season around here, and we are on the cusp of the sweet cherry season.

The one thing I have discovered (and you will all probably laugh at this) is that WOW having lots of hands doing the work makes any task go so much more quickly.  I say this admitting that for today I am elbow-deep in making the second batch of kimchi and the first batch of radish pickles all by myself, but it is quite amazing how much fun, and how productive, those Thursday Weed and Feed evenings in the garden truly are.  So much gets done!  Makes me think I should have a team of my own here on the farm…

Other than working in the garden, another volunteer opportunity for the school community is what we’re calling “fruit tithing.”  One of the fun things to do with your kids in the summer is go to one of the myriad pick-your-own fruit places in the area: there are many, verging on hundreds, of these farms.  We are asking parents to set aside some portion of that fruit for the school.  We are having organized picking sessions with the school community too, but if folks want to go ahead and pick on their own, we’re giving them instructions on how to process and freeze these fruits to give back to the school.  It is all part of our Slow Snack initiative wherein we source local, organic, nonprocessed foods for the school-wide snack.

But what to do with all that fruit, of course, is yet another volunteer opportunity, and through the summer we are having canning parties at a local cafe/shop owned by a parent at our school.  So every two weeks, we will be jamming, jellying, pickling and sauce- and salsa-ing the contents of both our garden and these fruit-y gifts from the parents.

All of this is so exciting, I must say.  What started as a simple “let’s make the school snack a little bit more nutritious” a couple of years back has now blossomed into a greater notion that Food Does Matter, especially the food consumed by our youngsters.  Having them participate in the complete foodway that is seed-to-table eating is a knowledge base that we hope will serve them their entire life.  Will it discourage them from grabbing a Twinkie and picking up a spotty heirloom organic apple instead?  Well we shall just see.  We do know, though, that all habits (good AND bad) start early.

On starting new gardens

3408013991_7a179fc0e5Planting red set onions.  Set onions (little bags of seed onions you’ll find at garden stores now) can be eaten at any size, and the greens can be eaten at any time too.  They’ll never get as large as onions you grow from seed but they’ll do in a pinch.

I thought I would give a bit of a primer on garden-starting, considering that we’re starting our school gardens from scratch (and have great plans for them soon).

Whenever you start anything, of course, there’s a bit of an up-front investment you must make in time and materials.  Before that first seed can sprout, some earth probably needs to be turned.  In our school garden’s case, we had a working garden: it produced pie pumpkins most recently, so the whole garden was covered first with weed-suppressing fabric and then a layer of woodchips.  To start our beds, we needed to build the beds (each bed required (2) 2″x8″x8′-0″ boards and (1) 2″x8″x6′-0″ boards cut in half), rake away the woodchips, cut the fabric away, and do a bit of weeding.  Our soil at school is rather nice, but raised beds are nicer:  they warm up/dry out earlier in spring, they’re easier to weed and water, and–probably most importantly–are off-limits to little running feet!  We dumped some semi-composted sheep poop and bedding onto the bottoms of the beds, then we filled each bed with about 4-6 loads of topsoil.

(The above steps assume you have:  1. a saw, 2. a drill, 3. a rake, 4. a shovel, and 5. a wheelbarrow.  Having access to sheep poop is a bonus, and topsoil is the dream but not reality for many gardens:  raised beds do NOT need to be filled to the brim, especially not with topsoil.  Do what you can with what you have.  I certainly do!)

We expect to end the school year with a Harvest Festival sometime during the third week of May.  Our last frost date here in chilly Michigan is somewhere between May 1st and May 15th:  and yes, I am expecting a harvest of goodies 2 weeks later!  Am I crazy?  Nope.  I am simply working with things that don’t mind the cold.  Some of these things I am starting from seed both indoors at school and inside the semi-warm confines of our home greenhouses.  Many of the seeds, though, are being planted in the beds now:  peas, carrots, beets, radishes, turnips, potatoes, set onions, lettuces.

3408764690_5723b3109eLettuce seedlings can take a bit of frost, and the smaller they are, the hardier they are.

Our garden’s focus this semester is Asia.  Fortunately for us, many Asian countries grow things that appreciate the coolness of a Michigan spring, and have a very short (under 40 days) growing season.  I ordered a large portion of our seeds for things like mibuna, pak choi, flowering Chinese broccoli, Napa cabbage, chrysanthemum greens, daikon radishes, etc. from the esteemed Kitazawa Seed Company in California:  they specialize in Asian goodies AND have both a fantastic selection and really wonderful literature supporting each seed variety.  At $3.50 a seed packet they’re running nearly double what you’d find at a garden center of your local big-box retailer, but the seed quantities are generous AND you can’t expect to find Oka Hijiki (seaweed mustard) on a rack at Home De(s)pot.  But say you’re not that interested in Asian vegetables.  You can still easily start your garden now by planting many of the other things I listed.  And don’t stop at the big-box stores for sourcing cheap seeds!  Get out of the city and suburbs and find a feed store in the country.  Most farmers still have kitchen gardens out back and it is at their local farm/feed store that they often get their seed potatoes, carrots, and beans.  Most feed stores sell seeds out of a bin, cheaply:  expect to pay 40-80 cents for more carrots than you could ever eat in a year.

Your gardens needn’t be (16) 3’x8′ raised beds to be productive.  A family of four could easily do quite well in trimming their grocery bill with four raised beds of such size.  The key to a great harvest, frankly, is constant production.  If I were such a family of gardeners, I would use approximately 1/4-1/3 of one bed as a seeding bed (i.e., using it to start seeds and then move the leafy seedlings around to other beds as they get big); I might even place an old window on top of this area to heat things up and hurry things along.  Most root crops (carrots, turnips, potatoes) like to stay where they’re planted, so having a seeding  transfer bed mainly helps leafy greens.  To save space, tomatoes and pole beans can be trellised, as can certain kinds of vining melons and squash; going vertical does save lots of precious growing area for other things.  There are many great get-started-gardening books out there:  I would recommend Square Foot Gardening or Ruth Stout’s method of Lasagna Gardening to get you thinking about both how to maximize a small garden and how to garden without breaking your back.  My absolute favorite beginning-gardening book is Barbara Damrosch’s Garden Primer:  she’s very approachable, and she covers more than just veggies.  I also worship her husband Eliot Coleman and have used his Four-Season Harvest to get my own greenhouses up and running.

Get digging, everybody!  Spring is here in half the world, fall in the other:  both are great times of year to start new garden beds.

On school gardens


That’s me pushing the wheelbarrow

We’ve been busy lately, leaving me too busy to do much blogging!  The school’s garden is up and running.  This Thursday we had our first “Weed and Feed” event, which is simply a dinner picnic/gardening session.  Some wonderful parents, teachers and their children helped to fill our 16 raised beds (3’x8′, made of untreated 2x8s) with the school’s sheep poop and bedding, and then beautiful topsoil.  We avoided the raindrops!  And the snow!

Our school has always had a garden, but some years it has been tended more lovingly than others.  A few years back I’d joined up with some other parents to rid the school of prepackaged foods, especially in the school’s daily snack, by starting a Slow Snack group based roughly upon the principles of Slow Foods.  This group has become something of a Trojan horse:  by committing the school to slow down and source healthful, organic and mostly local edibles, our food-is-important agenda has taken root.  It has meant quite a bit of work on the parts of some parents and teachers, but it has been very popular with the children.  Food IS important.

3407976507_1c135b5350Wheelbarrows do hold more than just topsoil

We decided to further close the loop and utilize the gardens as a tool for both learning AND easy food.  My model for this was simple.  Each semester, the whole school studies one continent:  this means 3 year olds and 13 year olds are studying the geography, history, peoples and food heritage of a particular corner of the globe.  The garden, I decided, shall study that continent too and will wrap up each semester with a big harvest festival.  This spring’s area of study is Asia.  Asia!  HUGE!  Fun!  We’ll be growing everything from mibuna to bok choy to daikon to chrysanthemum greens:  quick, easy greenery for a nice spring harvest.

3407950687_693097efacEgyptian Walking onions

The summer gardens will supply the school snack’s Salsa and Pizza obsession (two big hits as ever with children) and we’ll be growing and freezing the bases for both so we simply thaw it and add more canned tomatoes as required to feed 150 children.  The fall gardens will be planted both in the spring and summer:  this Fall’s area of study is Europe (thankfully) so things like celeriac, leeks, cauliflower and long-season winter squashes will soon find their place in the beds.

Frankly, it feels really great to be putting my knowledge to use.

On manifest destiny

img_0855One big stack of work

I told myself this weekend that I had no real expectations of garden-ly accomplishment.  Instead of having this huge mental task list, I thought:  why not ease up a bit on yourself and seek to strike off a few projects, and NOT get sad if you fall short of doing it all?

Well, that worked!  But the downside is I still have lots to do.  And now I am facing a bit of anticipatory dread:  I have taken on our daughter’s school’s garden as a project too.  Considering I have worked with some other stalwart parents for years on eliminating processed foods at the school, it makes a huge amount of sense that we practice what we preach and grow more of our own.

Wish me luck; that garden is big.