WV School Garden Toolkit

written for and by west virginia school gardeners


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The “Snow Day” : an Unexpected Challenge

By Emily Landseidel, AmeriCorps Farm to School Coordinator, Greenbrier County, WV

For teachers and students alike, the phrase, “snow day” is a welcomed message. Indeed, I remember anxiously waiting, watching for my city’s name to scroll across the bottom of the news channel announcing, officially, “snow day!”, unofficially proclaiming: “freedom!”

Now however, as an AmeriCorps member working in schools, who is ultimately committed to a certain amount of service hours, regardless of whether or not school is in session, these weather-related days off are a challenge.  And oddly enough, I did not expect this to be such a big challenge (we have had 3-day school weeks the entire month of January). I expected to run into some challenges with getting students to stay on over the summer months but I naively thought that at least with greenhouses, throughout the school year, I would have the time to develop and refine my lesson plans and have a steady workforce.

Without this inclement weather school holiday today, for example, I had meetings scheduled with two classes. One was slated to help me do research and planning for the outdoor garden classroom we will be building in the spring (Today was going to be my third attempt at teaching this lesson to this group of students; all other attempts also thwarted by inclement weather). The second was to be transplanting tomato plants (that, after a few sunny 60F days in January, are wildly overdue for a move to a bigger home), introducing the tomato plants to dowels for vining support, and watering.

Let me say that I understand, totally and completely, why school needs to be cancelled, indeed, last night I was almost stuck on the other side of the county due to high waters after 8 hours of heavy rains but as a Farm to School Coordinator, with plants that need tending and gardens that need planning, regardless of the weather, “snow days” are no longer something I relish. Rather, I am beginning to despise them (almost as much as a burger from a fast food chain).

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Now today, as a result of the inclement weather, I sit at home, in front of my computer, hatching plans and doing research, learning, pushing back my greenhouse maintenance plan (yet again), and hoping, always hoping, that I will not receive a text message that says, “UPDATE: All schools in xxxx County will now be closed on Fri. Feb. 1, 2013 due to weather conditions.”


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Wild in the Greenhouse: Hunting for Mushrooms

By Emily Landseidel, AmeriCorps Farm to School Coordinator, Greenbrier County, WV

That’s the title of a new lesson, hot off the presses; seems there is something wild growing in the greenhouse.

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I shouldn’t be surprised really; from what I have read, the growing conditions in this greenhouse are excellent for Mycelia germination and fruiting (because the mushroom is actually the fruit of the fungi). The greenhouse is almost always between 70-77F (ideal temperatures for this mushroom), damp, and compressed soil. (It looks as though I had some overzealous soil packers during transplanting. Some of the soil in these containers looks heavily compressed, leading to a lack of air and water flow; the Mycelia Mushroom delights in poorly aerated soils.)

Today’s original plan was a Hydroponics Lesson. Instead, I will take a cue from Nature. With a bit of quick research on my part, I think I have the basics of Mushrooms down. I now know for certain I will never be an expert but I am hoping with a little coaching my students will be able to keep these mushrooms at bay in the greenhouse. We do not want mushrooms crowding out our tomatoes, cilantro, sage, and parsley!

After a few basics on mushrooms, I will let my students loose to harvest wild mushrooms in the greenhouse. I learned that picking does not kill the underground spores but will help prevent reproduction and thus spreading. Thus today, they will be hunting mushrooms, not to eat but to pick fruits in order to prevent them from spreading their spores.

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Additionally, I am going to ask the students what they think we should do to curb mushroom growth in our greenhouse. There are a few methods we can try but would like the students to actively participate in this decision process. We can try: aerating the soil (for better water absorption), applying a nitrogen fertilizer (which will speed decomposition of the organic matter which feeds fungus), or reducing irrigation (creating a drier soil and a less ideal condition for Mycelia growth and fruiting).

**Post lesson update: One student suggested peat moss to help aerate the soil and absorb some of the moisture. We may try that next week, they all agreed that the moss may help us fight the fungus and are eager to get their hands dirty again.

Any other thoughts for curbing mushroom growth?


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Mock’s Greenhouse Farm Visit

By Tanya Hunt, AmeriCorps Farm to School Coordinator, Wayne County, WV

Fresh heirloom tomatoes and bibb lettuce in January? Yes please. Liza (F2S Coordinator in Pocahontas County), Emily (F2S Coordinator in Greenbrier County), and I enjoyed these, as well as local organic ginger when we visited Mock’s Greenhouse January 6 – 8.

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Jealous yet?

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What about now?

I cannot say enough good things about Paul Mock and his operation. Mock’s Greenhouse produces 30,000 pounds of tomatoes ad 225,000 heads of lettuce each year, along with watercress, basil, arugula, cilantro, raspberries, and ginger. Most of these crops are produced year-round, with the help of greenhouses and an elaborate, yet elegant, hydroponic system. Below you can see where water goes through small white tubes into a long box-like object where it runs over the roots of the plants that are placed in holes on the top of the contraption.

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This is me examining some roots.

Paul integrated the three of us right into his operation so we could learn on the ground level what is going on. We planted lettuce and tomatoes and watercress, harvested and packaged lettuce and tomatoes and watercress, clipped tomato plants onto their string trellises, saw how ginger is harvested (not like you think), and received a lot of instruction from Paul himself. We came away from the experience feeling a lot more informed about hydroponics and greenhouse growing.

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Organic ginger

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Emily, Liza planting young tomato plants.

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Worker David Bishop harvesting lettuce.

Greenhouse growing and hydroponics are really great for Farm to School programs because they provide year-round produce and are easy to integrate in to teaching lessons. Many schools already have greenhouses and hydroponic systems could use this space efficiently. We also learned about Paul’s experiences with the school system and how he had come to sell to his local school district. We will be taking all of this information back to our schools and using it to teach our children, inform our farmers, and integrate into our schools.

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Emily, Liza, and Paul in a sea of hydroponic lettuce.

Have you ever grown anything hydroponically? What did you grow? How awesome is organic ginger?


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Update: Radishes

By Tanya Hunt, AmeriCorps Farm to School Coordinator, Wayne County, WV

I should first say that the radishes were successful overall. They did not grow thick, bulbous roots (because of lack of sunlight, I believe), but they all grew leaves. And radish leaves are edible. And I found the white, bulbous icicle radishes at our local food market (The Wild Ramp).

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Hard to see what’s going on, but there is one of the white icicle radishes, with some leaves sticking out of the top of Blake and Riley’s radish pot.

So the kindergarten students were able to try the radish leaves that they had grown and the local white icicle radishes I had bought. They had a lot of fun trying them!

One girl is autistic and has struggled with food textures and tastes from the beginning of the school year. She had been intensely watching the radishes grow throughout the past couple weeks. And when it came try to the radish leaves, she tried it with no fear or discomfort. Her teacher was amazed. I was moved. How much could we do to change the kinds of foods children eat if there was an edible schoolyard for every classroom?

On a final note, we received our soil test data back and now know what to put on our ground to make it more suitable for vegetable crops! Students at Buffalo Elementary performed the soil test themselves, while learning about what soil, N, P, and K are, with the help of Mark Buchanan:

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My holiday wishes and next steps from here: get our ground plowed up, some low tunnels out, and some kale and lettuce growing!


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The Water Panic, A Scientific Experiment

By Emily Landseidel, AmeriCorps Farm to School Coordinator, Greenbrier County, WV

When I ask my students what plants need to grow and thrive, invariably, one of the first responses is water. Indeed, plants need water. For in-school gardening programs, water can be a persistent issue or challenge. Fortunately, for this growing season, my students, faculty and I have water faucets available for use in our greenhouses. The availability of water is a necessary starting point. Once the challenge of water availability is overcome, the challenge evolves into setting up a system to ensure seeds and plants are watered on a regular basis.

Teachers, faculty, and students may volunteer to help water but what happens over long weekends and vacations? Although class is not in session, plants will still need water. I have decided not to ask volunteers to drive in to school on their days off during the school year. (I think that would be a really great way to lose support and a volunteer.)

In October, in my excitement to move students from the classroom into the greenhouse for a planting lesson, I forgot about the watering challenge. By late-October, I was singly focused on planting before Thanksgiving break. There were a multitude of reasons for this: I wanted to get seeds into soil but also thought it would be a great way to break up their in-class routine; an opportunity to use the students’ anxious pre-vacation energy to my advantage. I calculated that planting in early November would create more in-greenhouse time for transplanting during the two weeks before Christmas break. I also planned two after school activity days for the weeks leading up to Christmas break; to ensure enough help to transplant all of our sprouts. Additionally, the sooner my gardeners harvest, the sooner the program will be able to fund itself through sales to the school’s cafeteria. (A definite plus!)

The watering panic: One greenhouse available for my students and me to use does not have a sprinkler system in it. At this school, I taught the students a planting lesson two weeks before Thanksgiving break.  The school was going to be closed for the entire week of Thanksgiving. To my knowledge, no one was planning to stop by on a regular basis and I was set to be out of town. After nearly two weeks of growing, there were eight trays of sprouts in the greenhouse; they would not survive an entire week without water. I panicked but a level head prevailed. I advocate for my students to think scientifically when possible in the greenhouse; so here was the perfect space for me to follow my lead. To do so, I followed a format my students use in science class: The Scientific Method.

Question: How can I ensure the students’ plants get watered every day?

Background Research: Here, I did a few web searches and consulted with a few gardeners to brainstorm potential solutions to this challenge. I found that most greenhouses are setup with a sprinkler system (our is not; so this was not encouraging). But I discovered that many gardeners had success using a soaker hose to water their gardens, instead of spraying their gardens daily. The soaker hose is made with a water-permeable material that allows water to seep out of the hose; whatever is near the hose receives a gentle watering. Gardeners had success using soaker hoses throughout their gardens, with sizeable plants. Would this work with seeds and tiny sprouts, and if so, how? I feared that if the soaker hose sat directly on the containers of seeds the hose would prevent the seeds from emerging from under the soil.

The Hypothesis: If I can rig a soaker hose above the trays of containers, then with a timer, I can ensure the seeds receive water each day.

Materials: a soaker hose, faucet, timer, batteries, and patience.

Experiment:

Step 1: Setup timer system. Connect it to the faucet and setup times for daily watering. (This step was relatively easy. I ended up purchasing a plug to completely close off one of the timer hose outlets; to ensure minimal leakage from the timer system. Additionally, be conscious of what time the system is scheduled to water each day. I tested the length of time after I finished setting up the entire system but wanted the timer to water in the mornings, before students arrived, so there was little chance of a surprise rain shower with students present.)

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Step 2: Design a plan for how to setup the soaker hose. (Brainstorm with students if possible!)

Step 3: Rig up soaker hose, leaving plenty slack in the hose to connect it to the timer faucet. (Here is where I inadvertently challenged myself. I did not purchase any zip ties to secure the soaker hose to the shelf above the trays of containers. At the hardware store I debated on this and decided against purchasing them, to save a small bit of my grant money; container gardening is expensive to start because soil is not cheap. But a few dollars can purchase one cubic foot of soil.) I used straightened paper clips to secure the hose to the shelf. (If I had to do this again, I would purchase the zip ties or use thinner wire. By the end of the day my fingers were pretty useless from constantly bending the paper clips to wrap around the hose and shelf.)

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Step 4: Connect the soaker hose to the timer faucet.

Step 5: Test the timer and entire system to ensure the timer works properly and the soaker hose is evenly watering.

(After step 5, I had to go back to the drawing board a few times and was able to consult with my students about different ways for connecting the soaker hose because the hose was pretty hard to maneuver right out of its coil I secured it in coils. This created a disparity in watering. One of the students suggested working the hose in lines back and forth. We talked about this, the fear here being the water takes a bit of time to work itself to the end of the hose, plants at the end of the line would receive less water. We also feared that the hose would kink which would stop water flow. Another student suggested concentric squares (with rounded corners) with a few inches between one square and the next. After a bit of discussion this is what we chose to do because of limited class time I took on taking down the initial experiment and securing the hose in squares.)

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Analysis: After monitoring a few timed “rainfalls”, I noticed that with the concentric squares, each cell in the trays of containers looked to be receiving a good soaking. There were a few cells that received less water, some receiving more but each cell received some water. This would give the seeds a chance to sprout and begin to emerge from the soil.

Results: Success! Water crisis averted! After three weeks of using the timer and soaker watering system, the greenhouse now holds sprouts of each seed my gardeners planted. They are emerging from the soil on time and looking healthy!

Although I think that tasking someone with watering can be a great way to create involvement and foster a sense of ownership, in a school environment, as I mentioned before, this can be difficult because of school vacations and snow days. I also worry that assigning one person to water over months could have a negative effect: watering each day, depending on the amount of plants involved and what tools are available could take a half hour, plus commute time when school is not in session; that’s a lot of work! For these reasons, I thought it would be easier, in the beginning to rely on a timer system but hopefully, as more teachers and students become more actively involved in the greenhouse there will be a greater pool of volunteers to draw from and maybe, I can ask one person to water one day of the week rather than five days each week.

As I move forward, all of this may change but what I know now, is that it’s working. So what are your thoughts? What are the potential impacts of having an automated watering system (and taking an easier route) versus volunteers to water on a daily basis?


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Fayette Focus Article

By Drew Gatlin, AmeriCorps Farm to School Coordinator, Fayette County, WV

“A version of this article was originally published in the Fayette Focus, a quarterly publication of Fayette County Schools that is widely distributed to faculty, staff, parents, and students in the school system. It was meant, as David Seay illustrates, “not only [to] inform, but set the stage for other interested schools or groups to participate. The photo is from New River Elementary’s second annual potato dig in their schoolyard garden.”

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Picture this: your children and students come back to school in September and every week they are reaping the harvest from their school gardens. Cafeteria trays are full of the freshest produce, collected and cooked on the same day. Although it’s a small start, just at two schools, a combined set of efforts by Patrick Bennett’s FFA students, Cindy Aylor’s health students, and the newly hired Farm2School AmeriCorps member Drew Gatlin made these schoolyard garden dreams at New River Elementary a reality.

On October 10 and 11, more than 100 children at New River Elementary completed their harvest by digging a field of potatoes they had planted at the end of last school year. Swiss chard, perfectly ripe tomatoes, strawberries and more were all collected this fall by students of New River Elementary.

As the existing gardens at New River and Gatewood elementary schools transition into their winter states, we are looking ahead to a number of new projects slated for the coming year. We already have funding for two. The first is a new pork enterprise effort led by Patrick Bennett’s FFA students, aimed a supplying high quality cuts for our PROSTART program as well as sausage for our school breakfasts. The second is the creation of a special needs accessible garden in Oak Hill.

Given the focus on project based learning in the next generation curricula, schoolyard gardening and farming could be seen as a natural extension of the classroom. The sky is the limit and we have resources at our disposal – how would you like to see these programs mature? Please feel free to contact Drew Gatlin to discuss integrating these Farm2School initiatives in your own local community. Reach him at 304-719-7900 or johngatlin@gmail.com


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My office, well, my office is a funny story.

By Emily Landseidel, AmeriCorps Farm to School Coordinator, Greenbrier County, WV

This is one of my offices:

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It is a greenhouse, attached to a school, in the Wild and Wonderful, West Virginia.

The conditions: It’s a little wet (which is concerning, especially when plugging in my laptop), impossible to keep clean, fluctuates in temperature from 60F to 85F (regardless of the thin windows and outdoor temperature), and the soil, the soil is pervasive. But it’s wonderful because it’s exactly what it should be and what it needs to be.

As a result, with the floors constantly wet, and the messy floors, I wear sandals; typically with a pair of jeans (rolled up because wearing real shoes is a recipe for a day with wet feet and pants, and that just makes me crabby). When my colleagues aren’t too familiar with what I do or the conditions of my office, I feel underdressed and a bit sloppy but then, to my students and my colleagues who I work with on a daily basis, my attire tells a different story.

And the story is great: The greenhouse is my office but then, it doubles as a classroom and triples as a fantastic environment for growing. I am currently working in this office with a few different classes of middle school students. I provide enriched learning opportunities for each student who enters the greenhouse. As I make stronger connections with teachers, I anticipate being able to work hand-in-hand with teachers to give them an alternative to teaching their State Content Standards and Objectives in their traditional classrooms.

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My second office is also a greenhouse; it’s nearly a half-hour drive from the first. Here, students planted in early November; a lovely group of 7th and 8th grade boys. Their teacher was away the day they planted but the next week, she was back. They could not wait to show her what they’d planted; to tell her all about what they did the week before and to help me engineer an efficient and effective watering system. (An enriched learning experience.) Together, we walked down the hall to the greenhouse. Most of the way I worried; had I been there to water enough? Was the greenhouse warm enough through nights to keep the soil temperature between 60-70F, so the seeds could germinate?

While the students walked, filled with anticipation, I worried my way all the way to the greenhouse.

When we opened the door, I realized I had wasted my time; the boys quickly discovered that we had sprouts! After seven days, and right on time, the spinach and basil had germinated and further, pushed their way through the thin layer of soil placed over them during planting. It was simple and natural really: nutrients, water, and warm soil and those seeds just popped up and out of the soil. By the end of the day, more shoots appeared. My worries and fears resolved.

If someone had told me, a year ago that this is where I’d be: walking down the hallway of a school in West Virginia, worrying about whether or not seeds had sprouted, and working in a greenhouse, teaching kids about gardening and food, and advocating for local food in school cafeterias; I would have laughed. It would have been an entertaining story. Last year, I was living in Boston, taking medical leave from working at a bakery and café after a horrific accident. Presently, more or less, I’ve recovered. And beyond that, I am pursuing my professional dream. So funny, this would have seemed comical a year ago but now, now it just makes me smile.

(Smile, despite the reoccurring worries of watering schedules over school breaks, constant concerns over the greenhouse failing, and trying to figure out how I can get more students out of the traditional classroom and into the greenhouse… and that’s just the beginning.)