edible school garden

Harvesting the Bounty

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It is officially summer time in the Northern Hemisphere, which means that harvest season is upon us. Harvesting is one of the most rewarding aspects of edible gardening, but it takes practice to do it well. Each plant in the garden has particular harvesting needs. As British horticulturalist Alan Chadwick told his gardening disciples, “in general, everything is specific.”

If done well, harvesting helps our garden plants continue to produce delicious food for us throughout the growing season. In general the main principle is to encourage new growth while harvesting.

Summer crops like tomatoes, peppers and squash are easily identified when they are ripe due to their size and color, but ripeness is not always so easy to determine with many other crops.

IMG_6514

Summer Harvest Basket

Some plants are “cut and come again” crops and many are not. A “cut and come again” crop is a plant that you can cut back fairly low down (above the point where their first true leaves branch out) and it will still produce new leaves from the root system and the central core of the plant.

Thyme, oregano, cilantro, dill, parsley and arugula are great examples of crops that can be cut hard and will grow back – all of these can be cut with a knife, hand shears or pinched by hand – almost to the ground – and will still grow back with great vigor. Just try it! You won’t kill the plant!

A lettuce plant is not a “cut and come again” crop and should be harvested as a whole head for optimal production. It will never grow new leaves if you cut it back. Some gardeners like to harvest the outermost leaves off of many different lettuce plants for their salad. We find this a bit tedious and prefer to plant new lettuce seedlings frequently so that we always have whole heads ready for harvest, throughout the growing season.

Lettuce 1

 Elizabeth Eichorn, 2015

Leafy Greens such as kale, collards, and chard should have their lowest leaves picked first so that the middle of the plant can continue to produce new leaves. In general, breaking off the lower leaves at the main stem by hand with your thumb is better for the plant than cutting the leaves, as cutting will leave a wound that does not heal as well and can become a vector for disease.

Kale

Elizabeth Eichorn, 2015

Root vegetables such as beets, carrots and radishes can be harvested when the top of their taproot is visible above soil level and the plant looks large enough to pick.

Tree fruit such as apples, pears, peaches and nectarines can be harvested when they fall into your palm with a ¼ turn of the stem. Subtropical fruit such as citrus and avocados have a wider harvest window and can be picked or cut from the branch when they have attained appropriate size and color, which depends on the specific variety of each crop.

For more edible gardening tips, download free PDF or purchase a hard copy of our Edible Gardening: 10 Essential Practices for Growing Your Own Food handbook and check out out the Grow Your Lunch Vimeo channel!

Happy Summer Northern gardeners!

 


School Garden Summer Success Secrets

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Summer presents numerous challenges in the school garden. Whenever we meet with school communities, the same question always arises, “What are we supposed to do in the summer time?” Fortunately, there are some simple solutions to common concerns about summer in the school garden.

BESY3

Common concerns about summer include:

1.) There will be no staff, students or teachers on campus to take care of the garden.
2.) Summer crops use more water than spring, fall and winter crops. Why use lots of water to grow food that students will not be around to harvest?
3.) In higher latitudes and altitudes, summer is the main growing season. If we don’t grow in the summer, we won’t have a garden!
4.) Irrigation systems can falter – batteries die, leaks occur, water can get disconnected for construction projects, etc.

Our recommendations:

1.) Set up a calendar for families to rotate taking care of the garden for a week or two at a time. If a family can visit the garden two times per week to water, weed, and check that the irrigation systems are running properly, they get to take home any food that is ready to harvest. Orient families to their responsibilities before school gets out in the late spring.
2.) Create a summer program that links to other summer camps or summer school programs, local youth clubs, etc. in order to get more children into the garden when it is in full production.
3.) If possible, set up a paid internship program for teens to help take care of the garden.
4.) Fallow, mulch over, or cover-crop areas of the garden that do not need to be in production during the summer months. Mustards, buckwheat and cow peas are good summer cover crops for cooler climates, sun hemp (a legume) works well in warmer climates.
5.) Prioritize maximizing crop diversity in the garden over food production in the summer. A broader diversity of crops will help to ensure a more resilient garden ecosystem.
6.) Don’t be afraid to let annual plants get wild and go to seed during summer. Pulling out overgrown plants, saving seeds, building compost piles, and cultivating the soil are perfect gardening tasks for students to become familiar with at the beginning of the school year (video password: Grow2016).
7.) Plant the summer crops as late as possible in order to get a late summer harvest when students are back in school.

Three Sisters Original

Though the challenge of maintaining a school garden during the summer will remain as long as summer vacation exists, there are numerous ways to rethink the garden during summer that can allow for new opportunities and less frustration and lost production. We hope you find these tips useful!

As always, if you would like to connect with us to discuss your school’s garden program, you can schedule a free school garden strategy session here. If your community could benefit from a Garden Site and Program Assessment, you can find details here.

Happy growing!


The Art of Weeding

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Japanese WeedingTool - Illustration Copyright Elizabeth Eichorn 2015

Japanese Weeding Tool – Illustration Copyright Elizabeth Eichorn 2015

The Art of Weeding

Believe it or not, weeding is an art. Timing is everything when it comes to weeding. Pulling weeds before they make seeds and reproduce is crucial to successfully weeding your garden. Spring is the ideal time for major weeding projects as the ground is still soft and the weeds have not yet reproduced.

Many weeds are actually good for the garden and it is never bad to have a diversity of plants around – the more diverse the plant cover in your garden, the more diverse and resilient a living system of soil microorganisms and animals you will encourage.

There are, however, a few primary concerns when it comes to weeds:

1.) Some weeds are invasive and can actually take over the garden if left unchecked.
2.) Weeds might not die when you pull them, so make sure to get the plant out from the root.
3.) The third concern is that some weeds compete for nutrients, water and sunlight with our intended plants in the garden.

Procedure:

1.) Identify the weeding priorities in the garden, from highest to lowest priority.

2.) Focus on pulling out one to three types of weeds at a time.

3.) If you are weeding within a garden bed that is already planted, consider using a small hand-weeding tool or working by hand without any tools at all. A garden hoe can also be useful in a larger bed that is already planted.

4.) If you are working in an area of the garden that is not planted, a digging fork is the best tool for the job as you can use its tines to dig out the roots of the weeds.

This is an excerpt from Edible Gardening: 10 Essential Practices for Growing Your Own Food. Download free PDF or purchase hard copy.

Gardening Gloves - Illustration Copyright Elizabeth Eichorn 2015

Gardening Gloves – Illustration Copyright Elizabeth Eichorn 2015


Planting with Lunar and Solar Cycles

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Since the dawn of civilization, farmers and gardeners have been planting their crops in tandem with solar and lunar cycles.

Earth's Moon Phases

Based on solar and lunar calendars for the northern hemisphere in 2016, we’ve determined that the days between the first quarter moon phase (March 16) and full moon (March 23), closest to the equinox (March 20), will provide for the fastest germination and optimal production of our annual herbs, flowers and vegetables.

With this seasonal positioning in mind, we will be planting on Country Flat Farm on March 20.  If you’d like to join us for a propagation workshop that day, please register before March 18.

Planting with Lunar Cycles

Lunar planting theories vary as widely as the farmers and gardeners who ascribe to them.  Some claim that seeds will sprout best if planted during the new moon phase. Others claim that planting near a full moon is best. Though the exact timing of when to plant in the lunar cycle and the actual impact of the moon on crop production is debated, the gravitational pull from the moon on each water molecule on Earth – in the oceans (think tides), rivers, lakes and streams, even the water in our bodies and the water within sprouting seeds – does vary throughout the roughly 29-day lunar cycle. Based on tidal models from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), our theory is that if there is an optimal time to plant seeds throughout the lunar month, it is when the moon is approaching it’s full and new phases.

Here’s why:

Between the first quarter and full moon and between the third quarter and new moon phases, each molecule of water on our planet is quite literally “pulled” toward the moon with increasing gravitational tug each day, peaking with spring tides (which occur twice per lunar month when solar and lunar tides are aligned), encouraging each sprouting seed (filled with water) to reach the surface more quickly:

Spring Tides 2Spring Tides 1

 

After the full or new moon phase, the tidal highs and lows decrease for a few days, reaching lowest levels on the first and third quarter, with the corresponding neap tides (which also occur twice per lunar month), as the sun and moon pull at the Earth’s water at a 90 degree angle:

Neap Tides 2 Neap Tides1

 

Optimal transplanting times are during the days between the full moon and third quarter and the new moon and first quarter (when tides move from spring to neap), as the gravitational pull of the moon upon each molecule of water on the planet decreases each day until the third quarter or first quarter. The theory goes that as the gravitational pull from the moon decreases, roots grow away from the gravitational pull of the sun and moon (deeper into the ground) more easily.

Planting with Solar Cycles

Planting on or near the spring equinox (late March in the northern hemisphere, late September in the south) is another technique used by traditional farming cultures worldwide. This relevance of this method is also debated, yet it too has some scientific clout: annual plants that sprout on or around the spring equinox will receive an increasing amount of light each day for three months, allowing them to grow large, healthy leaves and deep, prosperous roots. After the summer solstice, or longest day of the year (late June in the northern hemisphere, late December in the south), plants react to decreasing amounts of sunlight and begin to produce flowers, fruits and seeds, which we harvest in the late summer and early fall, near the autumnal equinox (late September in the northern hemisphere, late March in the south).

Though there’s never a guarantee with gardening and farming, we figure it can’t hurt to plant in accordance with these cycles as best we can.

References:

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – National Ocean Service (Tides and Water Levels)

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – Ocean Service Education (Elliptical Orbit Models)

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – Ocean Service Education (Lunar Day)

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – Ocean Service Education (Spring and Neap Tide Models)

National Aeronautics and Space Administration – Earth’s Moon: Galleries

 


Garden to Cafeteria: Challenges and Opportunities

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We are thrilled to announce the launch of the Mountain View Whisman School District’s (MVWSD) Farm to Lunch program. With the generous support of the El Camino Healthcare District, our team of Garden to Cafeteria experts has guided the Living Classroom through the legal and logistical barriers to getting food grown in local school gardens into the school lunch program. As a result, the Living Classroom, which “inspires children to learn and value our natural world through garden-based education,” is now also providing produce for cafeteria meals. Read San Jose Mercury News article here.

Crittenden Middle School students harvest kale for use in their schools lunch program (Photo: Jacqueline Lee / Daily News).

According to Cathy Baur, Assistant Superintendent of MVWSD,

“The Farm to Lunch program combines the hands-on experience of growing food with the health benefits of better eating…Students may now be more connected and perhaps more receptive to eating healthy vegetables and fruits.”

At Grow Your Lunch, we believe that garden to cafeteria initiatives are “connection laboratories”— by connecting the garden and cafeteria food systems, we make connections to the seasons, to local farms and farmers, to our diverse cultural ancestries, and to the natural world. Once we are familiar with the foods grown in the garden, we will be more likely to eat them when they appear in a package, on the buffet line or salad bar.

The idea that children (and adults!) just don’t like healthy food is a myth. In fact, we are hard-wired to avoid foods with which we are not familiar. And yet, anyone at any stage in life can learn to enjoy new foods. As renowned food writer Bee Wilson states, “Liking something is a consequence of familiarity.”

Cultivating this familiarity with fresh fruits and vegetables through garden to cafeteria initiatives is what we are all about. Still, including garden-grown produce in institutional food programs faces some common impediments:

1.) Fears of not complying with local, state and federal food safety laws
2.) A lack of technical productive gardening know-how within the community
3.) An unwillingness to challenge the status quo with regard to food procurement

If you’d like to learn more about how we address these common challenges, check out our Garden to Cafeteria page.

Thank you for your contributions to this movement and your dedication to growing a healthier generation.


Why Does Edible Gardening Matter?

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When we ask the people we work with why they want to build an edible garden, they often say they want their community to think deeply about the following question: “where does food come from?”

School Garden Harvest Table

School Garden Harvest Table

This is a very important question to consider. Especially when:

  • Roughly half of the adult population in the US suffers from preventable diseases – many of them diet related (CDC)
  • Less than one percent of US population is farming (EPA)
  • Abut 15% of the US population suffers from food insecurity at some point throughout the year (USDA)
  • More than 10% of the global population is undernourished (WFP)
  • One quarter of the food calories produced globally are wasted (WRI)

 

But does growing an edible garden really teach us where our food comes from when only a fraction of the food we consume – at home, at school, at work, on the go – actually comes from our home, school or community gardens?

Learning where our food comes from is just not as simple as growing your own breakfast, lunch and dinner – which is clearly impractical for most of us these days anyway. However, an edible garden is an incredibly effective learning tool that can be leveraged to create significant impact on the health of people and planet. In our view, this is how it works:

Community Garden

Community Garden

1.) In the garden we become aware of the seasons – shifts in the weather and climate, the migration of birds, ladybugs and butterflies, and the ripeness of certain fruits and vegetables. Being aware of the seasons teaches us to be more thoughtful consumers – buying foods produced closer to home, supporting local economies, and reducing “food miles.”

Summer Farm Stand

Summer Farm Stand

2.) By discovering the sheer joy, pleasure and satisfaction of eating fresh, seasonal food – and sharing the bounty with neighbors, family and friends – we develop lasting relationships with food, each other, and the natural world, for generations to come.

3.) Perhaps most importantly, gardens inspire our curiosity. The very inquiry into food and where it comes from helps us to make informed decisions about how to most thoughtfully nourish ourselves and our communities.

Planting Seeds

Planting Seeds

The very point of an edible garden is to connect us – to natural cycles, to one another, and to big questions about the world around us and how we fit into it. Growing food is really just a delicious bonus!

Food for thought

Here are a few of the questions that have surfaced through our work in creating and sustaining edible gardens in diverse communities over the last decade. May they inspire and challenge you, your family, and community to create your own garden and your own process of inquiry into the “where food comes from” question.

Food

  • Where and how is the food I eat produced?
  • How is the food I eat transported, processed, packaged?
  • How are the workers who grow, harvest, pack, and ship the food I eat treated along the way?
  • What percentage of the population in my city/county/state/country are full-time farmers?
  • How are the animals and animal products I eat treated, cared for, or slaughtered?
  • How can we ensure the preservation of genetic diversity in our food system?
  • What crops are “in season” in my local region? Where can I find these foods?
  • How does what’s growing in my garden compare with what is available in local farmers markets, supermarkets and corner stores?
  • Which foods am I willing to forego when they are not in season in my area?
  • Which foods do I HAVE to have, even if they are not in season in my area?
  • Do I know any local farmers and food producers? What are they producing this time of year? Which varieties of crops are they growing?
  • What does “gleaning” mean? Do farms in my area offer gleaning during certain times of year?
  • What are some foods that I could easily preserve for use throughout the year by canning, dehydrating, sun-drying, salt-curing, etc.?

 

Community/Society

  • How and what did my ancestors eat? What were their most cherished food traditions? Does my family still eat these foods and practice these traditions?
  • What are my favorite meals to make and share with family and friends?
  • How can I create community through food?
  • What was life like before agriculture?
  • How has the human diet changed over the last 10,000 years?
  • How many people do not have enough food to eat in the city/region where I live?
  • How many people suffer from hunger in the world?
  • Why is 25% of the food produced in the world wasted?
  • What does it mean to “vote with your fork”?

 

Ecology

  • What are the native plant and animal species in my local area?
  • How do changes in weather and climate patterns affect my garden and the ecology of my region?
  • What is the name of the watershed do I live in?
  • How much water do different crops need to grow? What about animals?
  • Where does water go when it goes down the drain, down the driveway or out of the garden?
  • What are the beneficial insects/animals in my garden? What do they do that is good for the garden? What can we do to encourage their presence here?
  • What are the primary pests in my garden? Why are they a problem? How can their populations be kept in check using non-chemical methods?
  • What happens to my food waste when I am finished with it?
  • What is soil? What makes good soil? How do we go about creating or rehabilitating damaged soils?

 

Design

  • How can we design a food system where plants, animals and humans thrive?
  • How can we design a  food system in which water, soil and natural resources are preserved for generations to come?
  • How can we capitalize on renewable energy in gardening and farming?
  • How can we use technology (both high and low-tech) to improve energy efficiency, water efficiency and production in agriculture, while decreasing carbon emissions?
  • What kinds of models can we build to inspire innovation towards sustainable food production, distribution, waste reduction, etc.?
  • How can we develop sustainable local foods systems in places where people do not have enough food to eat?

 

Health and Wellness

  • Which foods have the highest levels of chemical residues on them, which have the least (see: Dirty Dozen)?
  • What does it mean to “eat the rainbow”?
  • What are my favorite whole grains, fruits and vegetables to eat?
  • What would happen if I ate meat  3 or less times a week instead of every day?
  • What are my favorite recipes to make for friends and family?
  • What are the least expensive healthy foods I can buy to feed my family?
  • How do I read a food label?
  • Does gardening count as exercise?

 

Compost!

Compost!

 


Natural Pest Control

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To control pests naturally is to observe their patterns and look to nature for solutions

The European Brown Snail

The European Brown Snail

“Ahhh! Something is eating my precious garden! What is it? What should I do? Am I a bad gardener if I don’t do something NOW?”

Sound familiar? If so, you’re not alone. Many budding gardeners get hung up on the challenges posed by pests when they really don’t need to. This is because pests distract us from the main priority in our gardens, which is to build healthy soil.

You can prevent most pest damage by balancing the nutrients in your soil, composting and cover-cropping, watering appropriately and removing damaged plant material from the garden.

If the preventative approach is not working for you and you are reading to start dealing with your garden pest problems in a natural way, see Chapter 10 of our Edible Gardening handbook (Free Download Here).

Tip: The best way to keep snails and slugs from eating your crops is to clear out the dense and congested areas in your garden where they might be hiding during the day (they are nocturnal) and put strips of copper flashing around your baby transplants – snails and slugs will not cross it as it gives them an electric shock!


Build a Raised Bed!

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There is much debate around the “ideal” size, shape and type of garden bed. As a gardener who is always looking for practical, affordable and effective gardening solutions, I tend to stick to a couple of garden bed types. 

Mounded Soil Beds

My first preference is to work directly with existing soil – if it is not contaminated, infested with rodents, or covered with pavement. If the soil is contaminated, infested with rodents or paved over, I always recommend raised beds.

Half wine barrels are excellent planters that are fairly long-lasting (+/- 10 years). They work well for small perennial shrubs, veggies and herbs. I’ve even got a 20+ year-old Meyer lemon tree in one and it is still happy and productive.

Half Oak Wine Barrel Culinary Herb Planter

Half Oak Wine Barrel Culinary Herb Planter – SF Rooftop School Garden

If you are going to build a raised bed, be sure to use a long-lasting kind of wood. Salvaged redwood planks are the best option but they are often hard to find. Douglass Fir and Pine should NOT be used as they decompose quickly when in contact with biologically-active soil (lasting less than 5 years, oftentimes). Broken concrete or “urbanite” also works well.

Kale and Arugula in an "Urbanite" Planter

Kale and Arugula in an “Urbanite” Planter

For school gardens, I like a 3×8 ft bed raised bed. It is large enough to produce a significant amount of food, students can reach to the middle of the bed from both sides, and it is large enough for about ¼ of a class to work with at a time (roughly 8 students).

We built one yesterday with the students and community volunteers at Giannini Middle School and I thought I’d share the photos to show the sequence of what we did. They have a really bad rodent problem, so we lined the bed with welded wire mesh and hammered “U” staples in to attach the mesh as well.

Raised Bed Assembly - Students Learn to Use Power Tools!

Raised Bed Assembly – Students Learn to Use Power Tools!

Setting the Bed in Place

Setting the Bed in Place

Raised Bed 3

Bed Lined with Welded Wire Mesh to Keep Gophers Out

Ready for Planting!

Ready for Planting!

 


Can Fungi Save the World?

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A few years ago, while teaching at the Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley, I was inspired by the work of Paul Stamets, a mycologist from Washington State whose research has shown, among other miraculous findings, that “fungi can save the world” – they can clean up oil spills and  toxic waste, accelerate the regeneration of forests after clear-cutting, control invasive insects, even cure and prevent disease!

Shiitake

As I researched this topic, it became clear to me that the children who are inheriting our world need to know about all of the potential biological solutions for solving the mess that we have created.

Anyone who is learning about fungi needs to first understand a few basic concepts.

First, what is a mushroom?

A mushroom is the reproductive organ of a fungus. In general, mushrooms only appear when a fungus needs to re-locate itself by releasing spores into the air. Normally, this happens when the fungus runs out of food in its local environment.

Fun fact: Fungi are more closely related to animals than they are to plants, as they have digestive systems. They use enzymes released into their local environment to break down foods and then they suck up the nutrients through their cell walls This process is not too far from what happens in our own stomachs!

Which mushrooms are edible?

Most mushrooms are not edible, in fact many are VERY POISONOUS! The safest mushrooms to eat are ones that you buy at a restaurant or market. If you are interested in gathering wild mushrooms, exercise EXTREME caution, making sure to be in the presence of an expert before you bring anything home to eat. Every year people die in the US from eating misidentified mushrooms.

Third, there are two main groups of fungi. They are called saprophytic and mycorrhizal fungi.

Oyster

Think of saprophytic fungi as decomposers that break down organic matter – leaves, wood, etc. down into the basic building blocks of soil. All cultivated species – the ones you normally find in the store – like Portabella, Shiitake, Cremini, Oyster (shown above) and “Button” mushrooms are saprophytic because they can be grown in a controlled indoor environment in compost piles that they feed upon. Once their mycelium (single-cell chains of root-like fungus) grows throughout the material they are introduced to, they run out of food and shoot out mushrooms, releasing spores that will travel through the air to find another place to grow.

Chanterelle-ELEichorn

Mycorrhizal fungi can be thought of as “tree companions.” These fungi form partnerships with specific tree species, fusing their mycelium with the roots of the companion tree underground.  Sugars the trees produce through photosynthesis are traded for nutrients found in the root zone across this cell-to-cell border. The plant sugars spur the fungus to grow its network wider and wider around the trees roots, providing many times the nutrients a tree could gather on its own. Mycologists believe that most species of plants have a partner fungus. Examples of edible mycorrhizal species include the prized Chanterelle (shown above) and Porcini mushrooms, which form partnerships with Oak Trees and Pine trees, respectively. They are especially valuable because they cannot be cultivated commercially and must be wild-harvested when the conditions are just right.

Interested in learning more?

Attend a Mushroom Cultivation Workshop with Farmer Ben at Country Flat Farm this Winter!

Try out the Edible Schoolyard’s Mushroom Lesson with your students!

Read more under “Soil Life and Fertility Management” on our Resources page.