Green, Healthy, Educational...Compostable!

This spring, I was helping some third grade students plant corn in our three sisters garden. One group of girls had finished planting their seeds ahead of the others, so I sent them off to get some compost to incorporate into the garden. 

Five minutes later, the girls returned with cups full of onion peels, grass clippings, and other kitchen scraps. My a-ha moment came when the girls were ready to dump the contents on top of their corn seeds. The other teacher and I burst into laughter. The girls, having just come from the kitchen area, had run to our compost bin and picked up what they had composted twenty minutes earlier, with no connection between a compost pile, and finished compost for the garden. We found the finished compost pile together, had an excellent teachable moment, and all was well with the Three Sisters - but I learned how much work is still to be done in connecting kids with the concept of compost, and remembered what a great educational tool it can be.

Last spring, Green and Healthy Schools Wisconsin hosted a compost training for educators in conjunction with UW Extension and Community GroundWorks. All three organizations are excellent resources for schools looking to begin, expand, or troubleshoot composting initiatives. 

Implementing a composting program can assist schools aspiring to Green and Healthy School (GHS) certification. Composting helps school earn points in the GHS Recycling and Waste category, and can also support efforts in other focus areas, including Health and Wellness, Community Involvement, Environmental & Sustainability Education, and School Site.

Not only can composting help your school become Green & Healthy, it can bolster classroom learning through lessons on decomposition, waste reduction, soil nutrients, and much more.

On top of all this, composting helps the school garden come full circle, as old plants are "recycled" to become the nutrients that new plants need. It reduces or eliminates the need for purchased garden inputs, and can even be used as a fundraiser if compost is bagged and sold by students. 

This newsletter features an inspiring story from one successful school compost program, as well as resources for implementing and managing a compost system, and using the compost as classroom learning tool for almost any subject. Enjoy!



Brief: Composting at School 
This WSGI brief gives a wonderful overview for those interested in starting a composting program at school. Learn best practices from schools with successful compost systems, ways to get kids involved, and answers to common concerns. Includes an extensive list of composting resources. 

Composting How-to Powerpoint 
Originally developed by the Penn State Cooperative Extension, this presentation came to WSGI via the Green and Healthy Schools Compost Training of 2014. The slides covers compost logistics from how decomposition works to setting up your system to troubleshooting - and everything in between! A great resource for teachers and students. 

Compost design ideas
There are so many different designs for compost systems - it can be overwhelming! This guide gives an overview of some of the system designs that are best-suited for school gardens. Adapted from the Klickitat Solid Waste Department.
Composting in School - Getting Started This fact sheet from Joe Van Rossum of UW Extension provides items to consider when thinking about starting a food waste composting project at your school, and identifies additional resources to aid in program development. A wonderful guide!
Composting Lesson Guide
This spreadsheet lists 36 compost-related lessons! Each is categorized by grade level, and includes a short description and link to view the full lesson. 
Brief: Connecting Garden-based Curriculum to Standards Much of what you may already be doing with your school garden can be aligned with educational standards set by initiatives such as Common Core State Standards Initiative and Next Generation Science Standards. In this WSGI brief, you will find ways the garden may be incorporated into lessons in various subjects and learn what you may already be doing that aligns with standards in different subjects. 
Composting Bibliography
This annotated bibliography from the Wisconsin Center for Environmental Education lists books, curricula, and activities for K-12 students that revolve around composting. 
Are you a 6th-8th grade science teacher who is looking for new ways to teach biology and align your curricular units with the NGSS? The Interactive Learning and Design Lab (ILDL) at UW Madison is creating two project and inquiry-based curricula for their NSF funded educational research project, Bio-Sphere. If you are a middle school teacher and are: 1) interested in implementing one of two curricular units, Growing Healthy Plants! or Making your Own Compost!, 2) willing to let the ILDL collect data in your classroom, 3) within 45 minutes of UW - Madison, and 4) able to attend a professional development workshop from August 10-14, 2015, please contact Dana Gnesdilow, Research Associate for the ILDL at More information here.

Events ... visit our Events page for more

No Teacher Left Inside Institute: July 27-31 - Conserve School, Land O' Lakes, WI

This workshop includes a two-day immersion on developing geoliteracy and supporting place-based education, as well as the use of iPads in the field. A three-day institute will follow, featuring hands-on, minds-on explorations in the use of aquaponics in the classroom, teaching science by raising bees, planning successful fundraising events, and more. Participants will develop action plans that meet state standards and establish student learning objectives while using the environment as a context for learning. 

Registration and additional information
Wellspring Agricorps Teen Farm Camp: July 27-August 1 

Agricorps is a weeklong residential program for teens, ages 14-16, to learn business planning skills through organic farming. Agricorps members will receive educational lessons, lectures from local farmers, and participate in hands on farming activities. Youth will learn how to grow veggies as well as business skills suited to sustainable agriculture or other future endeavors. At the end of the week, the group will help with a veggie harvest to put into place their marketing plan, and sel their produce with Wellspring at a Saturday farmer's market! 

Registration and additional information
Kassie, or (414) 522-6989
Growing Minds: Garden Based Learning Course for Educators 
July 20-24, 2015

Community GroundWorks' Growing Minds class is happening this month at the Troy Kids' Garden in Madison!
There is currently a waiting list for this popular hands-on professional development course, but we wanted to spread the word to anyone who is interested in attending in July of 2016! 

More information 
Midwest Environmental Education Conference: Save the Date!
October 21-24, 2015 - Madison, WI

The MEEC is coming to Madison this fall! Pre-registration is now open. Full registration - including workshops, field trips, and scholarships - is coming soon. Students can register for just $15. 

Tracks include Sustainable Foods, Education on Climate Change, Reaching Underserved Audiences, and Celebrating EE Success Stories. WSGI will present and, as always, be available with garden resources. Don't miss out on this great conference! 



Fund Farm to School in Wisconsin
Ongoing initiative

Sign up for this listserve from the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute to receive updates and materials that will help you tell Wisconsin legislators why Farm to School matters. Then, check out their Farm to School Action Guide for political advocacy - pictured at left. Also sponsored by Community GroundWorks.


Tasty Tidbits ... of wisdom, fun, and information

Garden Joke of the Month: 
How do new gardeners learn?
Click here for answer.

School garden tip:
This idea comes from Lapham Elementary: In order to allow teachers and volunteers easy access to the (locked) garden shed, the school's Gardener in Residence has created a short video that describes how to use the lock box and where to find supplies. Lapham is hoping that this will make it easier for teachers to bring students out to the garden whenever they like, and for volunteers to work at times that fit their schedule!


Success Story: Howe Elementary

Howe Elementary: Community Engagement and a Golden Shovel 

Howe Elementary School has a golden shovel.  This shovel doesn’t haul mulch or turn soil.  Instead it is displayed near the school office acknowledging the garden helpers that used other, more ordinary shovels to revitalize Howe’s garden.  

Howe had a garden for years, but over time it fell into disrepair.  The original beds were rotting and the space was overgrown.  “The garden needed revitalizing.  New engagement,” explained school social worker, Anne Tobias-Becker.  

That engagement came in all different shape and size.  From the 4th and 5th grade students who planted seeds in their classroom to teacher Paul Hannemann who skillfully leveled the old beds to replace them with beautiful new cedar boxes and a watering system to keep the plants growing.    

As Howe’s garden grew, so did the number of helpers.  Support from both of the district’s high schools – East and West – brought encouragement, practical advice, and even some plants.  “They sort of adopted us,” said Howe teacher, Emily Villwock.

Soon the local media had caught the Howe garden bug.  One station took roll of students enthusiastically, though perhaps haphazardly, planting in a garden bed.  That bed now holds a special place of honor as it is dubbed, the “Kooky Garden.”   

Community partners like Live 54218 also stepped up to help renew Howe’s garden. The health coalition featured the garden in the Incredible Edible Garden Tour, attributing its inclusion to the huge transformation it underwent.

Live 54218, along with other community partners, hosted a Garden Kick-Off with planting activities, produce tastings, and a fitness challenge.  The event brought in over 100 students, parents, and staff. 

Donna Pinckney and her two sons, Andrae and Brian, were at the garden kick-off and quickly volunteered to help care for the garden over the summer.  “I was so glad that Live 54218 offered that opportunity for families,” said Pinckney.  “In years past, I saw the garden growing and I never knew if it could be picked from.  Then last year I signed up.  I learned it was a school garden and families were able pick from it.” 

Since both boys were in summer school on-site, the family took to checking the garden often.  In addition to picking the ripe produce, the Pinckneys also inspected new growth and watered as needed.  “The boys thought it was so cool,” said Pinckney.  “Sometimes they liked getting wet more than watering the garden, but it was a lot of fun.  We liked watching it grow.”

The Pinckneys commitment to the garden did not go unnoticed.  The golden shovel hanging near the school office is awarded to the family who was the lead contributor to the garden success.  For that reason, it is a picture of the Pinckney family hanging proudly next to the golden shovel at Howe Elementary School.


Read other Wisconsin school garden stories

The Pickney family with the Golden ShovelThe Pinckney family shows off the Golden Shovel at Howe Elementary School. The shovel is awarded to the family that is the lead contributor to the school's garden success. 

Success Story: Mt. Horeb High School

"Worms Work" in Mt. Horeb Special Education Class

Franke Wallitsch sells the best soil around. A recent graduate of Mt. Horeb High School, Wallitsch got his start as a composter–and a businessman–at his alma mater. Challenged by autism that causes him to be a non-verbal communicator, Wallitsch was able to gain experience and follow his interests in composting and waste systems as a student in Mary McDonough-Sutter’s special education classroom at Mt. Horeb High. Now, bags containing “Worm Works by Frank,” a finely sifted mixture of composted worm castings, can be found at K&A Greenhouses, the Premier Co-op in Mt. Horeb, and the Mt. Horeb farmer’s market.

Worm Works by Frank begins as cafeteria waste. Mt. Horeb High collects both pre-consumer waste – peelings and other kitchen scraps – as well as post-consumer lunch tray waste, turning it into food for the thousands of red worms that are an integral part of the special education program.

A student in McDonough-Sutter's class helps turn the compost

Students – many of whom have severe cognitive disabilities – sort, chop, and measure the waste for the worms, which teaches practical skills such as knife safety, and also creates a thriving compost pile. “Working with the compost provides an errorless learning environment for my students,” McDonough-Sutter said “It leaves room for mistakes and teaches new skills in a therapeutic way.”

Now in it’s fifth year, the Mt. Horeb composting program has overcome a number of challenges along the way.  “When we started, we visited Growing Power, got some worms, and just jumped right in,” McDonough-Sutter said. “We ended up creating a giant worm bin out of an old hot tub to hold all the compost, but it just made this horrible stink that would waft into the classroom.”

Right before they were able to give up the project, they asked for help from Joe Van Rossum of UW Extension, who has extensive experience setting up and problem-solving compost systems. He helped McDonough-Sutter and her students learn more about the biology of the red worm and redesign their system. They replaced the four-foot deep hot tub bin with several wide, shallow bins more suited to the red worm’s lifestyle near the surface of the soil, creating an active, smell-free compost. In the winter, the worms move inside in plastic bins – literally lining the walls of McDonough-Sutter’s classroom – and food waste is pre-composted in traditional bins outdoors. In spring and summer, the worms move outside, where the pre-composted material makes for easy meals. Student volunteers monitor the temperature until school resumes in fall, when the compost is harvested.

“Composting provides an opportunity for kids to understand how much food waste they may be generating beyond just what’s on their lunch tray,” Van Rossum said. “They can see it build up over a week, or an entire year. And teachers can use the compost as a learning tool, whether it’s science or math or even writing.”

A Mt. Horeb student shows off plants potted in home-made potting soilStudents at Mt. Horeb are also learning small business skills via their school compost project. A portion of the worm castings are incorporated into a student-made potting mix for house plants; potted plants are then sold to staff at craft fairs and to school staff. The rest of the castings are sold to Franke’s Worm Works, where he prepares it for sale by sifting and freezing – to eliminate any potential pests or diseases – with support from a local vocational agency and his parents.

McDonough-Sutter and her students are hoping to expand the composting program to other schools in Mt. Horeb. The “compost classroom” already hosts third graders each year for a worm-themed field trip. In the future, McDonough-Sutter hopes that her students can help provide support for elementary cafeterias, teaching younger students how to sort food waste, and adding to the school’s compost success.

Contact Joe Van Rossum

Read other Wisconsin school garden stories

WormWorks by FrankFranke Wallitsch shows off a package of his Worm Works product (left), and his compost sifter, custom-built by his friend Ken (right). Worm Works compost is sold at several Mt. Horeb locations.

Share your garden story #wischoolgardens

Tell the world what is going on in your school garden. Stories help build support for school gardens, and can help sustain your program via community engagement and school pride!  

Share your story.

For those new to WSGI, we couldn't leave out these amazing resources. "Got Dirt?" will walk you through starting a school garden, while "Got Veggies?" will help you implement a garden-based nutrition curriculum.  "Cultivating Childhood Wellness through Gardening" is an online training that will help you establish and utilize a school garden.  You can watch the entire training or select specific chapters.

Find them all here.

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