Growing Veggies in January  

Several Januaries ago, I can recall a cold winter day at the Michigan elementary school where I worked. The activity I had prepared for my Garden Club students? Pollinating tomatoes. The school's hydroponics greenhouse was bursting with color from the chard, arugula, parsley, and other greens that grew out of PVC-pipe towers and other alien-looking garden structures. But in January, there wasn't a pollinator in sight. That day, third graders with Q-tips pretended to be bees, learning the process of pollination first-hand as they gently passed the yellow dust from flower to flower. 

While not every school is lucky enough to have a greenhouse - or funding to fill it with hydroponic grow beds - bringing gardening indoors is flexible enough for any space, and any budget. Keeping kids engaged with indoor garden-based learning throughout the winter months helps generate excitement for the spring garden, and encourages students to take a more detailed look at those few, precious plants.

We have filled this newsletter with ideas to get you started on your own indoor gardening project, although there are certainly many more out there. Whether you are interested in inexpensive hydroponics to fit inside a classroom, or growing a micro-garden of sprouts, we encourage you to try out your idea and share the results with us!


The Bucket Bubbler
This step-by-step guide describes how to set up a simple, inexpensive hydroponics system using a 5-gallon bucket, old hanging plant basket and an air stone. The guide include detailed pictures and planting tips. Each bucket can grow one robust plant, such as a tomato or pepper. 
Sprouting Sponge
This short article from PBS describes how to create your own sprout garden on a sponge! While there are numerous ways to grow sprouts (including in a jar), this is a fun way to allow kids to tend individual "gardens" without a big mess. Stick with shamrocks, or cut sponges in any shape, size, and color.
Hydroponics Salad Table
This simple hydroponics design was developed at the University of Minnesota and grows up to 24 plants at one time. Because this is a "passive" system, it does not require a pump, and can be used indoors or out. This resource includes building plans, tips on winter lighting, and tips from the systems pioneers. Cost for all materials is about $50, depending on lumber type.
Mushroom Gardens
We love for their garden planning tools, and were excited to see this article about growing an indoor mushroom garden on spent coffee grounds! Watch the mycelium spread through the grounds before the mushrooms send out fruit. Field and Forest Products is a Peshtigo, WI mushroom spawn company that also has great educational materials.
Microfarm Manual
Want to create a travelling mini-farm for your school? Use this guide to convert a wagon into a growing space for tasty micro-greens! With greens ready to harvest in just 3-4 weeks, the "farm" can roll from classroom to classroom after each crop. Great for spring seed starting, too.
Felt Garden for Early Learners
This plantable indoor "garden" made of felt and old brown t-shirt material is a fun way to get early learners talking about gardening even before the spring thaw. This blog shows how to create a felt garden of your own. If you are not handy with a sewing machine, plastic veggies will suffice in the easy-to-create "dirt."

Events ... visit our Events page for more

Winter Time: Grant-Writing Time 

Just a quick reminder to schools seeking funding for new gardens or garden improvements: many grant cycles begin early in the year, and deadlines approach quickly once spring begins. WSGI has collected a number of grant opportunities for school gardens that we are excited to share. We hope to see many school gardens funded this year!

Begin searching for school garden grants


Wisconsin Garden Expo
February 12-14, 2016 - Madison, WI

Wisconsin Public Television's Garden Expo is a "midwinter oasis" for gardeners (and gardeners-to-be). This three-day events attracts more than 20,000 people from across the Midwest to share ideas and gain inspiration. Includes: educational seminars and demonstrations, gardening advice from UW-Extension Horticulture experts, opportunities to share ideas with garden-related businesses and non-profits, and more. All proceeds support Wisconsin Public Television.

More information and tickets


The Gardens Summit - Dane County
February 20, 2016 - Madison, WI

This event is the annual gathering for community gardens in Dane County. We wanted to share it for Dane County area schools, as the summit includes a youth education track, as well as sessions specifically designed for youth ages 6-12!

More information and registration


WAEE Winter Workshop
January 22-24, 2016 - Tomahawk, WI

The Wisconsin Association for Environmental Education convenes at scenic Treehaven for this family friendly (but in no way watered down) weekend of workshops, outdoor exploration, and community building. Treehaven has all the gear you will need to cross country ski or snowshoe through their beautiful northwoods trails in between conference sessions!

Registration and additional information



Save the Date: Farm to Cafeteria Conference Coming to Wisconsin
June 2-4, 2016 - Madison, WI

Save the date for the 8th National Farm to Cafeteria Conference, coming to Wisconsin in June 2016! The theme Moving Forward Together lifts up new and innovative partnerships to continue to build momentum and ensure long-term sustainability in the Farm to School movement.


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

Garden Joke of the Month

What kind of flower gives the best kisses? Click here for answer.

Forcing Bulbs in Winter

Daffodils, crocuses, and other flowers that grow from bulbs are easily fooled into early blooms after a few weeks in the fridge. Create a beautiful indoor flower garden, and then re-use bulbs for outdoor planting later!  

Guide to forcing bulbs
Lasagna method for bulbs (at left)


Success Story: The Grow Academy

In Department of Juvenile Corrections Program, Teens Garden Year Round

Grow Academy LogoLike most kids, students at The Grow Academy have a natural curiosity. “Why does this lettuce look so weird? Is this a fake lettuce?,” they query as they peer over the classroom’s hydroponic grow bed, bursting with red and speckled varieties next to the more traditional green.  One student breaks off a piece and starts chewing, and the other follow suit. “We should make salads next week,” they say.
The Grow Academy is a four-month residential program from the Wisconsin Department of Juvenile Corrections for adolescent boys who have entered, or are at risk for entering, the Juvenile Justice System.  Grow uses an agriculture-based education, including a large outdoor garden and indoor gardening projects such as aquaponics and hydroponics, as a basis for increasing students' ability in academics, employment readiness, and social interactions. The program is built on evidence-based practices to help students successfully reintegrate into their communities and not return as offenders later on.
In order to graduate the program, students must meet requirements for school, career exploration, and appropriate behavior among their peers and supervisors. So how does gardening fit in with all of this? “Gardening is something that many of these youth probably never thought they would ever be doing,” Kate Elvidge, regional chief for Wisconsin’s Northwest Division of Juvenile Corrections, said. “It is a really powerful experience when you have to tend and nurture something living, and there is a real shift in responsibility for them.  The programming provides plenty of opportunities to acknowledge their strengths in hopes that we will help shape a more caring and confident person.  Each youth has the opportunity to demonstrate leadership skills and teamwork, while also learning about their environment and a lot about themselves.”
When designing the program, one of the hurdles Elvidge had to cross was how to continue the garden-based curriculum during the winter months. How would students who enter the program in November get an equivalent experience to those who enter in April? The answer lay in hydroponics, and its fish-friendly sister, aquaponics. “We really started from scratch,” Elvidge said. “We didn’t have a greenhouse, but we did have a large heated classroom, some old bunk beds, and plenty of fluorescent lights, so that’s where we started to build our winter garden.” In the winter months, students are involved not just in managing the indoor garden – they are building it from scratch.
In December of 2014, just six months after Grow opened its doors, community partners Community GroundWorks (CGW) and Dane County UW Extension (UWEx) helped students construct the program’s first hydroponic system. Modeled after a passive hydroponics grow bed that students observed on a field trip to a rooftop greenhouse in UW Madison’s Aldo Leopold Hall, students built a homemade water reservoir out of 1x8 inch boards and a double layer of plastic. Plants are suspended above nutrient-rich water via a piece of foam insulation. Roots hang in the balance, winding their way through crevices in perlite-filled baskets before dangling down into the reservoir.  Simplicity was the theme with this first system: there are no pumps, drainage systems, or filters, and lights are mounted on the underside of the adjoining bunk bed. Students monitor pH and nutrient levels each week, and can testify that the system grows excellent lettuce.
This year, with additional support and expertise from Paradigm Gardens, a local hydroponics supplier, Grow and its partners are ready to tackle an aquaponics build. “We experimented with some smaller aquaponics systems last year using goldfish, and there were definitely some bumps in the road,” Program Director Nicki Laudolff said. “But we also worked out a lot of kinks, and we are ready to try our hand at a larger system. The goal is to make the inside of the classroom an engaging, hand-on learning experience for students, just like the outdoor garden provides from April to October.”
Part of that hands-on experience comes in learning alongside their teachers to construct, maintain, and problem-solve around these indoor growing stations, which also include a worm composting bin, seed-starting, and smaller building projects such as rain barrels and bird feeders. Grow Academy students also learn how to design their own garden in a special class put together by teacher Jonathan Davis. Each year should see new learning stations that will add to students’ gardening repertoire. This winter, students are working on an expanded, multi-layer aquaponics system and two additional hydroponics grow beds.
Grow Academy hydroponic lettuce – as well as produce grown outdoors – is the basis for a nutrition education program that revolves around using produce in home-cooked recipes, as well as a market program that teaches small business skills and earns students extra privileges, such as movie nights and trips to the YMCA.  Yet it is easy to see that these vegetables are making a difference long before harvest day. As students admire a successful bed of hydroponic lettuce or a ripening row of tomatoes, it isn’t hunger that shows up in their eyes: it is pride.  
Read more about The Grow Academy:


Read other school garden success storied collected by WSGI

Top photo: Hydroponics roots are easily visible for viewing in the Grow Academy's hydropoinc system. Left: Grow Academy students assemble lettuce wraps from home-grown hydroponic produce. Right: Old bunk beds provide the structure for a passive hydroponics grow bed, with a another in progress. 

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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