The Thrifty Gardener's Paradise

When Gardening met Upcycling, it was love at first sight. Their children are the School Garden Fairies that turn outdoor classrooms into treasure troves of would-be trash, each object reimagined as a trellis, flower pot, bird feeder, stepping stones, or work of art.

According to - an online marketplace just for upcycled products - upcycling is "the process of converting old or discarded materials into something useful and often beautiful."

When it comes to facilitating a school garden program, this concept comes almost naturally. How does one acquire things that: look nice, fill a specific need, inspire creative thinking and natural inquiry, and don't cost a lot of money? The answer: use what you've got - or what other people might throw away - to create what you need. Upcyling projects also have plenty to teach about conservation, art, engineering, and the like. It is certainly not a new concept - in all likelihood, your grandma was probably a champion upcycler - and yet the feeling of ingenuity it generates is a delight for new learners. 

Upcycling ideas are not difficult to come by - visit a fellow garden or type "garden reuse" into almost any search engine to spark your brainstorming session. Collecting needed objects can also be a great way to involve parents and community members. Projects can be extremely simple, such as making seedling pots from old milk cartons, or require specific tools and expertise that may be donated by a creative volunteer. (Check out the overgrown-bush-turned-picnic-table-base below!)

We have sifted through some of the best upcycling ideas we can find for this newsletter and put the overflow on our Pinterest page, but we are certain there are more. Send us your best garden upcycle idea, and we'll share it with the Wisconsin School Garden community!

Note: Before embarking on any upcycling project, make sure to do your homework - research the contents of any item you plan to re-purpose to ensure it does not pose a risk to the health of students or the surrounding environment. Tires are one item that has sparked debate among gardeners .
Left: Milk cartons as seedling containers - from Galesville Elementary School. Right: An old, overgrown bush became the base for a new picnic table; the garden team was not allowed to remove the bush, but it could be "trimmed" - from Toki Middle School.  Header photo: Old tiles turn into an outdoor mosaic stage - from Orchard Ridge Elementary.


Upcycled Trellis Ideas 
This collection of pictures is a great idea-starter if you are looking for a low-cost garden trellis that can double as artwork, or a lesson in resource conservation. This is by no means an exhaustive list. Send us your creative garden trellis ideas! 
Making flower art from old dishes (and how to attach the "stem")
Flower art in a no-brainer for gardens, and these re-purposed dish designs are large, colorful, and inexpensive to create. But working with ceramics can be intimidating at first. This is a practical guide that walks you through how to create this type of art, and more importantly, how to mount it in the garden and show it off!
The Container Gardening Manual
This manual will show you how to re-purpose a five-gallon bucket into a miniature garden. These transportable mini-gardens can be set up in courtyards or classrooms, sent home with students, or sold at fundraisers. Also provides information about choosing the best plants for containers. 
Old Seed Activities
What to do with those old seed packets lying around? Have students do a germination test to see if seeds will still sprout. If you run into "duds", try them for art, counting or sensory activities. This guide has plenty of ideas for using old seeds, as well as a number of upcycled seed starting container ideas. 
DIY Plant Markers
This blog post brings together 20 creative, easy, low-cost ideas for creating plant markers for both outdoor and indoor gardens. We especially love the upcycled spoons, and the decomposable twig markers! 
Garden Cart  
This building plan makes use of an old bed frame to create a sturdy garden cart that makes it easy for little hands to help haul big loads! This is an ambitious building plan, well-suited for a volunteer who is comfortable with tool use. We shared this plan several months ago, but the end product is so handy we had to post it again!

Events ... visit our Events page for more

Carton 2 Garden Contest 

Here is a school garden funding opportunity that is all about upcycling! Find the most creative way to re-use old milk cartons, and your school could win up to $5,000 toward your school garden project. Start collecting cartons and ideas now - you don't want to be short once spring rolls around! No garden yet? No worries! You can still enter the contest. 

Submission deadline: April 13, 2016
More information about Carton 2 Garden


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



Wisconsin Local Food Summit
January 14-15, 2016 - Sheboygan, WI

This is a wonderful event for Farm to School and school garden supporters to collaborate with others involved in the local food movement in Wisconsin. This year's summit theme is Digging Into Local Food, with keynote speaker Winona LaDuke, an Anishinaabekwe (Ojibwe) enrolled member of the Mississippi Band Anishinaabeg who lives and works on the White Earth Reservation.

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.

Lend your expertise and stories to the farm to cafeteria movement by applying to be a presenter, panelist or put together a poster representing your research or a case study from your community.

Apply to present by December 4th, 2015.




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

Ode to the 5-gallon bucket

Oh 5-gallon bucket,
ye best garden tool
you carry our compost
or turn into a stool.
You cost not a penny
from the local sub store -
you used to hold pickles
and now so much more.
We love you for:
Woodchips, and water,
and tomatoes aplenty,
and drumming a rhythm
when at last you are empty.
If you are too heavy
there’s your 2-gallon brother
and with plastic-cup scoopers
you’re a tool like no other! 


Success Story: St. Luke's Lutheran Preschool

St. Luke’s Lutheran Preschool: Goodbye, Picky Eaters

When Courtney Stangl was a little girl, she used to sneak into her grandparents’ garden and eat all the green beans as she could find. But a can of green beans for dinner that night? Forget about it.

Today, Stangl’s youthful ventures into the garden have come full circle at St. Luke’s Lutheran Preschool, where she and a group of fellow early care educators – along with parents and church members – have embarked on a playground garden project. “Our goal is to begin growing more of our own food so the kids can see the whole process, from planting the seeds, to watering them, to having something to cook and eat,” she said.

Mirroring Stangl’s own childhood stance on green beans, many kids at St. Luke’s are picky eaters. “We often will have parents tell us they can’t get their kids to eat vegetables at all,” Stangl reflected. “But they pick them up from school and the kids have tried tomatoes or beans. The kids know that they put work into growing something, so they don’t want to throw it in the garbage – they want to eat it!”

The kick-off to St. Luke’s playground garden began when Stangl took a gardening class with WSGI’s Beth Hanna. Inspired, Stangl invited Hanna to visit St. Luke’s in Waukesha for a garden training. “Beth just had this little spark of excitement, and it was contagious,” Stangl said. “The teachers just jumped into this project.”

This fall, a local Boy Scout troop – led by the son of one of St. Luke’s teachers – built five raised beds in different locations around the long, meandering playground. The playground, which is relatively shady, presented a challenge for growing sun-loving veggies. During WSGI’s training, however, Hanna took the school’s 26 staff on a guided walk through potential garden bed locations, choosing the sunniest spots and talking about which plants would thrive. “We even found some old grape vines, and Beth showed them to us like a clue,” Stangl said. “Now we knew we could plant grapes here and they would grow, even in the semi-shady areas.”

Once the beds were built, teachers wasted no time in getting their young students excited about the new garden. They organized a fall planting, and when the weather turned too cold for vegetables, took their garden enthusiasm indoors to begin preparing for spring. Seeds dot the classroom’s sensory table, inspiring student questions about how to plant them, and how they will grow. Teachers read garden-themed books, and have even brought in fresh fruits and veggies to begin cooking with students. With a kitchen on site, teachers – and kids! – are looking forward to cooking with their own garden produce next spring.

“The kids keep saying, ‘We want to start now!’ Stangl said. “It’s just been such a cool process, and I totally blame Beth for everything! She lit this fire under us. We even put the word out to parents and church members, and formed a garden committee from people who wanted to help out.”

To maintain the garden, the committee created a calendar that assigns each of the school’s classrooms one day each week to water, weed, and care for plants. Committee members can sign up for garden duties on weekends or days when school is not in session. The committee also hopes to develop areas in the garden that are appropriate for different age groups – St. Luke’s youngest learner is just six weeks old, and in summer, the oldest is thirteen – including areas for sensory experiences and quiet reflection.  

Parents have also volunteered to help out with garden cooking activities during school hours. As a parent herself, Stangl understands the enthusiasm to help young learners discover new culinary experiences, and what a huge role a garden can play in trying new things.

“My four year old would not eat a tomato,” Stangl recalls. “But my mom has her own garden, so I asked if my daughter could have a little section to grow a tomato of her own. She will not eat a tomato from the store, but she devours the ones she grew!”

Stangl hopes that the enthusiasm behind growing your own will spread among the parents and young learners at St. Luke’s, and beyond. “This work is so important,” she said. “Keep reaching out to other schools and kids to grow gardens. It’s a great bond between home and school.”

Read other school garden success storied collected by WSGI

Top photo: Teachers at St. Luke's learn activities to teach young students about seeds. Left: Boy Scouts build raised beds for the school. Right: Learning kitchen skills and healthy snacking at a young age. 

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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