Growing Minds: Garden-based learning course for educators

This professional development course uses hands-on, inquiry-based instruction that emphasizes the garden as a teaching tool for K-12 teachers and community educators throughout Wisconsin. Held in Community GroundWorks' award-winning Troy Kids' Garden, there is room to be inspired, generate ideas, and gather resources for your own youth garden. 

Everyone needs a little spring right now

As soon as February hits, I start feeling that wintertime drag - and start scanning the horizon for spring. The sun is setting later, the birds are singing earlier, and surely my garlic has survived the chill. February also brings the exciting prospect of not just thinking about gardens, but planting the very seeds that will grow there, once our northerly latitudes tilt to the sun again. 

Seed starting is one of the most exciting ways to bring gardening into the classroom, and one of the most practical. Students learn about seed germination, nutrient needs, and plant development. Because these sprouts represent the first green of the garden, they are bound to receive special attention and care. 

Much like any other school garden activity, you can begin starting seeds at whatever scale fits your needs. It could be a few seedlings tucked under a light in the corner of your classroom, or an entire greenhouse full of vegetables and herbs. 

If you're starting small, the materials you'll need are fairly cheap and easy to come by. Visit your local garden store (they'll welcome your company this time of year) for a simple seed tray, or use up-scaled containers of your own. You can use compost and a soil mix recipe to make your own potting soil, or buy it in a bag. Normal florescent lights will allow seedlings to photosynthesize, and lights can be mounted on a light stand - many science departments already have simple light set-ups - or, fit an old shelving unit with hooks to hang your lights. (I even visited one school recently that was starting seeds on the tops of bookshelves in the library - getting seedlings up close and personal with lights that were already there!) 

While we're still buried in winter (literally) here in Wisconsin, starting seeds in schools (or anywhere!) is one of the best ways to count down to spring!

Many thanks to Onalaska School District for the above photos
...make sure to read their school garden success story below!


Microfarm Manual: Here's a how-to guide for building your own "microfarm" - a cart with lights that can travel from classroom to classroom, showing off seedlings (or micro-greens) as they grow! 
Soil Mix Recipe: For a great lesson about plant nutrients, minerals, and/or compost, try making your own seed-starting soil mix. This recipe works well, and is much cheaper than buying bagged potting soil if you are planning to start more than a few trays of seeds. You can also turn this into a great lesson about sustainability by discussing the benefits and drawbacks of different ingredients - i.e. peat makes wonderful soil mix, but what is the environmental impact? Is there a better alternative? 
Indoor Seed Starting Rack Building Instructions: This online tutorial will teach you how to build your own seed starting rack. The plans are simple, and total cost is under $70. (Less if you have some spare fluorescent lights or scrap lumber!)
Re-purposed seed starting containers:
This blog post takes you through eight different ideas - with photos - for using (or rather, reusing) what you've got on hand to start seeds. Great ways to save money and teach about up-cycling. Have students come up with ideas to add to the list!

Seed Starting Q&A: has another great resource to offer here. This page offers answer to common seed starting questions from classrooms - everything from temperature to lesson extensions.
Indoor Seed Starting Schedule: 
When do you start your seeds indoors? Different seeds require different planting dates. Planting dates also vary by geographic location - Wisconsin includes a number of different plant hardiness zones. This resource from Johnny's Seeds allows you to put in your spring frost-free date, and produces a chart with planting dates for seeds commonly started indoors. Also tells you the best time to set transplants outside!

Events ... visit our Events page for more

Vote for Madison for NAAEE 2016 Conference Site by February 8th!

Madison, Wisconsin is one of three finalists to host the North American Association for Environmental Education annual conference in 2016!

Cast your vote for Madison!
Schoolyard Gardens Conference at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum: February 27 & 28

This conference, entitled "Everyone in the Garden" is sure to provide information and resources for Wisconsin garden educators from our neighboring state.  Register for either day, or both.
Centennial Pi Day:
March 14, 2015 (that's 3.14.15!)

Pi Day - the perfect opportunity to connect math and gardening! Celebrate spherical fruits and vegetables, and then eat them in pie, of course! (Savory pies count, too!) Extra nerd points if you celebrate at 9:26:53 a.m. It will be epic.
Wisconsin Farm to School Summit:
We loved it!

We here at WSGI were so excited to be a part of the Wisconsin Farm to School Summit at the end of January. We were excited to lead workshops on school gardens and farm to preschool, and were inspired by sessions on storytelling, toolkits, and the great strides that Farm to School has made in under 20 years! School gardens are such an integral part of Farm to School, and we loved all the enthusiasm around this topic - we were even  inspired to make an infographic about it!

To see more photos and reflections about the Wisconsin Farm to School Summit, search #WIF2S on Facebook!

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

Garden Joke of the Month:
What do vegetables use to defend themselves?

Click here for answer.

WSGI Infographic:
We decided to take a little time to reflect on all that WSGI has accomplished since it's inception in 2013. Turns out, a lot has happened in the past 18 months! This also was another great outlet for our recent obsession with infographics. Check out for an easy way to create your own!

Help us find your school garden photos on Facebook by using this hash tag! (And thanks to #wif2s for teaching us about hash tags!)

Success Story: Onalaska School District

Onalaska School District: From Seedlings to Salad Bar

This winter, first grade students in Onalaska schools will observe lettuces sprouting up in a rainbow of colors, from green, to red, to freckled. “I want to show the kids how many types of lettuces there are, not just iceberg.  Sometimes they're not sure what to think about the red and multicolored varieties.  I tell them, 'It's just like flowers - lettuce comes in many different shapes, sizes and colors.'"

Seed starting fits in perfectly with the first grade science curriculum and with the district's Farm to School plan, which is infused with gardens at every turn. Visker visits first grade classes in February for a special lesson on seed growth, and each student plants a few lettuce seeds for their school garden. The seedlings grow indoors for six weeks – each of the district's three elementary schools have enough grow lights on hand from past projects so they can easily grow as many plants as they need for the gardens.

In April, Visker works with third graders at each school to plant the lettuce starts – along with direct seeded cool weather crops such as radishes and spinach – in garden cold frames. Visker visits each school once a week, and garden work happens for 20 minutes during recess.

“They are completely excited,” Visker said. “Initially, teachers assign kids so everyone gets a chance to participate – sometimes it's hard to compete with kickball, but mostly they are very enthusiastic. Once all students have had a chance to help, they volunteer to work with me. Usually I have more help than I can use!”

Visker uses Square Foot Gardening to help make plant spacing easy for her young students. A removable grid with 1'x1' openings goes over each bed at planting, and students receive instructions about how many plants or seeds belong in each square. This allows students to work more independently, so that larger groups of students can participate in gardening at one time.

Near the end of the school year, third graders harvest their crops, which appear in the cafeteria for a colorful “salad bar sampling day” that is open to all students – even those that don't get hot lunch. In the fall, the salad bar will be full of the warm-season crops—especially tomatoes—that students plant after the spring harvest.

In summer, Visker asks parents to volunteer for half-hour shifts in the garden – mostly watering and harvesting food to bring home. “I think that's part of the success of the summer program,” Visker said. “The kids just drag their parents there; they want to pick something.” She has also set up a successful communication system, with one point-person sending out reminders to other parent volunteers.

One of the goals of Onalaska's school garden program at its outset in 2010, was to include gardening activities in all of its schools. While the elementary sites all used the same garden model, Visker had to be a little more creative for the upper grades.

At the district's middle school, recess is shorter, and there was not enough time to tend annual vegetables with students. Visker's inspiration came after a very successful Farm to Fork Friday, at which she and the kitchen managers observed that a surprising amount of students enjoyed the asparagus sampled that day.  At the same time, Visker was experiencing a bumper crop of asparagus from her home garden. “The food service staff said the kids were really receptive to it, and since asparagus is a perennial, it’s something we could plant once and would continue to produce for ten or fifteen years,” she said.

Eighth graders “made their mark” on the school three years ago, building a fence and raised beds, and making use of her square-foot grids to plant the alien-looking roots. The project took several Wednesdays, with work groups visiting the space for just twenty minutes at a time. Each spring, sixth graders visit the asparagus bed once a week for maintenance and harvest– including creating climbing-flower obelisks to add beauty to the garden space.

The district's high school had little room on grounds for an outdoor garden, but Visker and one of the school's special education teachers worked to revive the school greenhouse, which wasn't being used to its full potential. Now, a class focused on career-ready skills raises vegetable and herb seedlings in the space, and hosts a much-anticipated plant sale in mid-May for teachers. Students learn plant care skills in addition to cash-register skills, and earn enough money to re-invest in the project for next year...and have a little party to celebrate their success, as well.

While the district's Farm to School grant ended last year, Onalaska is determined to keep gardens and fresh cafeteria produce growing at its schools. A grant from the Coulee Food System Coalition, a local organization, allowed Onalaska to purchase hydroponic growing towers this November, which have found a happy home in the middle school cafeteria. Visker is currently working on grants that would allow the district to purchase additional growing towers for its other schools, based on the success of the middle school program. “The kids can really see the progress of the plants this way,” Visker said. “There are over 600 sixth, seventh and eighth graders who get a chance to see how their food is growing every day!”

Learn more about Onalaska school gardens

Read other Wisconsin School Garden Stories

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.

Want to see the Wisconsin School Garden Newsletter each month?   Subscribing is a great first step to supporting the Initiative. If you're already involved, don't worry - you can't  double-book yourself on the network list.
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