Tasting Tuesday

A Tasting Tuesday harvest of Japanese turnips waiting to go to the dining hall

A Tasting Tuesday harvest of Japanese turnips waiting to go to the dining hall

Kids can learn all kinds of things from gardening. I truly believe that gardening isn’t the end-point of a lesson, but rather a lens for learning all kinds of other things in any subject on the planet. We use the school farm at Hutchison to teach history, foreign languages, geometry, engineering, poetry, and many other topics seemingly unrelated to the mechanics of making a seed grow. We also use the farm to teach our younger girls about bravery and being open to new things.

When kids take part in growing a vegetable, or any plant for that matter, they become emotionally connected to it. Growing food gives them ownership. They grew it. They harvested it. They want to know what is going to happen to it, and they definitely want a say in it.

Me on Tasting Tuesday

Me on Tasting Tuesday

At Hutchison, I developed a program called Tasting Tuesday. It gives girls in pre-K through 4th grade an opportunity to bring their crops from farm to table. Most weeks, girls help harvest one of our garden crops and deliver it to the dining hall where our chef turns it into something delicious. On Tuesdays, I take that culinary creation around the dining hall during lunch time, where the girls have the opportunity to try it.

Every single week, I see the pickiest of eaters try new vegetables, because it came out of the garden. I see girls who normally wouldn’t touch something green with a ten foot pole excitedly tell girls in other classes that their class helped grow this food so everyone better eat it. I can’t tell you how many parents have come up to me and said something like, “My daughter doesn’t eat vegetables, but because of Tasting Tuesday, she now eats kale.”

When kids have the opportunity to become invested in their food, and when they have a say in what’s done with it, they are usually far more open to trying it.

The girls at Hutchison take their role in feedback just as seriously as their role in harvesting. Every Tasting Tuesday, the girls who try the featured dish let me know if they like it or not. I celebrate with them when they find a new vegetable that they enjoy. When they tell me that they don’t like something, I always tell them that it’s okay, and I am just so proud of them for trying something new. Often, when a girl at a lunch table tries something and enjoys it, her reaction is enough to get the other girls to try it, too. Bravery is contagious. The love of good food is contagious.

They may not get tested on this subject, but learning to be open to new experiences is one of the best lessons that a kid can get. I love that every single week, the girls get to use food from the farm to learn a little more about themselves.

A Tasting Tuesday delivery of kohlrabi on its way to the dining hall!

A Tasting Tuesday delivery of kohlrabi on its way to the dining hall!

The girls LOVE telling Chef exactly what they think should happen with their harvests. This crate of kohlrabi became a giant bowl of kohlrabi cole slaw.

The girls LOVE telling Chef exactly what they think should happen with their harvests. This crate of kohlrabi became a giant bowl of kohlrabi cole slaw.

Hello again!

Hey friends!

I’m embarrassed to say that it’s been over a year since I’ve posted anything. I’ve been busy doing things like having a baby and trying to catch up on some sweet, precious, elusive sleep. However, I’ve got a calendar of posts coming your way soon. Until then, check out this video of yours truly showing off our wonderful school garden at Hutchison School.

Happy growing,

Mary Riddle

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Spring Chaos

Phew! It's been a minute since I've written, huh? Spring is in full swing, and I'm in peak chaos! I thought I'd take a minute today to share some of the cool things going on in the garden. 

French breakfast radish

French breakfast radish

The girls in pre-K became intrigued by root vegetables recently. They just love it that some veggies grow underground. (I love how wondrous the world is through a child's eyes!) They decided to plant one of the raised beds on the farm with three different kinds of root vegetables to observe how they grew. The girls planted French breakfast radishes, Easter egg radishes, and Chioggia beets. They came out to the farm almost every day to observe, take pictures, and measure the plants' growth. Well, last week the radishes were ready, and they got to pull them up! They loved making predictions about what the radishes would look like before they pulled them out of the ground. That was especially fun to do with the Easter egg radishes, because they were all different colors! The Chioggia beets are still in the ground and will be ready in a few weeks.

Blue bonnet rice

Blue bonnet rice

I've also been working on a cool project with upper school girls. Our sophomore English class read The Things They Carried, which is a novel about the Vietnam War. Many of the scenes take place in rice paddies in Vietnam. To help the girls better understand the setting, we learned about traditional methods of growing rice. We watched videos of rice production, looked at pictures, and then got to start our own rice from seed. The plants are shooting up in our grow light station, and we'll plant them outside next week. This rice is a highland variety, which takes less water to grow than lowland varieties. I've never grown rice before, so I'm looking forward to learning about it more. I'll keep y'all posted!

The production and planting schedule is just going gangbusters over here. In the last week, we've harvested hundreds of pounds of leeks, bok choy, radishes, sorrel, arugula, green garlic, herbs. We've planted okra, basil, cantaloupe, cotton, kohlrabi, cosmos, and tomatoes. And the flowers! The flowers are stunning right now. Snapdragons, anemones, bachelor's buttons, nigella, and larkspur are at their peak. It might be chaotic right now, but I wouldn't trade it for anything. It's good to be a grower in April!

What's going on in your garden this month? Tell me all about it in the comments or on one of my social media pages! 

Happy growing, 

Mary Riddle

My leek-y sink. ;) 

My leek-y sink. ;) 

Girls harvesting baby bok choy

Girls harvesting baby bok choy

Farm to Blanket

Every spring, the second graders at my school work on a quilting project with their mothers. It's a part of their unit in which they study Faith Ringgold, an African American artist well known for her narrative quilts. They study chemical reactions in science at the same time, so to tie it all together, the girls make natural dyes using vegetables from our farm and dye fabric squares to create their own narrative quilts. Cross-curricular learning is so cool, isn't it?

First, I bought a couple of yards of muslin and cut it into individual squares. I boiled the squares in salt water for an hour in order to make it more receptive to the dye.

While the squares were boiling, I chopped up the vegetables and put them in individual pots. I had one pot of red cabbage, one of spinach, and one of beets. I added about twice as much water as vegetable matter to each pot, then turned the heat up to medium high. I let the vegetables simmer for about an hour. I watched the color slowly leech from the vegetables and into the water.

As an aside, the red cabbage dye was fun, because it reacts to a change in its pH. I added just a little bit of lemon juice and the purple water turned to a bright magenta.  

I took the muslin squares out of the boiling water and let them cool. Each second grade girl got to help ring out their fabric squares. Then, they dropped their squares into whichever pot of dye they liked. I didn't remove the veggies before adding the muslin.

I let the muslin and veggies simmer for several more hours, then drained the pots and rinsed the fabric squares. It was a little tedious washing veggie specks off of the fabric, but I liked the visual effect of letting my students see that the vegetables were causing the colors to change.

The spinach dye didn't do much for me. The squares are just marginally darker than the original shade of the muslin. The beets turned the muslin a pretty light rose color, and the lemon juice-cabbage concoction turned the fabric a kind of muted fuschia. 

If you have any leftover garden scraps and a plain shirt or tablecloth to dye, I highly recommend this process! It was fun, educational, and let us use some of the plants that we might normally compost. 

Happy growing, 

Mary Riddle

spinach, beet, and red cabbage dyed muslin

spinach, beet, and red cabbage dyed muslin

The Girl-Powered, Math-Powered, Poetry-Powered, Chinese Vegetable School Farm Project

It was sixth grade when I first learned that I was bad at math. It was our pre-algebra unit, and it was the first time I'd ever felt challenged by a math problem. I was trying to quickly wipe away my frustrated tears when I was told, "That's okay. You're more of a reader than a mathematician."

I did as little math as I could get away with in high school and college. I remember feeling confused: I noticed that I could add and multiply sums more quickly than many of my peers. I even tested into one of the more advanced math classes at my school, but I thought it was all a fluke. "I'm a reader, not a mathematician," I thought. 

I became interested in agriculture, because I was interested in the spiritual, poetic, Wendell Berry aspect of farming. Little did I know at the time that my chosen career path was inherently mathematical. My job a a horticulturist is just a series of mathematical word problems, all day long: fertilizer ratios, days to plant maturity, row spacing, building with the Pythagorean theorem, estimating yields. 

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At the girls' school where I work, I collaborated with the fifth grade math, English, and Chinese teachers to create a cross-curricular project that shows the girls that math, poetry, world languages, and farming are all complementary, and they can be good at all of it. 

The girls were in the midst of their poetry unit called "Bloom Where You're Planted" in their English class. They read Maya Angelou's "Still I Rise," then came to my farm lab to learn how to plant. 

We divided the girls up into three small groups and had them create mathematical arrays out of these Jiffy peat pellets. (As an aside, I prefer to plant in these peat pellets for school projects, because they're much easier for young ones to handle while planting.) The pellets come dried and compacted, and they need to soak in water to expand into plantable little nuggets.

Once they created an array, they filled their trays with water. While we waited for the pellets to puff up, the girls were given an assignment to start writing a poem, using some of the themes and imagery of planting, growing, and blooming, as well as some of the poetic structures they learned about in a previous English class.

Once the pellets were ready, pencils were put away and the girls were given their Chinese vegetable seeds to plant. They had to work with one another to ensure that each peat pellet got only one seed. The trays of veggies went into my grow light station. 

A few days later, the same group of girls came out to the farm with their math class. They were given measuring tools and a bundle of little flags. They had to figure out the dimensions of the bed. Then, I told them that each plant needed to be at least 8 inches apart from one another in rows that were at least 12 inches apart, and the plants couldn't be closer than four inches from the edge of the bed. Using those parameters, they had to figure out the maximum number of plants we could plant in each bed. They flagged out where each plant should go. They also figured out the volume of empty space in the raised bed and calculated how much compost I should add to the raised bed to reach the very top. 

The weather turned cold, so I transplanted their Chinese vegetables on the farm for them. Now, I'm collaborating with their Chinese teacher to plan the next aspect of the lesson. We'll harvest the bok choy and green garlic from the farm in a couple of weeks. The girls will learn how to cook and eat bok choy, while simultaneously learning Chinese culinary vocabulary words. 

One of my favorite tools for transplanting vegetables with kids: the dibbler.

One of my favorite tools for transplanting vegetables with kids: the dibbler.

The girls are learning that nothing is in a silo. What they learn in one class connects to their other studies and connects to the outside world. They're learning that math shows up in places that they may not expect. Their mathematical computations helped me solve a real-life problem, and they'll soon be able to harvest and taste the fruits of their labor. I hope they're learning that they can become poets, mathematicians, linguists, farmers... or even all of those things at once.

Happy growing, 

Mary

Growing with Children

I love teaching. I've taught children, and I've taught adults. Showing people how to grow is my passion. I'm lucky to be teaching horticulture on a school farm at a fantastic girls' school here in Memphis. It is a joy to come to work every day.

I wanted to share a fun project that I'm working on with my pre-K girls. This class of girls worked with me in the beginning of the school year planting carrots. We grew two beds of carrots, one purple and one orange. They got to plant, harvest, and cook with the carrots. They counted how many they picked and performed a taste test to see if they could taste the difference between purple and orange carrots. They also made carrot cake.

The carrot project got them interested in other root vegetables. The school where I work uses the Reggio approach, meaning that the girls get to guide much of their own learning. This particular Pre-K class decided they wanted to learn about other kinds of vegetables that grow under the soil, so I visited their classroom and showed them photos of lots of different root crops: different colors of beets, radishes, leeks, and turnips. They decided they wanted to grow D'Avignon radishes, Easter Egg radishes, and Chioggia beets.

We divided this bed into three equal sections. I planted most of the rows before the class came out to the farm to ensure production quantity, but let the girls help me plant the last row of each section. I showed them pictures of their chosen vegetables to refresh their memories, and they made predictions about what the seeds would look like. They poked a hole in the soil with their finger, placed their seed in the hole, and lightly covered it with soil. 

I used the low tunnel hoops and some mason twine to partition the bed into three sections.

I used the low tunnel hoops and some mason twine to partition the bed into three sections.

Easter Egg radish seeds

Easter Egg radish seeds

The D'Avignon radishes take about 3 weeks to mature, the Easter Egg radishes take about 30 days, and the Chioggia beets take around 55 days to mature. The girls come out to the farm every few days to look for changes to the bed that they planted. They're going to observe and discover which of the root crops take the longest to grow, and they'll get to taste new vegetables in the process. 

We also got to smell the cilantro emerging from its winter hibernation, taste the lemony sorrel, and smell the apple blossoms. It wasn't a bad way to spend a sunny, 75 degree February day!

Happy growing!

Mary Riddle

The girls loved comparing how dirty their hands got while planting. 

The girls loved comparing how dirty their hands got while planting. 

Bring in Your Branches!

On Wednesday, I posted a photo to my Facebook page of an apple tree starting to bud out. Tonight, the temperatures in my area are supposed to drop into the upper 20s, meaning that most of the beautiful blossoms are probably going to die. If it stays around 28 or 29, then I expect that I'll only see a nominal decrease in the amount of apples produced. If it ends up dropping any lower than that, well... I'll just keep my fingers crossed for apples in 2018. 

Some of the blossoms were just too beautiful to give over to the freeze tonight, so I cut a few branches and brought them inside. Aren't they lovely? Have you seen anything blossoming in your neck of the woods yet? If it's going to freeze where you live tonight, bring a few branches inside to enjoy!

Happy growing, 

Mary Riddle

The Great Pumpkin Challenge, Part One: Double Digging

One of the best things about growing for a school is the freedom to explore and learn about new crops right alongside my students. This winter, I got a bee in my bonnet to try out a crazy crop I've never grown before: Dill's Atlantic Giant Pumpkin, the granddaddy of all giant pumpkins. 

I love the whimsy of a giant pumpkin. It brings to mind images of Hagrid's garden or Cinderella's carriage. There's a problem, though. I have horrible luck with all plants in the squash family. Growing without the aid of synthetic chemicals, I can only get one or two early rounds of squash from a plant before I'm beaten my two greatest nemeses: squash bugs and squash vine borers. To be honest, I'm a little nervous about growing a pumpkin at all, much less the world record-holding species for size and weight. Go big or go home, right? 

If everything goes well and I actually produce a pumpkin, it won't be ready until fall, but it's time to start the growing process now.

Healthy plants come from healthy soil. Last summer, I added about ten cubic yards of pure cotton burr compost to this raised bed. Over the fall, I grew radishes, beets, mustard, chard, lettuce, spinach, and turnips in it. I got too busy and ran out of time to plant a good winter cover crop, so I just mulched unused areas of the bed with straw. (Healthy soils want to be covered at all times!)

Here's what the bed looks like now.

I've started to rake away the straw mulch that I used over the winter in order to double-dig this behemoth of a bed

Double-digging is a soil preparation technique associated with the Biointensive growing method. According to Ecology Action, double-dug beds "aerate the soil, facilitate root growth, and improve water retention." Soil fertility is maintained through the heavy use of compost.

To get started, you measure off the area that you want to dig. I'm starting with a 2 x 20 foot section. I set out flags to show divide the area in 2 x 2 foot squares. 

Before you dig, please make sure that the area is free from water or gas lines. 

mary riddle double digging

Start with your first square and shovel the top 12 inches of soil into a wheelbarrow. Then, take a pitchfork and loosen up all of the newly-exposed soil underneath. I don't move on until I can sink my pitchfork in 12 inches without effort.

Move on to your next square. Shovel the top 12 inches of that square into the empty hole you just created. Again, take your pitchfork and loosen the exposed soil. Repeat that process with square after square. When you reach the end, fill the final hole with the soil waiting in your wheelbarrow. 

To ensure that I'm not compacting the soil when I'm working in the beds, I stand on a plank in order to more evenly distribute my weight through a larger area. 

I've got a lot more of this bed to finish. This is an intense workout, so my back demands that I take my time. I'm getting started now so that I can be ready to transplant pumpkins into the bed by Zone 7's April 15th final frost date. 

Stay tuned. You can follow along with #TheGreatPumpkinChallenge on my social media pages

Keep your fingers crossed for me! 

Mary Riddle

Look at that nice, fluffy soil! Now where did I put that Instagram filter that removes all those weeds?

Look at that nice, fluffy soil! Now where did I put that Instagram filter that removes all those weeds?