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April 24, 2014 / Rick Swann

Roly-polies: perfect pills for your garden

pill bugs

I was moving stones in my backyard yesterday and had to stop because I was disrupting the lives of too many pill bugs. I love these animals—they are like little armadillos because they can roll up into little armored balls. When I researched them for my book, Our School Garden!, I was amazed by all the different names that they had: Some of my favorites are: butcher boy, gramersow and slater, along with the ones I use in my poem—potato bug, cheese log, doodlebug and chucky pig. Most of the kids I know around here call them roly-polies.

            Pill bugs are primarily detritivores.  That means they eat dead vegetation and dead animals. They also eat mold and fungi and some living plants. When they eat living plants they prefer to eat young and tender shoots and fruit such as strawberries. Pill bugs are considered beneficial animals for the garden. Like earthworms, they mostly feed on dead vegetation and help turn it into soil by breaking it down during their digestion process.

A great fact for kids is that pill bugs are coprophagous animals. That means that they eat their own feces. Copper is an essential element in their blood and they need to eat food with copper in order to survive. Decaying leaves are a good source of copper. Pill bug feces are rich in copper, too. When there isn’t a good supply of decaying leaves to eat, pill bugs will recycle their own copper.

That makes them useful to pet owners. They put pill bugs in cages with their pet reptiles, insects or tarantulas. The pill bugs eat the feces, mold and dead vegetation and help keep the cage clean. Depending upon the type of animal in the cage, some of the pill bugs end up being part of the pet’s diet!

            Female pill bugs have pouches a lot like kangaroos. Usually a male fertilizes a female pill bug’s eggs, but pill bugs occasionally reproduce through parthenogenesis–forming young from unfertilized eggs. In both cases the female forms a pouch around the eggs to protect them. The female has from a dozen to two hundred eggs at a time. She carries them in her pouch for two to three months.

When pill bugs hatch they look just like small light-colored adults. They are born with only six pairs of legs. Several days to several weeks after they hatch the babies molt, shedding their first shell that they have already outgrown. Now they have seven pairs of legs. It is time to leave the pouch.

Their shells won’t have hardened yet. They cannot protect themselves from predators like spiders, lizards or toads. It is also easy for them to dry out. As a result, there is a very high mortality rate at first. Pill bugs that survive are able to breed at about one year of age. The females carry one to three sets of eggs each year. Pill bugs can live from two to five years.

They are found all over the world. Look for them in your yard!

April 17, 2014 / Rick Swann

School Cafeteria Food

I ate cafeteria food growing up. Based on that experience, over the years of teaching in public schools I have avoided eating cafeteria food as much as possible. Here in Seattle we have a central kitchen, so food is always cooked or packaged ahead of time and trucked out to schools each day where it is disbursed to students.

My first school as a teacher was an elementary school across a field from a junior high school. The students insisted that their cafeteria food was leftovers from the junior high school, particularly the students with older siblings who went there. The older kids had more choices (they could order a burger and fries for lunch, for instance) and the myth was that the younger kids didn’t get those choices because the “good stuff” was all eaten up. Unfortunately, the good stuff isn’t good for you.

That’s one of the areas where school gardens are showing promise. Numerous studies show that kids are more likely to eat fresh foods and vegetables that they grow themselves or pick themselves. Seeing food produced and meeting the people who produce it also leads to better eating habits.

There are groups working to change traditional cafeteria fare. Right now the National Farm to Cafeteria Conference is happening in Dallas. I attended the last conference in Burlington, VT and was impressed by all the people dedicated to giving kids healthier food choices in school lunches. After all, this represents the bulk of food intake each day for many children across America.The sponsors of the conference, the National Farm to School Network (, has a mission of giving students access to healthy, local foods as well a educational opportunities around good nutrition such as farm field trips, cooking lessons, and, of course, school gardens.

The National Farm to School Network has active chapters in every state. Find out what is going on in your area and make sure that your local school is participating in some way. At the least, work to ensure that there is a salad bar in your cafeteria with fresh, locally sources, fruits and vegetables.

Unfortunately, whenever you write something, good editing eliminates chunks of your work. This poem was cut from Our School Garden!, but I will offer it up now:


Our lunch is leftovers from the junior high—

That’s why we rarely get pizza and fries.


We get Sloppy Joes and canned green peas,

Slimy spinach and soggy beans.


What I desire is a veggie that snaps.

Maybe with rice in a lettuce wrap.


I wouldn’t have said this a year ago

When my favorite food was cookie dough,


But eating healthy isn’t hard when

The food is from our school garden.

March 20, 2014 / Rick Swann

Spring is here! Gardening time!

With spring time here, it’s gardening time again. For me spring also means a new round of author appearances to talk about the benefits of gardening with kids. School gardens are classrooms that are hands-on laboratories where kids can learn about the and celebrate the cycles of life through observation, experimentation and reflection.

Right now I am celebrating spring by working on a curriculum guide that will tie Our School Garden! to the Common Core. Look for that soon! I am also celebrating spring by planting my own garden and by watching some of my winter vegetables start to go to seed–a great time to frizzle them up in some olive oil! My fava is now sprouting (see photo) and I look forward to having the leaves (prepare like spinach!) and then the fresh beans right about the beginning of summer. My rhubarb is up now, too. It’s almost pie time!


Come see me at Family Day: Food for Good on Saturday, April 5th. I’ll be presenting at the Gates Foundation Visitor Center at 12:45.  Discover how to grow, prepare, and enjoy healthy foods from around the world through fun activities, music and storytelling. Community organizations will demonstrate how food gets from the farm to the table locally and globally. Learn how kids of all ages can make a difference through fun and exciting volunteer programs. It’s FREE!


November 24, 2013 / Rick Swann

Will Allen comes to Seattle and more!

Olivia Park school garden

Olivia Park school garden

It was a busy week! Will Allen visited Seattle and delivered an inspiring presentation of his the work of his organization, Growing Power, to several area schools, the Focus on Farming conference, and at the Seattle Public Library.

Growing Power is a national nonprofit organization and land trust supporting people from diverse backgrounds, and the environments in which they live, by helping to provide equal access to healthy, high-quality, safe and affordable food for people in all communities.  Growing Power implements this mission by providing hands-on training, on-the-ground demonstration, outreach and technical assistance through the development of Community Food Systems that help people grow, process, market and distribute food in a sustainable manner.

Seeing the work they are doing in urban areas throughout the U.S. and abroad (Kenya is one of the other countries highlighted in the presentation) made me feel like we really can feed the world using local food. Will Allen is a MacArthur “genius” award winner and deserves it!

Two days after seeing his presentation I ended up observing a Flagship Foundation Pure Food Kids workshop ( at Olivia Park Elementary School in Mukilteo, WA. Will Allen had visited Olivia Park just two days before because their school garden program is run by Farmer Frog ( which is affiliated with Growing Power. The photo of the garden shows that is mostly “asleep” for the winter right now, but that it is a large and well-organized teaching garden.

The Pure Foods Kids workshop teaches fourth and fifth grade students how to read food labels to encourage them to stay away from heavily processed foods filled with preservatives, food coloring and sugar. It not only is a attention-keeping hands-on workshop, the students get to cook! At the end of the 2.5 hour long workshop we all ate some delicious vegetarian chili prepared by the entire class. It was delicious. The best thing? The workshop is free! If you’re in the Seattle area consider it for your school.

November 5, 2013 / Rick Swann

Compost webinar



The Growing School Gardens group on offers some great webinars on different aspects of school gardening. They occur during the work day for those of us on the West Coast, but they are archived and can be watched at any time.  If you have ever spent time in a school cafeteria you know how much food goes uneaten every day. If you can’t get students to eat all their food, the least you can do is make sure that the wasted food is put to good use as compost for the garden!

Breaking it Down: School Composting Made Easy with FoodCorpsMonday, November 18, 2013- 4pm / Eastern Time

In This Session
In our community’s next webinar, Cecily Upton will give an overview of FoodCorps, a national service program which she co-founded. We will explore the organization’s mission to give all children an enduring relationship to healthy food through school gardens, nutrition education, and local food procurement for school cafeterias. She will be joined by FoodCorps’ Robyn Wardell, who will draw on her experiences as a FoodCorps service member and fellow, to offer simple steps that you can take to prevent food waste in school cafeterias. They will also cover the special considerations necessary for starting a school composting operation. Join Cecily and Robyn on November 18 to learn how preventing food waste and composting at schools is an important means of saving money, protecting the environment, and teaching kids good habits from an early age.

To Participate in the Live Session
- Login at at the scheduled time.
- As a member of this edWeb community, pre-registration is not required.
- This webinar will be recorded and archived in this community for viewing at anytime.
- Test your system for best quality:

About the Presenters
Prior to founding FoodCorps, Cecily Upton managed Youth Programs at Slow Food USA, launching the Slow Food on Campus program, building opportunities for youth to engage directly with food system advocacy, and supporting school garden and kids cooking programs across the country. Upton is a successful photographer, an avid bike polo player, and aspiring urban homesteader. She works in our Portland, Oregon office.

Six years ago, when Robyn Wardell signed up to mentor local elementary students, she was dismayed to find them eating unhealthy food provided daily by their school. Simultaneously, she was beginning to build her own connection to real food by working on farms, researching food access, and learning about sustainable agriculture. As a result of her new-found respect for good food, and her love of working with kids, Robyn spent two years in Flint, Michigan where she served as a member of FoodCorps’ inaugural class of service members. Following her term as a service member, she then worked as a FoodCorps fellow, helping to build community and support for service members across the state. She loves to be outside, eat good food, and get dirt under her fingernails in the garden.


October 24, 2013 / Rick Swann

Slow Food Seattle Bibliography of Children’s Food Literacy Books

I’ve been asked for copies of the bibliography I put together of food literacy books for children for Slow Food Seattle. It now has a permanent home on my web site at the top of  the School Garden Resources page. For your convenience, it is also listed right here!  S.F.S. Bibliography by Rick Swann

August 29, 2013 / Rick Swann

Farmer Will Allen biography


Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table


Here’s a book that should be used in conjunction with every school garden curriculum.


Jacqueline Briggs Martin, whose book Snowflake Bentley won the Caldecott award, tells the story of Will Allen, the founder of Growing Power, whose vision is to build sustainable food systems that are equitable and ecologically sound, is no ordinary farmer. A former basketball star, he’s as tall as his truck, and he can hold a cabbage, or a basketball, in one hand. But what is most special about Farmer Will is that he can see what others can’t see. When he looked at an abandoned city lot he saw a huge table, big enough to feed the whole world.


This book, vibrantly illustrated by Eric-Shabaz Larkin, follows Allen from his childhood where the family table was always full of great food (including his favorite lima beans with ham!), through his professional basketball career in Belgium, to his success in bringing urban farming to Milwaukee and other cities around the world through worm-based composting, vertical gardening, aquaponics and other innovative programs.


This is a positive story that is a perfect fit for children and youth garden educators and the kids they teach, whether the kids live in an urban, suburban or rural area.  Not only does it show Farmer Will doing hands-on garden investigations as he studies the best methods for making compost using worms and puzzles out how to integrate food producing systems that use fish, sprouts and water, the driving message of the book that everyone in the world needs access to healthy and affordable foods is a good one and one that kids can be part of the solution to: “Will you be on Will Allen’s crew? Will you grow vegetables for your family, your neighbors, on your porch, or roof, or yard?”

The book is published by Readers to Eaters whose mission is to promote food literacy and publish books that celebrate the pleasure of food, the joy of eating together, and the wonder of seeing our nourishment grow from the ground.


August 6, 2013 / Rick Swann

American Community Gardening Association

I’m presenting at the American Community Gardening Association Conference in Seattle this weekend, as well as leading one of the tours of our local community gardens. I put together this list of kid’s books that have to do with community gardening. Enjoy!

Top Ten Community Garden Books for Kids

10. The ugly vegetables. Grace Lin.

A little girl thinks her mother’s garden is the ugliest in the neighborhood until she discovers that flowers might look and smell pretty but Chinese vegetable soup smells best of all. Depicts a neighborhood where the neighbors’ gardens blend together and produce is shared.


9. Forgiveness Garden by Lauren Thompson.

Inspired by the original Garden of Forgiveness in Beirut, Lebanon, and the movement that has grown up around it, Lauren Thompson has created a timeless parable for all ages that shows readers a better way to resolve conflicts and emphasizes the importance of moving forward together.


8. Lily’s Victory Garden by Helen L. Wilbur.

Lily gets permission to plant a Victory Garden at the home of the Bishops, who lost a son in the war, and slowly the garden helps Mrs. Bishop overcome her grief.


7. It’s Our Garden: from seeds to harvest in a school garden by George Ancona.

A picture book featuring students, volunteers, teachers, and community members as they harvest a garden on the grounds of an elementary school. On special afternoons and weekends, neighborhood folks gather to help out and savor the bounty.


6. Our School Garden! by Rick Swann.

Michael experiences the school garden through the changing seasons of the year and discovers not only how vegetables grow, but how a community can grow from a garden.


5. Curious garden. Peter Brown.

Liam discovers a hidden garden and with careful tending and by inspiring others, spreads color throughout the gray city.


4. Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table by Jacqueline Briggs Martin.

This is the biographical story of Will Allen, a former basketball star, urban farmer, and MacArthur “genius” for his innovative work at Growing Power in Milwaukee, who is growing a community through food.


3. Garden of Happiness by Erika Tamar.

A littered lot in New York’s Alphabet City is transformed into a lush garden by people of the neighborhood. Young Marisol finds a small patch of her own, where she plants a large, flat seed. As it grows up and up, it surprises everyone and becomes the most special plant.


2. City green. DyAnne DiSalvo-Ryan.

Marcy and Miss Rosa start a campaign to clean up an empty lot and turn it into a community garden, inspiring everyone around them.


1. Seedfolks. Paul Fleischman.

One by one, a number of people of varying ages and backgrounds transform a trash-filled inner-city lot into a productive and beautiful garden, and, in doing so, the gardeners are themselves transformed.


July 22, 2013 / Rick Swann

Denver School Gardens

Bradley School garden in Denver


While attending the National Children and Youth Garden Symposium in Denver (and receiving the Growing Good Kids Book Award from the American Horticultural Society and Junior Master Gardeners for Our School Garden!) I toured several Denver school gardens. I was impressed by several things. For one, the number of schools with gardens in the district is very high. Coming from Seattle I was jealous of the many schools that had gardens as well as their size and scope. This is due to the work of both Slow Food Denver and Denver Urban Gardens. As you can see from the above photo, through the work of DUG, community and school gardens are partnered at many schools. I was also impressed by the way fresh food from the gardens was getting into the cafeteria. I toured several large plots on school grounds that are dedicated to this. Kids are not only getting a garden-based education, they are eating organic foods that they can see growing every day that they walk to school. Additionally there are also Youth Farmer Markets where the produce from the gardens are sold by kids both as an educational experience and to raise money for their programs.

I know Slow Food Denver’s model ( is being adopted by other Slow Food chapters across the country. Everyone should check out the work of Denver Urban Gardens ( as well!


July 9, 2013 / Rick Swann

National Children and Youth Gardening Symposium

I’m off to Denver tomorrow to present at the NCYGS. In anticipation of that I’ve loaded some garden themed bookmaking videos on the curriculum guide page of this web site. Check them out!