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June 22, 2013 / Rick Swann

Volunteer School Garden Coordinators

I had to write this up for Slow Food Seattle where I co-chair the School Garden Committee and thought I’d post it here as well.


It would be great if every school had a paid school garden coordinator, but if that were a prerequisite for a school garden the majority of school gardens would disappear in this country.  Sometimes the garden coordinator is a teacher, but I feel like that puts too much burden on someone who already has a lot going on. Also, when that teacher leaves the school, the garden program might disappear with her.


Every garden should have a garden coordinator, though. There needs to be a person or a team of people who are in charge of the garden and its day-to-day decisions. While a paid garden coordinator might do that as well as be a garden educator, a volunteer school garden coordinator probably won’t be coordinating the garden and teaching in it, too. That’s asking too much of a volunteer.


Volunteer school garden coordinators ensure that:

ü  There is a schedule of garden use by classes and after-school classes;

ü  There is a year round maintenance schedule of tasks that need doing and identify who will do them, including signing up volunteers to care for the garden during summer vacation;

ü  Volunteers are connected for work parties and with classrooms for garden activities;

ü  That work parties get publicized and organized ahead of time;

ü  That there is an annual garden budget and that fundraising events and grant applications to fund the garden occur;

ü  Garden activities are publicized to the school community and beyond;

ü  Oversee supplies and tools;

ü  School-wide garden celebrations occur each year.

ü  The garden needs of teachers (supplies, volunteers, etc.) are being met by checking in with them on a regular basis.


It is also important to point out that the garden coordinator is responsible to ensure things on the list above occur; my hope is that they make them occur by having other volunteers do the bulk of the work. The more parents and other members of the school community that get involved with the garden over the course of the year, the healthier the garden program will be.


The best model for a volunteer school garden coordinator that I have seen is one that makes it a PTA position that needs to be filled every year much like book fair coordinator, classroom liaison, school auction chair, etc. Set up a notebook with all the tasks and a description of how they are done, and the job can easily be passed on year-to-year. Also, figure out the minimum amount of money the garden needs every year for seeds, new tools, etc. and make that a part of the annual PTA budget.


A further note, get the teachers to form a garden committee that examines how the garden can be linked to curriculum and have the PTA garden coordinator attend those meetings.


Finally, I do realize that not all schools have a thriving PTA or much of a PTA budget. For schools like that I suggest looking for a local non-profit or business to help you with volunteers or paid help. Try non-profits like food banks (the school garden could provide them with fresh produce), environmental, food or sustainability groups. A number of businesses encourage their workers to volunteer in the community. Tap into them. Also, post your volunteer job descriptions on the web at places like


May 14, 2013 / Rick Swann

Potato stories

harvesting potatoes        My grandparents were potato farmers, growing about 100 acres of Kennebecs on their farm in the Connecticut River Valley. When I was little we’d travel to help with the harvest except for the one year we were already there. That year my father left teaching to work on the farm year round and I remember our house sat right next to rows and rows of potatoes  and we’d dig fingerling potatoes every night beginning in early July. My parents only had a cheap Brownie camera, however, so the only photos I have of this time are blurry black and whites.

I ate potatoes about six days a week from birth until I left home. Actually, for a lot longer than that. I remember driving down to my grandmother’s house with my college roommate, Jose, right after harvest time. My grandfather had died so she was leasing the fields. We were poor and we figured the gas on the drive from Maine to Connecticut would more than cover the potatoes we’d get for free. My grandmother promised us potatoes, but because she was leasing the land out, she felt funny just letting us glean the fields in broad daylight. As a result, Jose and I gleaned the fields by moon light. Unlike when I was younger when the tractor turned the earth over at harvest time, but the potatoes were hand harvested, the fields were now harvested entirely by machine and lots of potatoes were missed. In a couple of hours we picked over 300 pounds of potatoes, which got us through the entire school year.

I get most of my potatoes now at the local farmer’s market from Olsen Farms in Colville. But because I use potato tops for my book presentations I’ve started growing a few in pots at my house, too. Digging them up last fall gave me the same shrill I remember having as a kid in the filed next to out house. It’s like digging up buried treasure.

In the last few weeks I’ve heard a story twice about another buried treasure: The Makah Ozette potato. Philip Lee, publisher of Readers to Eaters and Seattle Slow Food board chair, has been telling the story of the only potato in North America that came directly to here from Peru, where potatoes originated. All other potatoes in North America came from Europe, meaning that they traveled from Peru to Spain first. A Spanish ship came up the coast in 1791 and wintered in Neah Bay. When they left in 1792, they left behind a garden with planted potatoes that the Makah continued to cultivate until the present time. You can read this story in more detail here:

Slow Food Seattle is making Makah Ozette seed potatoes available to local school gardens. It’s a great way to teach children about the history of food, food culture, and many other topics. Contact Philip if you’re interested (

On a final potato note, this is not the first time that seed potatoes have been made available to Seattle School gardens. While doing school garden research in the Seattle School archives I found out that in 1919, back when the school garden movement was booming, Seattle Schools bought 30,000 pounds of seed potatoes to distribute to the district’s school gardens. They also purchased 10,000 packets of seeds that year. School children grew over $100,000 worth of produce that year, which adjusted to 2013 dollars is about $1.3 million dollars worth of produce. It seems like we could feed a lot of people using school gardens if we made that a priority!

April 25, 2013 / Rick Swann

Exquisite corpses

There are very few projects that are more fun than an exquisite corpse book. For one thing, it’s a group project with lots of collaboration. The process creates a lot of surprises as well. I have a “tops and bottoms” one I’ll be unveiling at the National Children and Youth Garden Symposium in Denver in July, but for sheer fun, monsters it is. These were done by Hawthorne Elementary School students in Seattle yesterday. I’m teaching enrichment classes at Hawthorne and Beacon Hill Elementary as part of Powerful Schools ( ec book hawthorne ec book2 hawthorne ec book3 hawthorne ec book4 hawthorne ec book5 hawthorne ec book6 hawthorne

March 26, 2013 / Rick Swann

Bibliography of garden books for kids

There are many great books to get kids jazzed about gardening. These can be used to reinforce your garden lessons or sometimes it just doesn’t work to go outside to do what you had planned because of the weather or a scheduling conflict. Consider keeping a few of these books handy! I also would like to say that it’s an impossible task to make this kind of limited list. There are lots of other books that work just as well as these and more books are listed on this web site under school garden resources!

Arden Bucklin-Sporer and Rachel Kathleen Pringle in their book How to Grow a School Garden describe school gardens as “libraries full of life, mystery, and surprise.” I tell children that being in a garden is like reading a good book. Reading about gardens not only gets kids jazzed about working in the garden, it allows them to dig more deeply into many of the issues and themes that school gardens bring to play: encouraging community, promoting sustainability and a love of nature, instilling a sense of place to name a few. These are some of the best books for kids that promote gardening.

Top 5 Gardening Books Preschool to Kindergarten


Eating the alphabet: fruits and vegetables A to Z by Lois Ehlert.

Foods from around the world teaches upper and lowercase letters.


Growing vegetable soup by Lois Ehlert.

A father and child grow vegetables and then make vegetable soup from them.


Jack’s garden by Henry Cole.

Cumulative text describes the stages of that Jack’s garden goes through from the time he prepares and plants his seeds.


Rah! rah! radish: a vegetable chant by April Pulley Sayres.

Rhyming text and colorful illustrations describe the taste, scents and appearances of different vegetables.


The tiny seed by Eric Carle.

A simple description of a flowering plant’s life cycle through the seasons.



Top 10 Picture Books on Gardening for Grades 1 to 4


Bring me some apples and I’ll make you a pie. Robbin Gourley

Edna and members of her family gather fruits, berries, and vegetables on their Virginia farm and turn them into wonderful meals. Includes five recipes and facts about the life of Edna Lewis, a descendant of slaves who grew up to be a famous chef.


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.


Compost stew: an a to z recipe for the earth. Mary McKenna Siddals.

A rhyming recipe explains how to make the dark, crumbly, rich, earth-friendly food called compost.


Curious garden. Peter Brown.   Liam discovers a hidden garden and with careful tending spreads color throughout the gray city.


Our school garden! Rick Swann.

A boy discovers the joy of growing and learning at his new school’s edible garden.


Secrets of the garden: food chains and the food web in our backyard. Kathleen Zoehfeld. Depicts a family of four who make their garden their summer home as

they prepare the soil, plant seeds, water the garden, and watch for a

harvest of vegetables.


Sylvia’s Spinach by Katherine Pryor    Sylvia Spivens hates spinach…so what will she do when the teacher hands her spinach seeds to plant in the school garden? Join Sylvia as she discovers growing food from the ground up.


Tops and bottoms by Janet Stevens.

Hare solves his family’s problems by tricking rich and lazy Bear in this funny, energetic version of an old slave story.


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. Includes a recipe.


Yucky worms. Vivian French.

While helping Grandma in the garden, a child learns about the important role of the earthworm in helping plants grow.


Yum! Mmmm! Que rico! America’s sproutings by Pat Mora.

A collection of haikus that celebrates indigenous foods of the Americas, such as blueberries and vanilla, and includes information about each food’s origins.



Top 5 Non-Fiction Gardening Books for Grades 1 to 4


Blue potatoes, orange tomatoes. Rosalind Creasy.

Describes how to plant, grow, and cook a variety of unusually colored vegetables, including red corn, yellow watermelons, and multicolored radishes.


Food for thought: the stories behind the things we eat. Ken Robbins.

Photographs and text explain how commonly consumed foods were introduced to the human palate, and provides brief histories on apples, oranges, corn, bananas, tomatoes, potatoes, pomegranates, grapes, and mushrooms.


Reducing your foodprint: farming, cooking, and eating for a healthy planet. Ellen Rodger.  A discussion of energy conservation, reviewing the history of cultivation, and looking at how people can develop a more sustainable lifestyle through their eating habits by going organic, eating locally, using fair trade food, and green cooking.


Seeds. Ken Robbins. Describes how seeds grow and discusses shape, size, and dispersal patterns.


Seed, sprout, pumpkin, pie. Jill Esbaum.

Full-color photographs and text follows the life cycle of a pumpkin seed, from germination to flower to a fully developed melon, which are often carved for Halloween decorations or made into pumpkin pie.



Top 5 gardening books Grades 5 to 8


Eva of the Farm by Dia Calhoun. Twelve-year-old Eva writes beautiful poems on the farm in Washington State that her family has owned for generations, but when money runs out and then her baby brother gets sick, the family faces foreclosure and the way of life she loves is threatened.


Omnivore’s dilemma: the secrets behind what you eat. Young readers ed. Ritchie Chevat and Michael Pollen.

Examines the origins of the different food chains that have sustained humans throughout history, discussing how certain foods and cuisines have become a popular part of people’s daily diets.


Project Mulberry by Linda Sue Park.

Julia, a Korean-American, and her friend Patrick learn about tolerance, friendship, and patience while working together on a project raising their own silkworms.


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.


Return to sender by Julia Alvarez. After his family hires migrant Mexican workers to help save their Vermont farm from foreclosure, eleven-year-old Tyler befriends the oldest daughter, but when he discovers they may not be in the country legally, he realizes that real friendship knows no borders.



Top 5 Cookbooks for Kids


Eat fresh food: awesome recipes for teen chefs by Rozanne Gold.

Collects more than eighty fresh recipes from teen chefs, including snacks, smoothies, burgers, pizzas, and more.


Feeding the Young Athlete: Sports nutrition made easy for players, parents and coaches by Cynthia Lair with Scott Murdoch, Ph.D, RD   Simple nutritional lessons are organized into 10 essential eating guidelines with recipes.


Grow it, cook it by DK.

Explains how plants grow, looks at the processes of planting and growing different fruits and vegetables, and features instructions for harvesting small crops, and using produce in recipes.


Let’s eat! what children eat around the world by Beatrice Hollyer.

Presents a children’s book on the traditional foods around the world including Thailand, South Africa, Mexico, France, and India and provides a number of recipes.


Pretend soup and other real recipes for preschoolers and up by Mollie Katzen.

A collection of classroom and home tested recipes designed to inspire appreciation of creative, wholesome food. Includes pictorial versions of each recipe to help the young cook understand and delight in the cooking process. Also, the sequel: Salad people and more real recipes.



March 19, 2013 / Rick Swann

Hawai’i Island School Garden Network

One of the better organized school garden networks is located on the Big Island in Hawai’i. In 2006 a survey showed that 20 schools on the island had gardens, but none of the garden educators had connected with each other. In 2007 these educators and folks from the Kohala Center, including the HISGN Program Director Nancy Redfeather, got together and talked about common needs, which they have done a wonderful job of addressing. These needs have evolved over time. Volunteer Development workshops and funding were early priorities; currently there is more focus on Professional Development and connecting the garden to educational standards. One really interesting thing that they do is train volunteers from the community who know gardening how to work with kids before they send them to help in school gardens. It’s an inspiring program that they’ve created and it keeps growing.

Waimea Middle School Garden

Waimea Middle School Garden

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March 1, 2013 / Rick Swann

Make your school kid-friendly with outdoor spaces

One of the things that strikes me as I visit different schools is that the grounds outside the school can make the school seem inviting or not. Bringing nature to the playground and other areas can make such a difference. When I see kid-friendly art added to the gardens and other landscaping it makes me feel like this is a school that I want to spend time in.

Education Outside in San Francisco has done a wonderful job greening playgrounds there.Their video “Grey to Green” is a must-see for anyone interested in greening outdoor spaces at schools:

This week I visited Beverly Park Elementary School in the Highline School District south of Seattle. While they didn’t have a vegetable garden they had an amazing courtyard with murals of classic kids books. What a great hang out place! What can you do to make your school more inviting?


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January 31, 2013 / Rick Swann

826 Seattle

I just finished teaching a four week class at 826 Seattle, a wonderful writing and tutoring organization for kids. The class was called Dragons and Castles and Art Books, Oh My!  It was a combination book making and writing class that lasted for four Saturday sessions. Participants each created a fantasy world. But not only did everyone write descriptions of these worlds, s/he each made a “scape” book that illustrated the world s/he created: a giant accordion-style book with a shaped top that was cut out of single sheets of large paper. There was a wide variety of worlds represented, with mountain ranges, forests and giant lollipops sticking up from the top of our books, and castles and other buildings popping out from them, and all of them illustrated in great detail.

Then students made up characters for the world they created and illustrated them on cards. They became the pages of the second book—a flag book where the text disappears when the two covers are pulled on, leaving only the illustrations of the characters and creatures showing.

Finally, students added plot to their setting and characters and each wrote a story set in her world using the creatures that lived there as characters. scape1 scape2 scape3 scape4 flagusing the creatures that lived there as characters.

January 21, 2013 / Rick Swann

Growing School Gardens at

If you are looking for an active community of garden educators, one place that you can find one is online at the Growing School Gardens group on Once you join the group, this is a great place post your questions, which usually are answered in a very timely manner by other garden educators. A series of webinars is offered as well. Today I took part in “Winter Planning for the Spring School Garden” which was presented in collaboration with the New Jersey Farm-to-School Network. On February 6, John Fisher from LifeLab will be presenting “Design Ideas for a Fun, Successful Instructional School Garden.” Having visited several of the LifeLab designed gardens in the Santa Cruz area I would have to say that this webinar would be worth your time. Today’s webinar was wonderful as well. Presented by Beth Feehan, the Director of the New Jersey Farm-to-School Network and Dorothy Mullen, Founder of the Princeton School Garden Program, it had some great ideas of working with kids while the garden lay fallow, as well as great ideas on how to organize the garden program so that you are ready for spring planting. If you missed the webcast, I believe it will be archived and available for later viewing.

December 27, 2012 / Rick Swann

Garden Art and other added features

I’ve been lucky enough to visit many school and community gardens this past year. I have to admit that while all of them were functional, the gardens that have added art or other features have a way of standing out. They really invite you to spend time in them and to just hang out and enjoy the spaces they create. I’ve seen sculpture, topiary, outdoor ovens, and structures for vines to climb up creating enclosed spaces and loved them all.

I’ve been starting to incorporate more features into my own beds. I don’t have a lot of space where I live. The backyard hardly gets any sun at all. I’ve put in several raised beds in the front, but a year ago tore up the strip between the sidewalk and the street to garden. It gets full sun all day long. It means washing the fruit and vegetables well since they grow so close to the street, but the added bonus is that it has become a public space. I put a path through the bed that weaves between the rhubarb, blueberries, lovage and bean tent that is always being used by young children who love to jump from stepping stone to stepping stone. Last week I added a Little Free Library so that  I can pass on all the great children’s books I’ve collected over the years working as a children’s librarian which I can’t wait to surround with plants once the growing season starts again.

I’m already wondering what I can add next.

Kids' Book Exchange

Kids’ Book Exchange

Topiary at Children's Play Garden, Seattle.

Topiary at Children’s Play Garden, Seattle.

Garden oven at Garden for the Environment, SF.

Garden oven at Garden for the Environment, SF.

Wood and marble sculpture at the Lifelab garden, Santa Cruz.

Wood and marble sculpture at the Lifelab garden, Santa Cruz.

December 17, 2012 / Rick Swann

Visit to Sanibel School

Corn at Sanibel School

Corn at Sanibel School

Growing up in New England we always said about our corn that it should be “knee high on the Fourth of July.” At Sanibel School in Florida it stands knee high now (at least knee high to the students who showed me around their school garden). I had a wonderful visit to Sanibel, which the U.S. Department of Education has deemed a Nationally Recognized Blue Ribbon K-8 School talking to classes about the writing process and doing a poetry animation workshop with the middle school TV Production and Video Editing class. Their projects can be viewed on my Animations page! I’d like to thank my fellow media specialist, Ms. Payne, for hosting me.