Gardening At School, Growing Healthy Kids

Whenever a young person learns to garden, the future grows a little more green and healthy. When an entire school learns to garden together, sustainability sprouts in the imaginations of tomorrows community.  This spring, Giving Tree Gardens worked with the Anoka-Hennepin School District to teach some of the basics of Earth- friendly food gardening to students at two schools in the district.  We had so much fun working with students and staff that we’ve just got to share the good times with the rest of the world.

Imagine what our communities would look like today, if all of us as kids had the opportunity to learn to grow our own food at school.  Instead of learning to grow food, the daily school lunch is the most engaging and oft repeated lesson that our kids get about food.  What is that lesson?

It was an honor for us at Giving Tree to be invited to garden with the students at Mississippi Elementary and Northdale Middle School in Coon Rapids.  Composting, edible weeds, the importance of avoiding chemicals, soil preparation, seed planting, native plants, habitat creation, and companion planting were the subjects of 3 all day gardening classes.  School staff and teachers brought the students out in shifts.  Over 400 students were able to get their hands dirty digging in to learn how to grow healthy food and habitat.

At Mississippi Elementary we built on a theme that we had started last year when we extended the garden installation within the schools Nature Center to include 6 crescent moon shaped garden beds.  Every grade came out to plant, and each got their own garden bed to prepare and plant with different companion planting arrangements.  Within each bed we also planted one native butterfly attracting plant so that we made sure to grow habitat for our winged friends along the way.

At Northdale Middle school we worked with 7th and 8th grade students in the schools AVID program to plant a highly accessible veggie garden and two fruit trees right out the back door.  Plants were all arranged in companionship groupings, and both the apple and pear tree that were planted were given their best friend plants of dill and mint to grow by.  Some of the students were very impressive with their strong knowledge about organic vegetable gardening!

Both of these school projects were funded by SHIP grants (State Health Improvement Program) from the State of Minnesota Health Department.  These grants are designed to “help Minnesotans live longer, healthier lives.” Gardening for medicinal and edible plants as well as sustainable habitat development are among the most effective long term strategies we have available for increasing health in our communities.

Imagine how healthy our children would be if all of our schools had organic student led gardens to grow even half of the food the kids eat for lunch.  Thanks to the SHIP grants, and the imaginative staff in the Anoka-Hennepin Schools and school district, we have planted the seeds of healthy change in a couple of local schools.

Community Design Forum

Is your block club, church group, or office place ready to go green? In this time of shrinking budgets we need to recognize the assets in our communities and help them grow into a sustainable future! Community Design Forums are meetings where folks come together to create action plans for moving forward with changes that positively affect their community's environment. By sharing needs, knowledge, and ideas communities get to know the power within their ranks and discover ways to help grow their green ideas.

Facilitated by Giving Tree Gardens owner Russ Henry, these forums bring together his skills as a professional Earth-Friendly Landscaper and a volunteer Restorative Justice Facilitator. Russ sits down with consultation attendees and asks them to share their concerns, ideas, efforts, and knowledge with each other so that communities can not only draw from his experience in the garden and landscape, but more importantly, attendees learn about each other's skills and abilities.

Garden Installation

Giving Tree Gardens professional landscape and garden installation service crew work closely with our clients and with our garden designer Russ Henry to install award winning organic gardens.

The landscape installation services team at Giving Tree Gardens aim to make as little negative impact on the land as they can while landscaping installations take place

We use hand tools whenever possible and we keep our foot traffic to a minimum.  Our organic gardens and landscapes are installed so that they will have all they need to grow healthy and full, and our organic garden installation services are designed around our clients needs and dreams.

Butterfly Gardening

Why do we love butterflies so much?  

Is it the beauty and freedom that define their days?  Is it the transformative potential of the


that attracts us?  After all, butterflies are just bugs too, right?  How is it that we save so much room in our hearts for one bug and have entire industries devoted to the extermination of other bugs?  

Happiness is a butterfly, which when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.
~Nathaniel Hawthorne

Whatever butterflies are doing that strikes our imaginations and warms our hearts, they seem to be doing it better then any other insect around.  While the dragonfly can impresses us with speed, agility, and grace, the butterflies’ lackadaisical charm flutters ever deeper into our hearts.  While the honey bees work day and night to serve our human purposes, so many people react to their little striped suits with sheer panic, but come the lazy butterfly hopping around on the breeze and people everywhere stop to smile. 

It’s high time we humans started devoting more space to the other creatures we share this planet with, and our collective love of butterflies can guide the way towards a healthy habitat for us all.

"Just living is not enough," said the butterfly, "one must have sunshine, freedom and a little flower."~Hans Christian Anderson

The Butterfly Effect

Tiny actions can have huge effects on complex systems.  The butterfly effect is a theory used by 

scientists and storytellers alike to explain the notion that even seemingly insignificant actions can have a huge impact over time. With this in mind I like to ask myself a seemingly tiny question.  

What is the effect of my life on the Earth’s living systems?  The size of this question however should not be judged by the number of words it takes to ask, but by the millennia it takes to answer.

Our daily decisions have impacts far beyond our capacity to understand. 

Monarchs below and Western Tiger Swallowtail above feast on the 

nectar of summer blooming native perennial plants.  Butterfly gardening grows beauty and environmental health. I like to plant a few deeply rooted butterfly attracting native plants in amongst my vegetable gardens.  Not only are my vegetable crops helped when the perennial roots draw moisture from deep in the ground during the heat of the summer, but the butterflies are happy to see the free food I've grown them, and I'm happy to see the butterflies!

Butterfly Gardening Basics

Simply put, if you want to see butterflies, plant native flowers.  The most inviting homes for butterflies will have different types of native flowers that bloom and provide nectar all through the growing season.  To ensure your yard has more butterflies then the Jones’s next door, also plant some caterpillar host plants.  One classic example of a caterpillar host plant is

common milkweed

, which hosts

monarch butterflies

and seems to grow as freely as the butterfly it hosts.  If monarchs are your goal, make sure you also plant

meadow blazingstar

, no other nectar-bearing bloomer can make the monarchs line up like this form of Liatris.  Monarchs are also strongly attracted to other forms of



black eyed susans



, and


Why stop at monarchs though when there’s so many wonderful little butterflies out there to see.  Variety is the spice of life, and the more types of native plants you have in your yard, the more likely you’ll see rare forms of butterfly.  Caterpillar host plants include: Artemisia, which is preferred by Painted Ladycaterpillars, Hackberry treeswhich host many creatures including the American Snoutand Tawny Emperorcaterpillars while Violets,Purslane, and Sedumwhich will host the lovely Variegated Fritillary.   

Many butterflies will have widely varying food sources.  Much more then nectar passes the pointed proboscis of our protagonist.  Various butterflies will eat everything from leaves and rotting fruit to dead animals and dung.  The greater the variety of native plants you grow including trees, shrubs, blooming perennials and ground covers, the more diverse will be your yards selections of foods, and the more the butterflies will flutter by.  

A butterflies' beauty is bold and obvious, while other garden bugs may appear to human sensibilities as creepy or scary.  However, even the creepy bugs play an important part in our lives.

We like the butterflies, are all connected to, and reliant on a living planetary system stocked full of a huge variety of bugs.  In order to protect one type of insect like the butterfly, we must protect all of the other insects, plants, and animals that live in and create the butterflies ecosystem.

Hints for Butterfly Beginners:

1. Good plants from good sources.

Locally, the best butterfly plant selections are sold at 3 garden stores. Visit all three, they each have different selections and really cool gardeners on staff. 

Landscape Alternatives

, and

Outback Nursery

are my top stops for butterfly garden plants.  Roy at Landscape Alternatives is especially knowledgeable about local butterfly plant selections. 

2.  Good dirt makes good gardens.

Ignore the silly rumors that native plants like “starved” soil.  I don’t have any idea where or how this rumor got started, but it’s a downright lie.  The meadow, prairie, and woodland soils from this region, are some of the richest soils I’ve ever encountered and I’ve checked out dirt around the world.  If you want success with your new butterfly garden, before you plant, remove any sod, wood mulch, landscaping fabric, or other impediment to growth, and lay down at least 6 inches of fresh compost (not bagged, never trust a dirt bag), after laying down the compost turn it into the soil with a shovel leaving large chunks of the soil undisturbed.  After the compost has been incorporated into the soil, simply cover with more compost till the surface of the garden is smooth and then plant away till your garden is full and your heart is content. 

3.  Cover The Ground In Green.

I call this notion “living mulch”.  Not only will this practice keep more moisture in your soil, but by shading the ground, it will help ensure that you are packing your space with plenty of plant diversity.  Lawn grass doesn’t count.  Sod grass lawns provide habitat for neither butterfly, nor bird, nor beast.  When designing your yard, plan for as little lawn, and as much garden as possible.  If you make the flowers happy, you’ll make the butterflies ecstatic!

4.   Grow Many Layers of Canopy.

When we build habitat, it’s good to let nature be our guide.  Before the Twin Cities existed in this area, there was forest.  When we wish to heal the land locally, we need only help recreate the forest.  Native trees and shrubs should be included in the plan for any well landscaped twin cities yard.  I like to plant meadow plants around and underneath newly establishing trees.  Meadows are what the forest uses to recreate itself and fill in the gaps after windfalls and forest fires.  Think of our city building and farming practices as being as destructive to the local forests as a fire or tornado, then you can begin to see the amazing amount of repair we need to create in our environment before it will be healthy again.

5.   Never Use Pesticides or Chemical Fertilizers.

Butterflies are delicate, and we aren’t all that much tougher then them. It doesn’t take much to upset the balance of health in any ecosystem. We’ve already discussed how tiny decisions have big impacts, and this is certainly the case here.  

The gentle breeze blown by the beating wings of a butterfly in your back yard could just be the catalyst for the creation of a current of cultural change in America.  Life is funny like that.  Little actions in one place can have huge impacts in seemingly unrelated, far away places. A friend of mine once said to me of butterflies “they should be called flutter-byes, that’s what they do”.  I couldn’t agree more.  Now is the best time to plan a butterfly garden, before the growing season flutters by.

Worms Go To School

Worms eat our food scraps and leave compost in the soil.  Compost feeds the plants and the plants feed us.  This winter the pre-schoolers at Anishinabe Academy in South Minneapolis are learning how this simple and respectful cycle works by growing worms fed with the kids own food scraps right in their classroom.  While children at Anishinabe are learning in class about worms, soil, seeds, plants, food, and health, a team of energized, organized grown-ups from the school and community are learning how to grow opportunities for the kids to get their hands dirty in the garden.

I’m not sure if worms can smile, but I smile when I think about kids learning how to empower their health, respect their environment, and sustain their culture. 

Recently Jonathan Beutler, a community educator and worm grower offered to work with Russ Henry of Giving Tree Gardens and teachers from Anishinabe Acadamy, to facilitate worm bin classes and equipped the classrooms with all the knowledge and gear they will need to keep on growing worms and soil from food scraps all year long.


Allies come in all different shapes and sizes, so please don’t judge a worm by it’s squirm

Worms are easy!  Here’s a few do’s and don’ts:

DO use 2 opaque bins stacked inside each other with lots of air holes drilled through the inside bin and the lid.

DOuse shredded leaves for worm bin medium, wet your medium with lukewarm water till it’s damp, not soaked.

DO use a little sand (worms don’t have teeth and use the grit to help them digest)

DO Feed The Worms!  Red Wigglers like to eat a variety of foods including but not limited to: leafy greens, potatoes, banana peels, coffee grounds, egg shells, leaves and trimmings, tea bags, cereal, and grains.

DO tuck the worm food under the soil, the worms like to live in the dark and this also helps keep any smells down


Don’t drown your worms, they like a moist but not soaked medium,

Don’t have a stinky bin, keep out dairy or meat!

When your worm bin gets ½ full of compost, remove the compost by screening out the worms orsimply scoop all worm laden compost over to one side of the bin.  On the other side make up some new medium with sand and food scraps, most of your worms will find their way over to the new medium within a couple of days.  After you’ve got the compost mostly worm free, go feed the plants! Don’t put a lot of citrus in the bin, this may make the bin too acidic for the worms

Compost, It's Hot!

These days it seems folks all around me are taking bold strides to “green up” their everyday lives.  Whether we’re motivated to reclaim our health from the abominable agriculture and healthcare industries, or take back our wealth from the robber barons of the big energy companies, all of us are awakening to the idea that it’s time we followed that sage bumper sticker advice and remember how to "live simply so that we may all simply live". 

Composting is one of the simplest things that I’ve ever learned.  As a designer of Earth friendly landscapes and organic gardens, part of my job is to help folks implement changes right outside their doors that positively impact the entire global ecosystem.  I routinely testify that there is no greater teacher of natural methods then nature itself.  

So what does nature tell us about compost? 

In nature there is no waste.  Any creature lucky enough to emerge from the muck is quickly turned back into muck upon death, at which point another creature feeds on the muck created by the first creature. When we compost we pay direct homage to this ancient cycle, and our gardens display the rewards of this environmentally respectful approach.  What I’m getting at here is that nature shows us that compost grows great plants.  Compost has always been the only sustainable means of creating fertility in soil.

Okay so enough about why we should compost, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty.

First of all, I’m through with black plastic compost bins. Ineffective, ugly, and misleading to folks, these bins are ridiculous.  We already know that the act of composting at home is a way of copying nature.  Ask yourself, when was the last time you found a black plastic compost bin on the prairie, or in the woods, or wetlands?  Compost happens in nature completely unaided and unhindered by plastic bins.  Instead all the parts of the trees, and plants grow up and then periodically or seasonally die off to fall loosely across an open area where the rain soaks the leaves, and the wind and animals stir the whole thing up.  After a good sit on the floor of the forest or prairie, a dead leaf or fallen apple becomes soil.  At home we copy this process, in an open air compost bin or compost pile we mix together our kitchen waste such as fruits and vegetables, coffee, egg shells, grains, and bread, with our yard waste such as leaves and grass cuttings.

This edition of The Seed is dedicated to the hundreds of folks who've asked me how they can make a functional, affordable, and aesthetically pleasing compost system at home.  Giving Tree

is proud to have partnered with another green thinker,

Margaret Wilke

to bring you a great gardeners thoughts on growing garden gold from garbage!

Garden How To :

home composting made easy

When attempting to adapt open air composting to the urban environment a little experienced advice can be handy.  I always describe the best urban composting system as the 4-Bin system that I learned from my friend

Margaret Wilke

.  Simply make 4 bins that are at least 3 feet wide and 3 feet deep each.  The bins should be made out of whatever re-usable construction materials you have around.  I love to use chicken wire and stakes because they’re cheap and breathable.  Make sure the sides of your bins allow for a lot of air flow, so if you make your bins out of wood leave a few inches of space between each board.  Situate your bins in a location that is easily accessible so you don’t feel like you’re going for a hike each time you bring a bucket of kitchen scraps out.

  If you are worried about ill-tempered neighbors or city inspectors, you could always plant raspberry bushes along the sides of your bins.  That way the bins will be disguised and you’ll have a peace offering to share with any disgruntled passers by.  Using your 4-bin system should look a little something like this:

Bin 1:

  This is a storage space for yard waste.

Bin 2

:  Whenever I’ve collected enough food waste in my kitchen scrap bucket I empty the bucket into Bin 2 and then I layer on a healthy dose of yard waste from Bin 1.

Bin 3

:  After Bin 2 is full, I move all of its contents into Bin 3.

Bin 4

:  After Bin 3 is full, I move all of its contents into Bin 4.

By the time you’ve layered and then moved your compostables from bin to bin a few times you’ve got yourself some real garden gold.  Feed your new plantings plenty of this fine homemade magic and watch them grow healthy and bountiful.  Give the entire garden a 2-inch layer of compost each spring in order to ensure a full season of growth.

Margaret talks compost


stands beside the compost system that she's been faithfully using for more then 20 years in the picture below.  Composting is one of Margaret's passions, and her wisdom rubs off on anyone who visits her gardens!

"Composting is one of my passions.

  I think it is because it is a kind of alchemy.  You can turn things that people normally throw away into GOLD!  Well, not real gold, but something as valuable as gold to anyone who gardens.  You would have to pay a lot of money to get the kind of enrichment for your soil that organic compost gives you, and my bet is it wouldn’t be as good, either for the garden or for the environment.

It all starts in the kitchen.

  We keep an old ice cream bucket with a lid handy in the kitchen sink. Everything that is plant based, that normally would go into the trash, winds up in the bucket instead.  Even with just two of us these days, my husband and I, we often have a bucket or more of material to take out to the compost heap every day, especially in the summer.  It makes us very aware of how much we are dependent on the products from the earth for our health and well being.  Food comes from somewhere, and it’s not the grocery store!  And plant material needs to go back into the garden to complete the God-given natural cycle that sustains life.

We compost as long as we can into the fall, and begin again in the spring as soon as there are any days above freezing. Actually, I should rephrase that. I compost as long as I can into the fall, and begin again in the spring as soon as there are any days above freezing. My husband just puts up with me.

Here’s what goes into the bucket from the kitchen:

All vegetable and fruit trimmings, skins, seeds, stems, leaves, etc.

Coffee grounds (very key because they have nitrogen that helps the compost “cook”)

Tea bags

Egg shells

Left over / day old / moldy bread products (no butter please!)

My family knows that Mom will have a fit if she finds a banana peel in the kitchen trashcan. Roses love bananas.

We add this kitchen mix to the compost pile daily and ALWAYS cover it with dry leaves or fresh green material such as garden trimmings and grass clippings (IF they are chemical free). It is amazing how fast those banana peels, potato skins, and broccoli stems break down and become completely unrecognizable! Eggshells take longer, so I generally try to break them up before putting them in the pile. If there hasn’t been rain for a while I occasionally water down the piles, but not very often. Once in a while I shovel some partially finished compost and/or garden soil over the top of everything to give it the microbes it needs to break down. That also ensures there are no odors from the pile for neighbors to complain about. Keeping the fresh additions from the kitchen COVERED is key to having an odor free pile. It keeps inquiring animals at bay as well. Also you won’t attract flies or bees when the fresh stuff is kept adequately covered.

Above, the compost process begins in earnest when kitchen scraps are mixed with yard waste in Bin # 1

A mix of green(kitchen waste) and brown (yard waste) materials is ideal. I use everything from the garden EXCEPT weeds with seeds. I have learned the hard way that weed seeds will make it through most backyard composting systems. These piles are not usually large enough to generate the high heat needed to kill weed seeds. I am also very careful about which spent flowers with seeds I put into my compost piles as well. Your garden will be entirely black-eyed susans, for example, or purple coneflowers if you put the flower heads with these seeds into your compost. I generally cut off the flower heads and then throw the stems and leaves into the compost. Otherwise I just pull up over-zealous plants when they’ve finished blooming and pile them in a dark corner under the evergreens in the back of the yard where they are out of sight. There they break down but don’t get enough light for the seeds to germinate.

Bins number 2 and 3 show us the various stages of waste becoming soil.  Bin number 3 below is full of healthy happy compost just waiting to spread its organic fertile magic!

As for brown material, hay without seeds will work, but is expensive. I have sometimes used oat straw that has seeds in it, the kind used for Halloween decorations, particularly if someone gives it to me free. If I’m sure the pile will be completely composted, then I feel okay about adding it to the compost pile. The sprouts of oat seeds from the straw are easily identifiable and pull up readily if a few of them make it through the composting process. But, I wouldn’t want them all over the garden, so I don’t use oat straw as mulch.

Once a summer I do a major turning of the piles. This is when a strong husband comes in handy. But I have done it myself, it just takes a little longer, since I have to do it a bit at a time, not all at once as hubby prefers (“Let’s just get it over with!”)

Margaret's compost system is the most functional home composting method that I've ever seen.  Notice how the posts are all slotted which makes moving and scooping the pile very easy.

Making compost in Minnesota has the advantage of the freeze / thaw process that helps break down organic matter without any help from you at all. It takes about a full season to make really good compost. Once you have the cycle started you can easily keep it going and will be supplied with compost pretty much throughout the growing season.

I have three compost bins that my husband built for me at least 20 years ago. They are about 4 feet across and 5' deep. They stand side by side with removable boards in the front of each bin, and also between the bins so that turning material from one bin to the next is not too difficult. I always keep fresh material separated from the 1/2 completed compost, and from the aged compost, so three bins are needed.

Once a bin is emptied by using the compost for potting-up spring plants or spreading it on the gardens, I turn the next most finished compost into it. This aerates the pile and gets it cooking. Then I turn the least finished compost into the just emptied bin and start a new pile. Composting fits naturally into the cycle of growing and life in the garden.

Try it you’ll like it!"

From the kitchen to the garden and back to the kitchen, Margaret's compost system is easy to build, fun to use, and it makes the best dirt around, just have a look at

Margaret's gardens

to see for yourself!