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.


Giving Tree Gardens landscaping department offers year round garden and landscape maintenance services. Our landscaping maintenance crews are out maintaining our client's organic gardens and landscapes from the time the last snow melts in the spring till the ground freezes again in the fall.

We'll maintain your landscape through the winter months with our trusted Snow Removal Service.   Our landscape maintenance services include composting, weeding, perennial division, tree and shrub pruning, and mulching.  In addition our maintenance crews plant annuals in the spring and bulbs in the fall.  Giving Tree Gardens landscaping  maintenance crew makes sure your organic gardens grow more lovely with each passing season.

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.

Eat Your Weedies


said it best,

“A weed is a flower too, once you get to know it.”

The dandelion for instance.  How many of us are completely unaware of the untamed beauty of this plant? 

Providing free nourishing food, and medicine for passers by, offering soil fertility, and perfect plant companionship for tomatoes and other shallow rooted crops, and all of this in a form that is simple, ruggedly beautiful, and completely unstoppable.  


Nature utilizes weeds to perform functions that are often beyond our capacity to easily grasp.  In an abandoned lot for instance, our hero the dandelion will drive roots into the earth allowing minerals and nutrients from deep in the ground to be accessed by other shallow rooted plants.  The channels made in the ground by dandelions roots also help drive water and air downward increasing the overall capacity for root depth and allowing water to enter the water table instead of rushing off to damage local creeks, rivers, or lakes.

Let's all yank from the root the damaging notion that some plants are evil.  Instead let's see beauty, life, and nourishment wherever we can.

Dandelion, (Taraxacum)


If you were offered a hardy perennial plant that bloomed all season, was entirely edible, could be used for medicine, helped shallow rooted crops like tomatoes grow stronger, and provided habitat for bees and butterflies would you think I was crazy for even suggesting that such a plant exists?  Sure you would if you were unaware of the amazing super powers of the Dandelion.

Now the English name dandelion is a corruption of the French dent de lion meaning "lion's tooth", referring to the coarsely toothed leaves.  The shape of the leaf is hardly the most notable part of this plant.  I’d have to agree that taraxacum is a lion among plants, but given all this plant offers the world I think it’s time for a new name.  Terrific-lion seems much better suited then dandelion ever was.

Terrific-lion grows everywhere, the leaves are yummy and full of vitamins A, C, and K.  The root makes a tea that can help with liver detoxification.

Creeping Charlie, (Glechoma hederacea)


Speaking of poorly named plants…. wow, I sure don’t think I’d want to meet anyone whose nickname was creeping charlie, but then sometimes when we get to know a person we realize that our ideas about who they are don’t always match reality.  Such is the case with dear charlie.

Europeans who traditionally used it as food and medicine imported creeping charlie to America.  In days of old, people would eat the plant fresh and cooked and put it to use also as a flavoring and clarifying agent in beer.

Lately, while speaking with a landscaping client who happens to be one of the world’s foremost experts on herbal treatments for autism in children, I was amazed to learn about the magic, magnetic nature of plants and people.

The swing set in my clients’ back yard is the preferred hang out for her young daughter who due in part to high mercury content in her blood lives with the effects of autism.  As an herbalist, my client, Lise Wolf, had been introduced to the notion that plants are attracted to those creatures that they can help heal and nurture.  One day Lise noticed an interesting phenomenon.  The creeping charlie in her back lawn was growing from all directions toward her daughter’s swing set.  The growth pattern was so pronounced that the creeping charlie was actually climbing the supports of the swing set in lieu the rest of her yard.  As soon as she noticed this pattern the herbalist in her took over and she set to researching the association between creeping charlie and heavy metals in the blood.  What she found was inspiring.

Creeping charlie  has been used since the introduction of lead based paints in Europe to treat what was known as “painter’s colic”, or lead poisoning, and modern herbalists swear by it’s use for treating heavy metal poisoning.  Since finding this information Lise has been using dear old creeping charlie to effectively reduce mercury levels in her daughter and the other kids she helps.

Charlie should also not be discounted as an important pollinator food source.  During the spring and summer, an organic lawn covered in creeping charlie and white clover is a foraging bee and butterfly buffet.

So while charlie does creep his way through the garden, his popular nickname would tend to leave a gardener feeling creeped out, and given how terrific Charlie is, I say it’s time we give this fine friend a new nickname.  Good Time Charlie used to make us sing the garden blues, but now that he’s better understood I’m sure we’ll all be singing a different tune.


Lamb's Quarters (Chenopodim album)

Grows like crazy, and tastes like spinach.  These are the outstanding traits of lamb’s quarters.  The list of minerals and nutrients available from lamb’s quarters are almost as long as it’s list of common names.  Aside from Lamb's quarters, this plant is known world wide as every thing from goosefoot, fat-hen, nickel greens, and pigweed, to the nicknames, which denote it’s preference for compost piles, dungweed, and my personal favorite, dirty dick.

While the nickname dirty dick works wonders at wiggling the giggle out of folks, it only tells half the story.  This plant is nutritious, and that’s not dirty, that’s delicious!  Delicious Dick is the new nickname for this strong, upright, freely seeding weed.  You’ll find new dinner delights with Delicious Dick in your dish!


Terrific-lions, Good Time Charlie, and Delicious Dick are all right outside your door!  A buffet of heroic plants ready to please your pallet, and these three are just the beginning.  Wood Sorrel, Burdock, Chickweed, Violets, Daylillies, Garlic Mustard, Milk Thistle, Plantain, Purslain, and Nettle are a few of the other heroes of health that grow freely all around us here in Minnesota and Wisconsin.