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Wednesday, January 25, 2017

January 2017 Michigan School Garden Newsletter


January 2017


It's Going to be a Great Year for School Gardens!


I hope your seed catalogs are arriving in the mail – they are great learning tools for your students – and for you! There is a lot to look forward to in 2017 if you are a school gardener – read on and find out J




Cover Crops as a learning tool in school gardens

By Kristine Hahn


Do you ever wonder how farmers replenished soil fertility and grew crops before the development of commercial fertilizers?  While chemical fertilizers resulted in huge gains in crop yields, when improperly used they have also resulted in negative environmental impacts, such as contamination of groundwater, release of greenhouse gases, loss of crop genetic diversity and eutrophication of rivers, streams, lakes and coastal marine ecosystems.  Additionally, recent research by Michigan State University and Illinois University show that long term nitrogen fertilizer use causes nitrogen fixing bacteria present in the root systems of legume or pea family plants to be less effective. 


Prior to World War II, farmers reinvigorated their soils with animal manures, and by alternating their crops with plants in the legume or pea family that have beneficial bacteria in their roots. These symbiotic bacteria convert nitrogen in the air into soil nitrogen compounds that plants can absorb.  These types of crops (and many others) are often referred to as "cover crops" because they are grown to cover or protect soils from erosive winter winds and to increase soil fertility. 


In the past, cover crop seed was typically only available in large quantities, such as 50 pound bags, making them impractical for gardeners to use.  The past decade has seen resurgence in the research and use of cover crops in home gardens, market gardens and organic agriculture as a practical alternative to chemical fertilizers to increase soil fertility. In response to this new market niche, seed companies have begun selling cover crop seed in smaller quantities that are useful to gardeners and smaller growers.


Cover crops can be a great educational tool to teach students about how plants can replenish the soil without inorganic fertilizers.  A good primer on cover crops or green manures is available from Michigan State University Extension at this link.


You can also use cover crops as a real life example of the nitrogen cycle in the garden.  Cover crops and the microbes present in their roots are also an example of a truly valuable ecosystem service – adding organic matter and nitrogen to increase the fertility of our soils without inorganic fertilizers.  Moreover, planting a cover crop in your vegetable bed provides a home and food for valuable soil microorganisms, suppresses weeds, increases water infiltration and returns organic material and nutrients to the soil.


 A good choice for fall planting is winter wheat or cereal rye. Both cover crops will produce some shoot growth in the fall, die back in winter and then regrow next spring. Be sure to turn the top growth over next spring before it is 6 inches tall and gets too fibrous to rapidly decompose, or goes to seed.  


If you miss the fall window to plant cover crops, you can still frost seed some clover in late winter.  Frost seeding is setting cover crop seeds into soils that are going through the thaw and freeze cycle of late winter.  The heaving of the soils will work the cover crop seed into the soil and produce a cover crop in early spring. Allow at least two to three weeks for the incorporated cover crop to decompose before planting your vegetables.


For more information on choosing a cover crop for a vegetable garden, visit the Midwest Cover Crops Council Vegetable Cover Crop Decision Tool.  This is a very useful application where you enter the state and county you live in and you will get appropriate planting times for different cover crops, and could be part of an activity for students learning about soils.  More specific information is available by inputting additional information about your soils. 


This article was published by Michigan State University Extension and the staff in the Community Food Systems Workgroup who support Farm to School activities including school gardens.  For more information, visit To have a digest of information delivered straight to your email inbox, visit To contact an expert in your area, visit, or call 888-MSUE4MI (888-678-3464).



Move your school garden education indoors this winter

Try seasonal taste testing activities in the classroom to continue learning about Michigan agriculture.


By Kaitlin Wojciak

 The winter months can pose a challenge for school garden education, since many gardens do not have a season extension structure like a greenhouse or hoop house. Planning your spring garden is an essential and imaginative activity that can take place during this time, but some school gardeners will still long for hands-on learning.  One fun (and tasty!) topic to explore is seasonal taste testing.


School gardeners likely know that many Michigan crops are harvested during the summer and fall months. It often comes as a surprise that a huge number of Michigan products are available during the winter months, due to storage, season extension and preservation.


The Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems has developed a Michigan Produce Availability Chart that shows most of the Michigan produce items that are available during the winter months. This is an excellent learning opportunity for students to better understand seasonality, storage options for food, and how some farmers can harvest fresh produce from hoop houses year-round. Many of these produce items taste even better when harvested in the fall or winter. This is due to a physiological response where plants increase the sugar content in their cells to prevent damage caused by ice crystals. This short video from the University of California Science Blog explains the phenomena using carrots as an example.


To illustrate how delicious winter Michigan produce tastes, try making some recipes in your classroom that feature fall and winter crops.


Michigan Fresh has a wide variety of recipes for Michigan vegetables and fruits that you can search based on what seasonal produce you can purchase in your area. Check the Michigan Farmers Market Association market finder to find year-round markets in your area. Two recipes to try making with your students are pickled beets and kale chips.


Other resources to check for recipes are Making Michigan Recipes Work and the USDA What's Cooking? Mixing Bowl searchable recipe database.


If you need further resources on how to conduct a taste test in your classroom, stay tuned for more articles from Michigan State University Extension!

School Garden Grant Information

  • American Honda Foundation - Due dates three times per year, next one is August 1
    • Schools, nonprofits classified as 501(c) (3) s and private or public schools (elementary and secondary) are eligible.
    • Award range: $20,000 - $75,000 for one year
  • Captain Planet FoundationDue January 31st for spring and summer projects
    • Schools and organizations that have an annual operating budget of less than $3 million are eligible to apply. Projects should be performed by youth and have real environmental outcomes.
    • Award range is between $500 and $2,500.
  • The Home Depot FoundationCommunity Impact Grants currently open
    • Schools and 501(c) (3) organizations are eligible.
    • Awards are up to $5,000
    • The Home Depot also has opportunities to match donations from local stores with nonprofits. Follow this link for more information on how to request a match. 
  • Project Orange ThumbDue February 10th, 2017
    • Must be a not-for-profit or 501©(3) organization that has not received this grant in the past
    • Awards are $3,500 in gift cards and tools to help support applicants goals of neighborhood beautification and horticulture education
  • Project Produce Fruit and Veggie Grants for Schoolsdistributed on a rolling basis
    • Any district or independent school participating in the National School Lunch Program is eligible.
    • Must be submitted by district food service director.
    • These grants are $2,500 and can assist with offering educational activities in the lunchroom, encouraging students to try new veggies and fruits.
  • Youth Micro-grants through Karma for Cara FoundationRolling deadline
    • Youth under age 18 who are working on a community service project (including school and community gardens).
    • Awards are between $250 - $1,000.



School Garden Educational Opportunities


  • SAVE THE DATE:  Starting and Sustaining a School Garden happens on Thursday,      April 13, 2017 (the day before Good Friday) at Charles L Bowers School Farm located at 1219 E Square Lake Rd, Bloomfield Hills, MI 48304.  Registration details will be posted in next month's newsletter, or contact Kristine Hahn at 248-802-4590 or







Best Regards,

Kristine Hahn

Michigan State University Extension Educator

Community Food Systems

Eastern Market Office

1445 Adelaide

Detroit, MI 48207


248-802-4590 (CELL)

313-567-8726 (FAX)

MSU is an affirmative action, equal opportunity employer.  Michigan State University programs and materials are open to all without regard to race, color, national origin, gender, gender identity, religion, age, height, weight, disability, political beliefs, sexual orientation, marital status, family status or veteran status.

"Always be humble and kind." - Tim McGraw


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