Debbie’s Diary: Growing School Gardens Summit

Debbie’s Diary: Growing School Gardens Summit


In April, I attended the Growing School Gardens Summit in Denver, Colorado, thanks to support from UCCE San Bernardino.  The conference was promoted as “a gathering to inform, inspire, and invigorate the school garden movement” and was hosted by the Sprouts Healthy Communities Foundation in partnership with LifeLab and the School Garden Support Organization (SGSO) Network. It was so exciting to meet school garden educators and influencers from across the country and return home with a suitcase full of seeds, handouts, business cards, and healthy snacks to motivate me for months to come! In this blog, I want to share my most memorable moments from the conference and give you an update on the Upland High School waste audit.

Growing Garden Leaders

Denver skyline
The first workshop I attended was “Growing Garden Leaders, Not Just Garden Weeders!” presented by Florida Agriculture in the Classroom and the University of Florida Extension. The two organizations collaborated to create and deliver a series of interactive webinars for school garden educators statewide. The training goals were to help educators build gardening confidence, foster collaboration, and strengthen garden programs for the long term.

Monthly webinar topics included planting with students, culinary connections, garden maintenance, seed saving, and composting. To keep trainees engaged remotely, a variety of tools and techniques were used: guest speakers, school and teacher spotlights, live demonstrations, breakout rooms, interactive group platforms, activity kits, Q&A sessions, and a social media group. I'm always looking for more tools to add to my environmental education toolbox! In addition, this type of “train the trainer” framework could be useful for our Master Gardener School Garden Committee.

Providing Effective Support to School Gardens

The “Growing Garden Leaders” workshop dovetailed nicely with another workshop held on the last day of the conference. “Providing Effective Support to School Gardens in Your Region” showed how to increase the impact and effectiveness of garden-based activities with limited capacity. Presented by the United States Botanic Garden and the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (both in Washington, D.C.), the session introduced the Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) framework. This approach advocates building a strong foundation of “tier 1” activities that are available to everyone and disseminated widely. About 80 percent of those served will get what they need from tier 1. Two examples are a school garden guide and a monthly newsletter. The remaining 20 percent will need more support from tiers 2 and 3 such as group training or a site evaluation. This concept resonated with me because our School Garden Committee just finished adding school garden resources to the Master Gardener website, a tier 1 activity. Now we have a place to refer those who contact us for help. 


Dancing to Decomposition!
The second day of the conference began with a rousing, live rendition of the Banana Slug String Band song “Decompostion” from the album Dirt Made My Lunch. I was first introduced to the band's music as a FoodCorps service member in 2019 and still think it's some of the most danceable and educational made for kids.

Edible Schoolyard New Orleans

Staff from Edible Schoolyard New Orleans gave two excellent short talks. Sasha Solano-McDaniel discussed how a Spanish cooking club enabled language acquisition in the kitchen classroom. Both English language learners and native English speakers benefitted from sharing their cultures and building community. Brian Tome outlined how he created a resilient, undemanding, and educational garden at the Phillis Wheatley Community School. He accomplished this by planting cover crops and perennials and creating a food forest using plants  common in the tropics and subtropics such as taro, ginger, turmeric, papaya, and lemongrass. 

Food Forests for Schools

My favorite presentation of the conference was “Food Forests for Schools” presented by The Education Fund, a non-profit organization that provides leadership and support for public education in Miami-Dade County, Florida. Food forests are multi-layered food growing systems consisting of trees, bushes, herbs, vines, and ground covers. In Miami-Dade County, 26 of the 51 elementary schools have perennial, edible landscapes that provide food for students to take home and eat in the cafeteria.

Through the Edible Outdoor Eco-Labs to Accelerate Learning program, The Education Fund installs food forests and shows schools how to use them as outdoor classrooms to teach science and nutrition lessons. The main design elements of the food forest are a defined entrance, walking paths, an outdoor classroom, and a compost circle surrounded by banana trees. I would love to see this type of design used in more school gardens in Southern California. Many tropical plants that grow in South Florida can also grow here at lower elevations.

Building a Sustainable School Garden Program

In “Building and Institutionalizing a Sustainable School Program”, Dan Brown, a junior/senior high school teacher in rural Northern California, described how he and his students started with an existing greenhouse to build a garden program that now sells about 2000 pounds of organic produce each year. In 2007, he began applying for grants and used the Ag Mechanics shop to build raised beds, cold frames, shade frames, and high tunnels. Over the years, the garden program has sold many types of plants and produce, saved seeds, and run a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) project.

Green Bronx Machine

Stephen Ritz, founder of Green Bronx Machine
The most entertaining talk of the closing general session was “The Power of a Plant: A Teacher's Odyssey to Grow Healthy Minds and Schools” by Stephen Ritz, founder of Green Bronx Machine. I don't think I've ever seen a speaker with as much energy and personality. Sporting his signature “cheese” hat and bow tie, Mr. Ritz kept the audience entranced with his rapid-fire, multimedia presentation. For a taste of his presentation style, watch some of the Green Bronx Machine YouTube videos.

Green Bronx Machine started as an after-school, alternative program for high school students and has evolved into an organization that serves more than 50,000 students with an interdisciplinary, project-based curriculum. Green Bronx Machine also supports the Food for Others Garden on a decommissioned city street in the Bronx, a wheelchair-accessible urban farm and culinary training kitchen for special needs students, and an outdoor Learning Garden at Community School 55 among many other projects and partnerships. Truly amazing!

Upland High School Waste Audit Update

Upland Unified Board of Education Meeting
Before I close, I'll give a brief update on the topic of my last blog, the waste audit at Upland High School. On May 17, 2022, members of the Upland High GRO (Grow Recycle Organize) Club and the Upland Unified School District (UUSD) Farm to School Program presented the audit results at a public Board of Education meeting. Since the team only had five minutes to speak, they practiced and refined their presentation multiple times before the big meeting. I'm pleased to report that the presentation was well received, and one of the board members commended the students for their initiative.

As a follow-up to the waste audit, the UUSD Nutrition Services Department is evaluating ways to collect and recycle food waste, increase education on school meal requirements, provide share buckets for unwanted items, switch to bulk condiments and sauces, and make more sustainable purchasing choices. Changes such as these will help UUSD meet the Senate Bill 1383 requirements for organic waste reduction and edible food recovery

Have you enjoyed reading this blog? Do you have questions or need information on environmental topics? If so, send an email to I look forward to hearing from you.


By Deborah Schnur
Author - Environmental Education Coordinator