Gear Up for Leon County Extension’s Garden Educator Training Series

The Garden Educator Training Series helps garden leaders start or improve their school or community garden. Photo by Molly Jameson.


By Tiffany Torres

Tiffany Torres is the Family Nutrition Program Northwest District Food Systems Specialist with UF/IFAS Extension.

With the cooler months of fall upon us, school gardens across the Panhandle are beginning to awaken from their summer slumber. Soon, students and teachers will begin to replenish the soil, plant their seeds, and dive into an engaging edible education experience.

For these schools and communities, gardens are much more than just a few beds of carrots. School gardens serve as outdoor classrooms, bringing academic concepts to life in new and exciting ways, while also encouraging environmental stewardship. In addition, school gardens can expose students to lifelong healthy eating habits by inspiring them to try new fruits and vegetables. In time, the school garden can become a facet of school culture and pride, ultimately reinforcing an overall healthier school food environment for students, teachers, parents, and the broader community.

School gardens can inspire students to try foods, impacting their eating habits long-term. Photo by Molly Jameson.

To help support teachers and other school garden stakeholders on this journey, specialists at the University of Florida IFAS Extension Family Nutrition Program developed a seasonal school and community garden training. The “Garden Educator Training Series” provides teachers and volunteers with tools for improving school garden education, enjoyment, and long-term outcomes. This monthly education and networking opportunity welcomes teachers who want to start and sustain school gardens, college students who want to volunteer with local gardening projects, and other garden enthusiasts, such as Master Gardeners, who want to lend their time to ensure the success of school and community gardens.

Each session includes three engaging components: 1) seasonally relevant, hands-on gardening skills; 2) curriculum and education connections; and 3) community organizing strategies to build team commitments. Sessions also include an opportunity to share successes and challenges amongst fellow attendees, resulting in a stronger school and community garden network. Each garden project leader will build a “Living History Binder,” which they will fill with resources throughout the series and use with their team to help organize their garden projects.

Through the Garden Educator Training Series, it is our hope that everyone involved will gain tangible and valuable skills to launch or improve their school or community garden projects. The program will give educators the tools necessary to design their gardens to be outdoor classrooms; promote health and wellness through gardening; facilitate community engagement; and teach students valuable life skills such as teamwork, cooperation, focus, and patience –  inspiring the next generation of “garden leaders, not just garden weeders.”

The Series provides teachers and volunteers networking opportunities and tools to improve school garden education. Photo by Molly Jameson.

Interested in participating in the Garden Educator Training Series? The Series is free of charge, and will take place at the Leon County Extension Office (615 Paul Russell Rd, Tallahassee, FL). Fall sessions are 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. on September 14th, October 12th, November 9th, and November 30th. To register, visit the UF/IFAS Leon County Eventbrite website (

For further information, please contact the UF/IFAS Extension Office at Leon County by calling (850) 606-5200.

Landscaping for Children

This sandbox area at Bok Tower Gardens is bordered by a stone “snake” and covered for shade, making it a real draw for small children and their parents. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

I recently had the pleasure of visiting Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wales, Florida and experienced one of their newest additions, a children’s garden. As much a playground as a place for growing plants, it was full of whimsical energy and invitations to explore. The entire area encouraged children to reach beyond their comfort zones and engage with nature, including an outdoor art space, a climbing area made of lean-to logs, and a covered sand “box” shaped like a snake.

In recent years, sociologists, educators, and health experts have bemoaned the loss of free outdoor play in the lives of children. Multiple factors, including the rise in electronic entertainment, more organized, practice-heavy youth sports, fears of crime/abduction or just lack of safe access to ride bikes or walk, have contributed to a drop in the frequency and length of time that kids spend outdoors playing on their own. Many readers can probably relate to my childhood.  We would take off on bikes in the mornings during summer and not come back until we got hungry. We didn’t have cell phones or GPS, and we knew all of our neighbors so we had a place to go if we had a rare emergency. The results of fewer child-led outdoor explorations include increases in childhood obesity, fear of the outdoors, difficulty with balance, agility, and managing excess energy.

When children help plant a garden, they will be more interested in taking care of it–and tasting the fruits (or vegetables) of their labor! Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

One way to encourage kids to get outside and explore is to plant something in your yard, school, or nearby park that can serve double-duty as a window to explore. Landscaping with young people in mind should include a variety of plants with interesting heights and textures, fruit-bearing shrubs or trees to engage the sense of taste, and lots of color. Logs to sit and climb on are perfect for developing balance and learning to take calculated risks. In addition, it is important to engage kids in the design and planting of the garden or landscape–if they have a hand in developing the area, they’ll be more invested in its success. In fact, research has consistently shown that children who help care for school gardens are more willing to try the food they’ve helped to grow. Beyond expanding a healthy palate, participation in school gardens can increase “soft” skills, such as the ability to work effectively in a team, better communication, and an increased appreciation for nature. Many kids also do better in science and gain a deeper understanding of proper nutrition after working with gardens.

If you are not a gardener or landscaper but interested in taking children outdoors where they can learn and become more comfortable, the US Forest Service has taken the research related to “nature-deficit disorder” so seriously that multiple “Children’s Forests” have been developed. While there are still very few in the southeastern US, there are dozens around the country.  The stated goals for a Children’s Forest are: 1) Connect kids, families, and adults to healthy outdoor activities across all landscapes. 2) Create new education and career opportunities. 3) Foster an understanding of how our changing environment affects the world and how people can work together to embrace these changes. 4) Provide professional development opportunities for educators, with emphasis on conservation and the natural world. Local state and national parks often provide excellent programs for families as well, such as the National Park System’s Junior Ranger Program.

The landscaping at this coffee shop uses color, log seating/climbing, and a variety of interesting plants to attract children to engage with the outdoors.

A program in Gainesville called “Kids in the Woods” has recognized the lack of youth engagement in the outdoors and created field trips and curriculum for students designed to help make sure they are comfortable in the great outdoors. No matter how you engage the youth in your life with nature, it is important that they get outside, get dirty, and go beyond their comfort zone. Their health, academic success, and even motor skills needed for sports and daily life will reap the benefits!


Youth Gardening Grows Across the Country

Youth Gardening Grows Across the Country

Backyard gardens have increased in popularity the last few years, with record calls to Extension offices statewide on how to grow tomatoes and preserve produce.  Along with the boom in home gardening, schools have steadily added gardens to their campuses. There are countless benefits to including children in growing their own food. Personal experience and numerous studies have shown that children improve their attitude towards fruits and vegetables and are more likely to try new foods if they’ve helped grow it themselves.  Urban-dwelling youth find a safe place to interact with nature, increase their awareness of where food comes, and learn to be responsible for a living thing. Youth of all ages can gain critical math and science skills from measuring, planting, observing and problem-solving.  Even toddlers enjoy scooping up soil, holding worms, and seeing the growth of a tiny seed or plant over time.  Any veteran gardener will tell you that the fresh air and physical work improves their health and mental outlook.

This raised bed garden is used at the Roy Hyatt Environmental Center to teach youth about gardening and provide food for numerous animals housed at the center.  Photo credit: Molly O'Connor

This raised bed garden is used at the Roy Hyatt Environmental Center to teach youth about gardening and provide food for numerous animals housed at the center. Photo credit: Molly O’Connor

School gardens are being used around the country to achieve all of these objectives, including intangible skills such as teamwork, confidence, and patience. The utility of gardens for lessons on art, poetry, creative writing, and music should not be underestimated; countless writers and artists have been inspired by the natural world.

Across the country, Extension programs, Master Gardeners, and 4-H staff are lending their gardening expertise to schools and learning centers from preschool to the University level. The Junior Master Gardner 4-H program is an excellent hybrid between horticultural and youth education, and is set up with curriculum and lessons for working with kids in both a classroom and field setting.  The Florida Ag in the Classroom “Gardening for Grades” program has curriculum for elementary through high school levels  correlated with state standards and ready to go for a classroom.  Youth study soil structure, chemistry, botany, environmental science, agriculture, meteorology, and wildlife ecology in an engaging, hands-on way.  In-service training workshops are held periodically to prepare teachers for beginning and teaching from a school garden, so ask your local Horticulture or Agriculture agent about these programs.

Typically, backyard gardeners, schools, or Scout groups will create a raised-bed garden, which reduces weeds and water needs and allows for easier control of soil type and maintenance.  Guidelines for raised bed gardens, for home or educational institution, are available here.

Vegetable gardens aren’t the only teaching tool in the horticultural world. Butterfly and wildlife gardens are (pardon the pun) perennially popular, and are typically easy to implement.  Youth may learn valuable lessons on food webs and insect life cycles in addition to the soil and botanical information. For more information on the benefits of gardening with youth, visit the UF school garden site or contact your local horticulture Extension agent.


Calculating the True Benefits of Trees

How much is a 400-year old live oak tree worth?  Can you buy one online, with free shipping, and charge it to the credit card?  Pick one up at the local home improvement store?  Ask Santa? Of course not.  When admiring a tree that size, we have an innate sense of its value, but we would often have a hard time expressing it in dollars.  How about a cluster of trees in a wooded lot?  Are they worth more than the dollar store being built there? We are conditioned to appreciate the value of things because there’s a price tag on them.  Unfortunately, natural phenomena do not have price tags, and many things that are “free” are often perceived to have no real value.

Planting a tree is an excellent way to insure clean air and water in the future.  Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson

Planting a tree is an excellent way to insure clean air and water in the future. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson

Trees, however, have value far beyond the price one might pay at a plant nursery.  Their roots absorb polluted storm-water runoff, the primary cause of decreased water quality in Florida.  Their leaves take in carbon dioxide and release the very oxygen we breathe.  Providing homes for wildlife, fruit and nuts for human and animal consumption, compounds that form the basis of countless medications—trees provide innumerable benefits to ecosystems both local and worldwide.  If a local government were to construct a facility or method that could filter the air and water at the same efficiency and volume of the trees in ones county, it would cost the community millions.

This street tree in Chicago was given a price tag to raise awareness of its value. Photo credit: Eric Stevenson

This street tree in Chicago was given a price tag to raise awareness of its value. Photo credit: Eric Stevenson

But how is is possible to capture these benefits in a way that we can relate to?  Luckily, a partnership between arborists, engineers, and researchers with private industry, the US Forest Service, and the USDA has resulted in an excellent online tool called the National Tree Benefits calculator. Based on software called “i-Tree,” the calculator allows anyone to enter their zip code, choose from a list of common tree species, and using the diameter of a single tree, calculate its economic value.  For example, a 15-inch live oak tree at the Escambia Extension office provides an annual benefit of $79 every year, increasing in value as it grows in girth and height.  The website delves deeper into the tree’s value, placing storm-water uptake value at $23.77, electricity savings at $15.23, and the capability to remove 607 pounds of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Extension Agents are currently working with youth in Escambia County to calculate these values for trees on their school campuses, local parks, and yards.  When we’re finished, we will hang actual price tags on the trees showing their annual economic value to showcase these facts to residents of the community.

Interested in what kind of economic benefit that magnolia in the front yard is giving you?  Check it out yourself at, and let your neighbors know how valuable those trees can really be.

Consider Volunteering at a Local School

Consider Volunteering at a Local School

Image Credit: Eddie Powell

Before the new school year begins for the kids in your county, consider volunteering at your local school garden.

The following information has been adapted from the UF IFAS Florida school garden competition website article “Benefits of School Gardens”

School gardens offer benefits to volunteers and students that go beyond the classroom. They provide a platform for students, teachers, and members of the community to interact in an outdoor learning environment. This type of interaction creates opportunities for students to improve social skills and practice collaborative learning.

It is essential that school gardens are given proper care and maintenance. Giving students the responsibility to water and care for the plants instills in them a sense of accountability. Patience is another virtue that students practice through garden participation, as plants do not grow, flower, or fruit overnight.

As the garden grows and becomes fruitful, students will take pride in the efforts that they put forth. This pride can help bolster self-esteem and allow students to invest in the beautification of their school. In this age of urbanization, children’s contact with nature is limited. Thus, school gardens ensure student contact with the environment.

School gardens allow students to work in a non-threatening outdoor environment where they can interact and learn about nature. Studies have shown that students who are allowed to learn in an outdoor environment, such as a garden, have improved environmental attitudes.

School gardens are a wonderful and exciting way to make school subjects more interesting and meaningful. School gardens create a learning structure that allows for creative thought, active learning, and social skills. The garden is a living lab that can serve as an excellent resource to teach various subjects, while allowing students to learn in an environment that is atypical to the sterile classrooms to which most students are accustomed.

Teachers throughout the country are discovering how useful and educational gardening can be. School gardens should be used to teach practically every subject covered in an elementary school classroom. The garden is a perfect place for students to learn about plants, insects, weather, and many other science and math-related topics.


For more information on helping a local school garden programs, contact your county University of Florida / IFAS Extension Office, which should have a list of the schools in your area that are teaching gardening. Also remember to ask about the Farm to School Program, which has resources for school gardens.