Joyful Moments: Listening for Spring

Last week Wednesday, I spent the afternoon with the staff of the school where Dirt Girls originated. As soon as I walked through the entrance, I made eye contact with three former Dirt Girls participants: E., L., & P., who were helping with the after-school popcorn fundraiser (pictured above with two of their classmates who also joined my after school garden clubs).

I watched as their faces slowly registered my presence–it’s been nearly a year since I’ve seen any of them. Then, the most joyful expressions emerged from their beautiful faces.

Nothing can make your day more joyful than this kind of recognition from children you love.

When I talk about Dirt Girls to people for the first time, they notice the shift in my energy and excitement. There’s a level of conviction that feels right in my body: I want every child to have a safe place to belong, explore, and experience joy. For me, gardening and science has provided this sense of where I “fit” in the world.

As I look out at my backyard, crowded with weeds that have (over)grown in the last nine months, I am reminded of the school gardens that have been revived over the past year after neglect during the pandemic. I’m also reminded of the possibility that spring’s return instills. Buds breaking, trees leafing, seeds germinating…these are the signs of the sun’s eternal energy that (re)fuels our own physical and metaphorical growth. Much like the spring season awakens plants from dormancy, new beginnings and fresh starts rekindle the commitments we hold most dear.

For me, Dirt Girls a commitment I want to rekindle. Since last summer, I’ve been trying to envision what a Return of the Dirt Girls would look like. I’m still not sure, but I’ve dedicated some of my energy to bringing it into being. Almost daily, I see reminders of how critical it is to empower girls to use their voices to stand up for what is right for themselves and others. One thing that feels very right in this moment is learning with kids outside helping them to see themselves as part of nature.

As I greeted the students last Wednesday, they told me all about the extracurricular activities they’re involved in (soccer, swimming, dance, et.). And yet, one of the very next things out of E’s mouth was, “I wish we could have Dirt Girls again.” I heard the same refrain last time I saw her, at a community event in June of 2022 (pictured at left, with her mom). Prior to that it was at an in-person meet up at Fuller Park in May of 2021.

What could possibly be so powerful that over three years her memory of it persists?

That’s what I need to find out. For the next few months, I’m going on a listening tour. The first step I plan to take in the quest to revive the Dirt Girls program is to hear the stories of past participants. Equipped with tools I learned in “PhD school,” I’ll put on my researcher hat and attempt to capture in the voices that share what made Dirt Girls an inviting way to spend an hour a week.

Next time I see, E. and she asks when we can have Dirt Girls again, I’ll have a more definitive answer.


Growing Smiles: Summer Solstice Summary

Thank you so much for being so inclusive and helping the kids foster mutual respect, I know this is challenging to facilitate and you do a great job.

Dirt Girl Parent, Spring 2022

Although today marks the “official” start to the summer season, the end of the academic school year typically signals summer vacation for most educators. My summer started after the last session of the spring season of Dirt Girls was held on June 10th. It was not quite as hot that day as it is today (104 degrees in Napa!), but it was hot enough that we really looked forward to popsicles!

Dirt Girls 2018 on a field trip to Outdoor Supply Hardware.

Our spring season started April 18th and was filled with smiles. Why focus on smiles? According to a recent research report from the Wallace Foundation, 84% of parents they surveyed rank the statement, “Your child seems happy/likes attending,” as their #1 priority for Out of School (OST) programming.

Smiles matter.

Seven participants wore spring smiles during our twice weekly sessions at New Tech High School. Although this was a new site for me to teach in, and an unfamiliar garden for most of the participants, we gradually developed a connection to the space and engaged in place-based learning. For example, kids had favorite “sit spots” where we would gather as a group or they could observe on their own or complete garden chores. A few loved exploring in the bamboo ‘forest,’ while others preferred watering plants or watching the rosemary hedges for lizards.

Hope: “a belief something will happen” Made from bamboo leaves, a rock, kale and dandelion leaves.

One of our favorite activities was a nature word art challenge. Partners spell an empowering word–such as “hope” or “love”– using pieces found in nature. This activity nurtures creativity, leadership, and communication as partners/teams share roles and space. It also provides a focused, safe way to play outside. The best part is how participants articulated the meaning they find in the words. For example, for the word “hope,” R. thought it meant, “a belief something will happen.”

Planting is always a favorite task. We started the season with sunflower seeds, followed by gladiolus bulbs and edible crops. The garden club advisors at New Tech High were generous with sharing their planting space. This allowed Dirt Girls to sow two ‘three-sisters’ beds (an interplanting of corn, beans, and squash). We also planted a bed of sunflowers for seed saving, and a third containing a mix of edible herbs, vegetables and flowers for tasting (such as cilantro, pansies, radishes, potatoes, etc.). We even tried germinating redwood seeds with varying degrees of success (germination kits provided by One Tree Planted).

After a two-year pandemic pause, it was thrilling to bring Dirt Girls back to life. As the founder and Lead Dirt Girl, I believe this program shows promise for what Out of School Time Programs should offer: “passion, purpose, & voice.” The smiles show that the participants agreed.

Until the fall…keep digging.


Out-of-School Time Programs: Paving the Way for Children to Find Passion, Purpose, & Voice


Women’s Herstory: The Origins of the Dirt Girls Program

It’s especially meaningful for me to share the story of growing Dirt Girls at start of Women’s History Month. Pictured below are two girls from the last cohort of a “pandemic proof” version of the program offered last spring alongside a journal entry from one of the original Dirt Girls participants.

“I appreciate outdoors and gardening because I live in an apartment that has a tiny patio, so when I go to dirt girls it is a chance for me to develop the knowledge of gardening and science.” DiRT GiRLS participant, 2017

In 2016, I began a program that I whimsically called “Dirt Girls.” The initial impetus was maintaining a school garden–planting, clearing, harvesting, and enjoying nature. The program quickly grew into a very special, safe place for girls to explore their science identities. The program has been planting empowerment ever since.

Over the following two years, the Dirt Girls grew into a strong group who loved engaging in garden tasks, practicing scientific habits of mind, and becoming dynamic and motivated young women. We participated in service learning, took field trips & hosted community events. In June of 2020, we bid a virtual farewell to four fifth grade girls who had been in the program since they were 2nd graders.

In 2018, a dad at the school where Dirt Girls started asked the principal when there would be an after school garden program that included boys. Against my preference, I changed the name to Dirt Kids for a year. Participation dropped and that dad’s son was the only boy who joined. By the end of the year, the garden was a weedy mess. In 2019 I restored the name Dirt Girls. It will remain a program explicitly rooted in equity. 

Without access to schools as a result of the pandemic, I developed a virtual program dubbed Dirt Girls Grow Indoors. I sourced houseplants and had them delivered to kids’ homes and then offered virtual programming on Zoom four times a week. We explored air plants, succulents, ferns, and terraria. Each month a new module also focused on cultivating resilience: learning to breathe, reduce stress, exercise our bodies and be creative. Although it was a bit of a departure from the outdoor version of the program, Dirt Girls Grow Indoors met the same goal: inspiring dozens of girls to pursue science as a career path, but also learning to care for herself, others, and the world. 

By April of 2021, we were able to gather in person at the Martha Walker Native Habitat Garden in Skyline Park. Field trips are an aim of the program I hope to revive going forward. Research tells us that time spent in nature can increase affinity for science. It can be a gateway to science careers. This program will always be grounded in nature

As of just a few weeks ago, I’ve secured a location for Dirt Girls. Starting in mid-April, we’ll be meeting at a centrally located high school where two teachers and a dozen students could use more hands to maintain their campus gardens. In this new space, we’ll have the benefit of working with older garden mentors who want to engage in community service. The school is located across the street from the food bank, so we’ll grow some crops to donate there. We’ll also start a seed garden, plants grown for the purpose of collecting, harvesting, and sharing seed. We’ll tend to the native plants, maintain compost, and start pollinator gardens. 


Becoming a Botanist: Celebrating Jane Colden

To continue the themes introduced in Turning Over a New Leaf (discovering plants, January) and Plant(ing) Empowered Women (women in horticulture, February), I’m marking Women’s History Month with a biographical sketch of Jane Colden (1724-1766), the first documented woman botanist in America. 

Jane grew up on a 3000-acre wilderness estate called Coldengham, which was granted to her father in 1719 while he was the Surveyor General of the colony of New York. Her father claimed that he had only amateur talent in botany, but his scientific-mindedness and his technical skill as a surveyor made him a systematic observer of the land.

Jane’s father encouraged her to pursue her interest in botany. As a contemporary of Carl Linnaeus, Jane was inspired to learn Latin and begin classifying plants she found in and around Newburg (about 60 miles north of present-day New York City). Her talents prompted her father to initiate correspondence between Jane and some of America’s most famous botanists of her time.

The idea that Jane was just ten years old when she first started collecting her plant specimens was of interest to participants of Dirt Girls Grow Indoors, who themselves range from 7-11 years old. When asked why Jane had no formal schooling, these youth accurately inferred that even if school had been nearby, girls may not have had the same opportunities to attend.

At the time, nature in general–and the study of plants, specifically–was considered an “acceptable” hobby for women. Some historians even recognize botany and horticulture as gateways for gender-based participation in science. Unsurprisingly, the earliest documented uses of garden-based learning were actually at normal schools founded to train teachers.

Jane’s self-taught process resulted in more than 300 line drawings and handwritten descriptions of the plants immediately near her home at a time when the scientific discovery of the “new world” was just getting underway. She eventually produced a manuscript with 284 original entries. This work, Flora Nov-Eboracensis is kept in the Natural History Museum in London.

Jane studied botany until she married in 1759 (at age 34). She died in childbirth several years later, but is remembered for her extraordinary contribution to the scientific study of plants during the colonial period of American history.


Letters reveal that [Colden’s] contributions to botany were recognized by the prominent botanists of her day, including John Bartram, Collinson, Garden, Ellis, and Linnaeus, but over a century and a half passed before a more intimate acquaintance with her manuscript established Jane Colden as America’s first woman botanist.

Excerpt quoted from the abstract of an article about Jane Colden written by Smith (1988) and published in the journal Botany.

Discover the Hudson Valley's Native American HistoryTo balance the contributions of Jane Colden to the scientific study of plants, I offer a resource that acknowledges the original inhabitants of the present-day Hudson Valley. Prior to European contact, Native Americans lived peaceably with the natural world and had their own practices for using and passing on the names of native flora.

Plant(ing) Empowerment: Lessons from Ruth Bancroft

For a time, I was ‘wintering‘ through the month-long stay-at-home order and rainy weather just fine. But when the sun came out again, I took advantage of the opportunity to socialize outside with a close friend. We visited the Ruth Bancroft Garden & Nursery for a self-guided tour of an impressive display of drought-tolerant plants. If you’ve not been, it’s well worth the trek!

Touring Ruth Bancroft Garden reinforced some of my guiding principles as a gardener: go for low-impact, low-maintenance, and high-reward (which can be said about picking friends as well). I’ve visited dozens of botanical gardens and living museums before, but something about this visit was different. Not only is the history of the garden remarkable–it was first conceived of and designed by a woman in her 60s, who lived to be 109!–but it also reawakened me to the importance of plant(ing) empowered women.

Plants are models for empowerment.

We learn in elementary school that plants are amazing because they use energy from the sun to make (photosynthesize) their own food. We also learn that no matter how high up on the food chain they are, all organisms depend on plants. However, we rarely learn to think about plants from a “plants-eye view.” This is exactly what Michael Pollan describes in his book, The Botany of Desire, turning on its head the role people play (or do not play) in plant survival. Ruth Bancroft encapsulated this idea in the 1970s by showcasing plants that thrive in dry places, never reliant on the watering habits of fickle humans. Her connection with plants helped her establish a thriving legacy planted in empowerment.

Plants teach us to care for living things, including ourselves.

I can’t remember the very first plant I raised, but I do remember the joy and triumph associated with starting seeds for vegetable crops. The idea that a tiny package that signals both the beginning and end of a life cycle of many plants is just incredible to me. I’ve been equally crushed when my seedlings don’t make it. Nevertheless, I learn a lot about taking care of myself from tending a garden. Whether it’s engaging in physical activity, connecting with soil microbes, or making careful observations, gardening continues to be the best mental health reward I’ve found for wrestling with the weight of world. On our recent visit to Ruth’s garden oasis, my friend and I marveled at the unique capabilities of different plants as we meandered along the curving paths sharing our love of plants.

Plants inspire us to pay attention to needs when designing our surroundings.

One of the reasons I like visiting other gardens is because it inspires me to rethink the design of my own. Taking advantage of the warm weather and forecasted precipitation, I rearranged some neglected plants in my yard so they would thrive. I moved several clumps of scented geranium (Pelargonium x fragrans ‘Nutmeg’)  to complement three White Crown chaste trees (Vitex agnus-castus ‘Silver Spires’) and provide an attractive and fragrant ground cover on the deck. I also divided a large clump of bee balm (Monarda didyma ‘Jacob Cline’) to expand its proximity to other hummingbird-friendly plants.

Plants remind us to foster resilience.

Hummingbird nest constructed on top of a string light bulb in my friend’s backyard.

Finding hummingbird-friendly plants was actually what initially prompted my friend and I to visit the Ruth Bancroft garden. She was looking for flowering plants that bloom in winter to support the energy needs of a backyard resident. Last year, when she had just moved into a new home, she found a hummingbird nest on her patio. It is still a complete mystery to me why the mama bird built her nest where she did, precariously balanced on a bulb of a set of string lights, but it survived, reared an offspring, and is now preparing the nest for this coming spring. My friend named the mama-daughter Penelope and Esperanza. Just like the mama bird, the plants in Ruth Bancroft Garden highlight nature’s resilience. When we surround ourselves with examples of resilience, we are empowered to foster our own.

Plants invite us to play in the dirt.

My friend and I first connected while walking the UC Davis Arboretum. She’s a bona fide plant nerd (with a degree in plant pathology) who is not afraid to get her hands dirty. She is feminist scholar and award-winning teacher. She is also an inaugural Board Member of The School Garden Doctor and an ardent supporter of the Dirt Girls, a program that invites young women to explore their science identities by playing in the dirt. She is easy and fun to be with, while also being incredibly knowledgeable and committed to the concept of plant(ing) empowered women. Our visit was barrels of cactus fun!


New Year, New Leaf: Nurturing a Houseplant Habit

As the calendar flipped to 2021, it prompted many to rethink the annual habit of making resolutions. On the heels of an unprecedented year, the superficial promises to improve or better ourselves seem much less appropriate this year. Yet, transitioning to a new year does motivate us to rethink our practices.

As I approach the two-year mark of launching a nonprofit (The School Garden Doctor was awarded 501c3 status on February 11, 2019), I’ve been cautious about how to adapt nascent programs to a virtual format. Sensory experience–a hallmark of science, nutrition, and environmental education–is much harder to accomplish via screen. However, I believe connection and content can overcome the obstacles of remote delivery, so I’m turning over a new leaf.

During the fall semester, I taught an Elementary Science Methods course as part of UC Berkeley’s teacher education program (BE3) (yes, entirely remotely). As part of the course, I invited my adult students to showcase the science in their everyday lives. One week two students eagerly showcased their passion for houseplants. They called themselves “two crazy plant ladies” (perhaps after the book by Isabel Serna or the children’s book of the same title by Michael Powell). They made a slideshow including photos of their collections and touted the many benefits of indoor plants.

I had never given much notice to houseplants before, in part, because I prefer to garden outside. The Mediterranean climate of the Napa Valley typically supports year-round outdoor gardening, but the extended fire season and restrictions of COVID-19 forced me indoors for extended periods of time. Thanks to those “crazy plant ladies,” I’m learning to adapt my gardening practice to houseplants.

Whether or not you really like houseplants, you may have felt a bit crazy in 2020. In fact, our collective mental health has suffered a lot this year. Since March, I’ve been trying to figure out how to connect with the Dirt Girls, a STEM-focused after school garden club. Suddenly, the answer became clear: I could engage them with indoor gardens made from collections of air plants, succulents, ferns, and more!

Dirt Girls Grow Indoors will feature virtual STEM exploration paired with hands-on horticultural learning to introduce girls to the power of houseplants.

Dirt Girls Grow Indoors has already raised interest–and dollars. As a GlobalGiving partner, I solicited year-end donations from supporters using the pitch Grow Resilient Dirt Girls. In just a few short months, the program is gaining momentum. I’ve enlisted the support of the UC Master Gardeners of Napa County houseplant experts and called on my former curriculum design colleagues to develop a scope and sequence.

Dirt Girls Grow Indoors lessons will not only feature virtual exploration of houseplant types and care, it will also foster curiosity and social emotional learning (SEL). If you have even the slightest interest in houseplants, and growing resilience, I invite you to learn more by attending the Houseplants for Health event on January 18th. Find out more and register here.

GlobalGiving is an internationally recognized crowdfunding platform.
The School Garden Doctor empowers teachers, schools, and communities to grow school gardens that enhance science education, nurture wellness, and foster environmental literacy.

Don’t Delay: Get Your Earth Day Dirt Girl Giveaway

Earth Day 2020 marks the 50th anniversary of a global celebration with a rich history. The annual in-person gatherings and events all have been cancelled due to the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic. Never fear! You can still celebrate virtually with over 50 opportunities offered by Napa supporters and sponsors!

Earth Day Napa: Gone Virtual, is a collaborative effort to engage the local community in many creative ways provided compliments of more than two dozen environmental education organizations throughout the county. Don’t opt out of Earth Day 2020, just because you’re sheltering in place. Join the fun online and check out activities, challenges, giveaways, and more!

Win a Dirt Girl Survival Pack!

To honor Earth Day 2020, The School Garden Doctor is offering a Diary-of-a Dirt-Girl Giveaway. Youth gardeners (of any gender) ages 8-11 can enter to win a “Dirt Girl Survival Pack” by submitting a diary entry by April 30th. Click the image below or read on for giveaway instructions.

To Enter this contest, Select an activity from the list below.
Submit as many diary entries as you want!
Twelve winners will be awarded a Dirt Girl Survival Pack.

Diary of a Dirt Girl Giveaway Instructions:

To enter, select an activity from the list below:

  • Browse a seed catalog. Cut out pictures and plan(t) a paper garden.
  • Try a new food. Describe and rate the taste.
  • Read a book about plants.
  • Collect, dry, and save seeds.
  • Your own choice!

Complete your activity and submit a diary entry here.

Dozens of students are missing out on valuable after school garden and nature activities due to school closures, but that doesn’t mean they can’t still dig in! Encourage them to connect with the Earth by sharing this opportunity to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day!

Dirt Girls is an after-school program that engages participants in building and maintaining school gardens while investigating nature and exploring their science identities.


National Conference Presentation: Gender Equity & Empowerment

About a week ago, I returned from Madison, WI, where the American Horticultural Society held the 27th annual National Children and Youth Gardening Symposium. The theme of this year’s conference was Building Blocks for a Sustainable Future. As a first-time attendee and presenter, I was thoroughly impressed with the range of thematic topics and events and honored to be part of the schedule.

The primary reason I attend conferences is to solicit peer input about how I implement evidence-based practices to sustain school gardens in the 21st century. My presentation, Dirt Girls to the Rescue! Gender Equity and Empowerment, was well received by a generous audience that included an 11-year old dirt girl!

It’s alway a treat to visit my home state, but when coupled with a fantastic opportunity like the NCYGS, I feel even more fortunate to network with likeminded school garden enthusiasts.

DIY Project: Sustainable Crafting Meets Engineering Design

My least favorite non-recyclable plastic is the single-use plastic baggie. They’re cheap and easy to use, making them a lunchbox staple. But, they’re not as easy to reuse and not at all recyclable. Over the last few years, products like Bee’s Wrap have entered the market as a sustainable alternative to the plastic baggie. While useful, priced at about $20 for a three-pack, these products are not financially accessible to everyone.

I recently wondered, How could I engage the Dirt Girls in a project that involved STEM, taught environmental ethic, and had a practical outcome?

The answer was DIY crafting. We made beeswax sandwich wraps!

I researched different techniques, including the materials most commonly used. I opted for a beeswax, pine resin, and jojoba oil mixture. After I gathered these materials, I made a small batch of melted wax at home using a double boiler method. I experimented with different application techniques and took my prototypes to my garden club where we observed the properties of the commercially available brand and compared them to the ones I made. I explained the mixture and demonstrated how to paint it onto smaller pieces of fabric to practice the procedure.

The mixture dries and hardens pretty quickly, so the following week, we made the beeswax mixture in a crock pot, which helped keep it melted long enough to spread it. We also added less pine resin (to make it less sticky) and more oil (to make it more spreadable). We were able to cover 15 more pieces of cloth, but the improved beeswax mixture was still difficult to apply consistently. To remedy this problem, I layered dry cloth between the heavily-waxed pieces, making an alternating stack between parchment paper. After warming them in the oven for about 10 minutes the mixture melted and spread to the edges of all pieces.

Three Dirt Girls go to the farmers market to sell our DIY beeswax sandwich wraps.

The final result was 50 wraps. On November 30th, three Dirt Girls braved cold and windy weather to interact with buyers interested at the Napa Farmers Market. A second-grade Dirt Girl thought it was really hard, but said, “It paid off because we earned $130.” These funds will be used pay for field trip transportation. 

“Making beeswax wraps was really fun….It was hard the first time we tried it, but when we used a better mixture, we learned  that we don’t have to get it right the first time.”

~ HF, the original Dirt Girl

One of the key differences between how scientists and engineers approach their work is in the nature of the questions they ask and the methods they use to answer them. Scientists seek to explain the natural world, while engineers aim to improve it. Engineers look for problems and then design solutions. Problems can be big or small, broad or deep, but always have contextual factors that limit the solution. This is where the design process comes in.

Image result for design process
The Works Museum in Minnesota created a kid-friendly version of the engineering design process.

The Next Generation Science Standards (Achieve, 2013) devote approximately one quarter of the performance expectations at each grade level to ETS (Engineering, Technology, and the Application of Science). A modified version of a simple DIY “crafting” activity offers a solution to an environmental problem in a way that incorporates engineering design while also teaching sustainability.

The School Garden Doctor empowers teachers, schools, and communities to grow school gardens that enhance science education, nurture wellness, and foster environmental literacy.

Empower a Dirt Girl.

Special thanks to Miss R., Ms. Cadloni, and Mr. Arroyo for assisting me with this hands-on learning experience.

STEAM Project: Fun for the Fall Faire

The principal’s birthday is Saturday. Last year, we were in the midst of the devastating Northern California wildfires during her birthday week. Needless to say, there wasn’t much of a celebration. This year, I decided to use the garden as a way to show my appreciation for the principal of the site where I support a thriving school garden.

Secretly, I invited a troupe of kids that I knew would dig right in to a DIY project. A handful of Dirt Girls, 75 linear feet of PVC, and a few hours later, our very own Scarecrow Row was born!

Four different teams constructed unique and imaginative scarecrows. They collaboratively fashioned outfits from ripped nylon hammocks, scavenged props from the toolshed to rubber band in scarecrow’s gloved hands, and bent wire into eyeglasses that even had tape lenses!

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I have to credit a UC Master Gardener for introducing the PVC scarecrow idea and that of “Scarecrow Row.” In their horticultural creativity, they are planning a Fall Faire, a community event showcasing science of plants.

First, I secured a template for a PVC scarecrow from the Master Gardener and then cut old irrigation pipes to length for child-sized scarecrows. Kids were invited to bring clothes or props from home, but I also had a box of materials to repurpose.

I showed the students the parts of the sample scarecrow (base, legs and hips, torso, arms). It was a good anatomy lesson (e.g., is the top or bottom of your leg longer?), but there were other fun and useful lessons as well. Here are a few things I observed:

  • concentration humming signaled the feeling that kids were really focused, in the zone, found their “flow”
  • trial and error helped them figure out how to use parts in interesting ways
  • teamwork enabled them to make decisions about how to dress their scarecrows and what resources to use for this purpose
  • imagination drove students to innovate, embellish, and fabricate thematic elements to their scarecrow design

When I gathered the students in a circle at the start of the session, I read them a short poem about scarecrows and elicited their background understanding. They made the connection to the pears from our tree that had been bitten by birds, demonstrating they understood that a scarecrow is a simple way to, well, scare crows.

I told them it was a STEAM project. One very bright girl asked, “Don’t you mean STEM?” STEM with the A is STEAM: Science, Technology, Engineering, Art & Agriculture, Math. This scary surprise hit all of those disciplines. What would delight a principal more than that?