Easter Eggs

Our monarchs are back!IMG_2713

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I was honestly starting to worry that something was wrong with the milkweed in our little mobile pollinator garden. We have been searching for eggs and caterpillars since Spring Break and finally today we saw our first monarch flying around. Even better we found lots of little eggs hidden under the leaves. Best Easter Egg Hunt ever!

It has been a while since I updated this blog because life has been busy in so many different ways. I have been sharing most of our recent gardening adventures on our KidsGardening.org Growing Ideas Blog if you would like more regular updates please subscribe (or like us on Facebook or even better both!).

As a quick 2017 recap:

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January – Grow Light Magic

With the help of a fundraiser at Chipotle as part of a special Slow Foods USA Garden Program our school was able to raise enough money to buy a set of grow lights. Our third grade classes started 7 different types of tomato plants from seed.

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February – Tomatoes Everywhere!

Our tomato seedlings grew so much faster than I expected. We ended up with 180-ish plants. In late February we began hardening them off by moving them in and out for longer periods of time each day for two weeks before planting time (a much bigger job than I anticipated). We also prepped the soil by distributing 2 more yards of soil to beds that had settled over the fall and finished off the irrigation system.

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March – Garden Planting

The week before Spring Break our 4th Grade Gardeners once again paired up to plant their small vegetable plots (click here if you want to download this spring’s planting chart) and the 3rd Graders planted tomato recipe themed garden. Each class planted the tomatoes they started from seed plus the herbs needed for a recipe. The recipe gardens include: Tomato Basil Soup (Abby’s class), Salsa, Pasta, Bruschetta, and a Pizza Garden. Obviously with 180 plants, there were a lot left over so every 3rd Grader got to take a plant home too. The week after Spring Break our pre-k class planted a wide assortment of sensory plants featuring bright colors and scented leaves.

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April – Tomatoes on Steroids

Yep, our tomatoes have gone crazy! Fortunately we had invested in some very sturdy tomato cages from Gardener’s Supply Company or we would have a complete jungle right now. I guess the combination of full sun, good soil and a working drip irrigation system really helped. It is April 15th and our plants are already loaded down with little green fruits.

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Unfortunately, Graham’s class does not have a plot at school this spring (the teachers all take turns and his class had a fall garden), so he has been helping me at home. We planted Abby’s tomato plant that she brought home from school in our fancy new container (Thanks Mom and John – this is part of what we got with your Christmas present!) which, although you may not be able to tell, is on wheels like our pollinator garden (another Gardener’s Supply Company find). Maybe this will be the year that I get him to eat a tomato without spitting it out! Fingers crossed!

It really has been a great garden season so far! The weather has been nice with pleasant temperatures and rain, but not too much rain. I will try to update again when harvest comes.

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New Year’s Flowers

img_3502Happy New Year!  I just had to share a picture of our New Year’s Day pumpkin flower.  That’s right pumpkin!  In early November, Graham brought home a small plastic cup (without drainage holes- yikes) from school with a few sprouts from seeds harvested during a classroom carving activity.  They had a rough ride home and I had to replant them, so I figured they probably would die.  However, after sitting in the kitchen window, one of the original seedlings continued to grow and a second one sprouted, so I stuck them under the grow lights. Much to my surprise they kept growing.  Fast forward to New Year’s Day and we woke up to find a beautiful yellow flower … and we have had a new flower almost every day since then.

I know growing a pumpkin indoors seems like long shot (in fact we have only had male flowers so far), I am tempted to plant them in a bigger container and see how long they can make it. On the other hand, I am almost afraid to change anything since they seem happy as is.  Regardless, it has been fun for all to watch them grow and bloom.

The cup beside the pumpkin is something that Abby brought home from an after school science club— I have no idea what it is.  I popped open the cover and there is a small layer of sand and a little tiny seedling inside, but she could not remember what they planted, so I just covered it back up and resealed it with new tape.  I tried planting coleus from seed once and it kind of reminds me of that, but I have a feeling it is probably  something more common like some type of herb.  Another experiment to keep an eye on…. and a reminder to me that labels are very important when planting with kids.

img_2428Another school gem, Graham brought home a Thanksgiving book they made with each child listing what they were thankful for with a picture.  On his page, he drew The Earth. Is it hopeful of me to think that maybe all of these gardening activities are sinking in?  I have to admit that this made me smile and I was impressed that he did not list a toy or other man-made object.

One last thing to share, at KidsGardening.org we are having a special Educational Poster Giveaway.  If you donate $25 or more now through the first day of spring, you will receive 3 free educational posters in addition to supporting our work to encourage the expansion of youth gardens by providing educators and parents the support needed to start and maintain a gardening program. It is a win-win!

I know that I do not get time to update this blog often, so if you would like more youth gardening ideas and news, make sure to sign up for the KidsGardening Growing Ideas Blog or Kids Garden News E-newsletter.

 

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Fall Happenings

After taking a break for the heat of the summer, we are having a very busy fall gardening season.

We started in August by dusting off the GrowLab and planting basil and cherry tomato seeds. The kids enjoyed watching the seeds sprout and grow (I wish I had a picture of Graham’s face the first day we looked in and saw the green peaking out—it was a cross between surprise and amazement), and now that the plants have been moved outdoors, our houseplants are enjoying the new location too. Of course no one is happier about this new feature than our cat who has taken to napping in the glow of the artificial lights. Another benefit of having our light garden accessible, we have amaryllis bulbs on order for the holiday season (one of my all time favorite plants).

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Planting Day Fall 2016

Next on the schedule was the improvement and expansion of the Teaching Garden at Glen Loch Elementary. Our school was fortunate enough to be chosen for a Lowe’s Toolbox for Education Award this year and we received funds to add 6 new raised beds for the Third Graders and 5 new planter boxes for the Pre-K classes. My daughter Abby is in third grade this year and I am so excited that she finals gets to participate in gardening at school too. In addition to the new beds, we also replaced 6 of the 10 fourth grade raised beds because of rot. So 17 new beds, 6 yards of soil and 2 yards of crushed granite later (in 95 degree heat nonetheless), voila the Glen Loch Elementary School Teaching Garden has been rejuvenated.

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Fourth Grade Gardens

We had our fall planting day on September 23rd and everything is looking wonderful (and I learned that planting 3 grade levels of classes with close to 300 students all on one day was totally crazy). The Fourth Graders once again planted a version of square foot gardens with students partnering up to plan, plant and maintain a salad garden in their own little plots. The Third Graders are embroiled in sugar snap pea races. Each class was divided into 4 teams and each team planted sugar snap pea seeds at the base of one of the stakes in a bean teepee. The team whose plants grow to the top first will get a prize. We surrounded each bed with marigolds, not only to make them look pretty, but also so we could discuss companion planting. Finally, the Pre-K classes planted a variety of plants to engage the senses including herbs, colorful bedding plants and a hodgepodge of fast growing (and larger in size) seeds. The kids had a blast and we are very grateful to Lowes and Naturalyards Raised Beds for their support.

Third grade gardens

Third grade gardens

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Sugar Snap Pea Race

Rainbow Garden

Rainbow Garden

And finally, last week we planted a fall garden at my son Graham’s school. His class voted on their theme and they choose a Rainbow Garden. As with any preschool group, I always make sure each child gets to plant at least 1 plant and 1 seed. For red we planted red petunias and radish seeds. For orange, we planted marigolds and carrots. For yellow, we planted snapdragons and sunflower seeds. The green row includes broccoli plants and green bean seeds. Blue consists of blue daze plant and kale seeds (finding good blue plants was my biggest challenge). The purple row is planted with purple-leaved basil and a lettuce variety with reddish-purple leaves. To make sure the theme was obvious, we also added colorful plant labels to mark the rows. I can’t wait to see how this looks when it grows in a bit more.

In addition to all of our gardening, I have also been very busy with KidsGardening.org. For those of you who don’t know, in January, the nonprofit organization that I have worked for on and off over the last 10 years, National Gardening Association, split into 2 nonprofits and so I now work for KidsGardening.org, a nonprofit focused solely on supporting and promoting youth garden efforts. It is like working for a start up organization with 35 years of experience. An exciting and interesting journey, KidsGardening is growing in all sorts of new ways. Check out our website to learn more (and see why I have not had time to add regularly to this blog). You can sign up for Kids Garden News for monthly updates and garden lesson ideas and activities.

 

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Butterflies!

We added a few butterfly weed plants to our mobile pollinator garden this spring and we are already enjoying watching our new little friends grow. Right after Spring Break, my son and I watched a Monarch butterfly carefully laying eggs on the undersides of the leaves and today we got to watch one of the caterpillars from that first batch of eggs wiggle into his chrysalis. Here are a few pictures from our latest garden adventure:

Phase 1: Egg under a leaf. The butterfly only lays one on each leaf and distributes them throughout the plant.

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Phase 2: The caterpillars hatch and grow (and grow and grow and grow):

 

March 31st:

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April 5th:

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April 14th:

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Finally one day, he was done eating and he traveled to the edge of the pot and attached himself to the edge hanging upside down. When he was ready to start his change, he made a “J” (and you will notice the drops of water covering him from our rain today—we had about 10 inches in the last 24 hours).

 

April 18th

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Phase 3: My husband and daughter walked around the block tonight and when they left he was still hanging in his “J” but by the time they got home he was already slipping into his chrysalis (head first). It kind of looked like he was wiggling into a sleeping bag. He was already about half way in when we first started watching, and it took me a little longer to tear myself away to grab my camera.

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Here is a link to a short video (of very poor quality- sorry, but you get to see his wiggle):
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I wish we had pictures from the beginning of this transformation, but we estimate the process happened in about 20 to 25 minutes so it was super quick. Fortunately there are more caterpillars already chomping away, so maybe we can catch it from the start next time.

Phase 4: We should see a butterfly emerging in 10 to 14 days. We can’t wait!

Handy School Garden Tools

dividedbedEach fall, I get the chance to help plant the Fourth Grade Garden at my daughter’s school— without a doubt this is my favorite volunteer activity all year. The garden consists of 10 raised beds of various sizes. For the fall planting, we divide each of the beds into smaller plots and then assign each student a partner. Due to the size of the beds and the number of students, this year’s garden plots were approximately 15” X 18″. Each two-person team then designs, plants, maintains and harvests their own little garden.

We begin with the design. Students choose from a list of common salad crop vegetables and are given a graph to help design their plots (click to see a copy of our Garden Graph Worksheet: GardenGraphWorksheet). Next, we take them out into the garden in small groups to plant (2 groups per volunteer at a time seems to provide the best adult to student ratio).

gridThe first year that we used this process, we discovered that students had a very hard time visualizing how to transfer their design to the garden. To help with this process, last year we added planting grids created using hardware cloth with 1” squares. The grids were cut to the plot shape and then the sharp edges were covered with duck tape. Although still a bit of a challenge, this simple and inexpensive tool makes it so much easier for the students to understand the difference in scale between their map and the garden.

trayThis year, our new tools are ice cube trays. The last two years, students used Petri dishes to count out the seeds they needed, but trying to remember which seeds were which and manipulating multiple trays was always a challenge for them. So our new invention involved creating labels for each type of seed on ice cube trays and giving each group a tray to sort their seeds in. This simple and cheap trick kept me from having to repeat the names of each seed for every group over and over again giving me more time to talk about how to plant the seeds and allowing the teams to be more independent.

Within a week, the seeds were sprouting and excited students are now enthusiastically monitoring their growth. We have had a hot and dry fall so the plants are struggling a little bit more than usual, but the hope is to have something to harvest by Thanksgiving celebrations. I always like to keep in mind that the quantity and the quality of the final harvest is just a bonus when it comes to school gardens — the focus should be on allowing students to witness the life cycle of the plants and generating excitement about eating fresh fruits and vegetables (even if they are not the ones they grow themselves). In fact, I think it is good for them to experience some growing challenges because it gives them a better understanding of the complexities behind growing food and an appreciation for the hard work of our country’s farmers.

 

Pollinator Garden

pollinatorgardenWelcome bees and butterflies! This fall we decided to plant pollinator-attracting plants in our garden on wheels. Our mini-pollinator garden includes a variety of blooming perennials that serve as a food source for these important creatures including salvia, coreopsis and my all time favorite, a Brown-eyed Susan. Around our tomato cage, we planted morning glories and inside we planted some Mammoth sunflower seeds.

Sprawling human development quickly covering land with lawns, buildings and hardscapes has decreased the habitats for pollinators and resulted in a significant decrease in the pollinator population. Why should we care? It is estimated that pollinators are needed for the production of 1/3 of all human food crops. Do you like apples? Then you like pollinators.

Our little garden may not have the potential to make much of an impact on the pollinator population, but if everyone dedicated part of their landscape to pollinator friendly plants, the results could be significant. This the philosophy behind the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge organized by the National Pollinator Garden Network. It is a nationwide call to action to help revive the health of pollinators (bees, birds, butterflies, moths, beetles, bats, and other animals)  by encouraging millions of people to participate by planting for pollinators.

You can learn everything you need to know about creating a pollinator garden from Kidsgardening.org at: http://www.kidsgardening.org/classroom-projects/creating-pollinator-garden. Another excellent resource about pollinators is the Pollinator Partnership (http://www.pollinator.org/). They offer 35 different ecoregional planting guides for the United States and Canada along with tons of educational materials.

butterflypotHere is a picture of a cute addition to our pollinator garden on wheels, my daughter and her Grammy painted a clay pot with an adorable footprint butterfly. Although butterflies may not be the most significant of all pollinators based on number of plants they pollinate, they are by far and away the most popular and a great way to engage kids in learning about pollinators. Fortunately, many plants that are beneficial for butterflies also provide food for other pollinators too!

Christmas Love

flowers1What better way to spread Christmas cheer than by making cute little flower arrangements?

Last week, I had the chance to teach my daughter’s first grade class how to create a simple floral design. It was so much fun! I started out by demonstrating how to make the design, keeping to just the basics, and then just let them go. And wow, they caught on fast and had an absolute blast!

To prepare for the activity, I placed wet floral foam in small, plastic cups and added one strip of anchor tape across the top to make sure the arrangements would stay in the cups on the bus ride home. I divided up the flowers (red and white mini carnations and baby’s breaths) ahead of time and placed them in disposable drinking cups to make sure that each child got the same number of flowers. As an added decoration, I taped candy canes to floral stakes to be placed in after they arranged the flowers.

flwoers2The basic tips I shared during the demonstration included:

– Explaining how the floral foam helps keep the flowers in place and provides water so they can stay fresh longer. I emphasized that they did not want to crush it and to try and only place the flowers once so that the flowers could get plenty of water and stay secure.

– Cutting the ends of the stems at an angle and removing any leaves as the bottom so the tips slide into the foam cleanly.

– Showing them how to cut leather leaf fern into smaller pieces and then placing it on the foam to cover up the mechanics of the design before adding in flowers.

– Demonstrating how to create a skeleton for a basic round design with one flower upright in the middle and another four facing out like a clock at 12, 3, 6 and 9 o’clock. Then I explained how to go back and fill in around the structure with the remaining flowers.

After the demonstration, we handed out the cups of flowers, the containers, and two pieces of leather leaf fern saving the baby’s breath and candy canes for the end. As I walked around the room, I noticed the buzz of excitement as the kids worked on the arrangements and talked about their flowers. I thought some of students might rush and place the flowers haphazardly, but every single one of them took their time in considering where to place the flowers. One student was struggling a bit, but before I could offer to help, another student jumped in and the two of them worked together to finish the design. Much to my surprise, some of the arrangements turned out so well that they looked like they came from a florist.

To account for different finish times, the students made cards to go with the arrangements if they finished up quickly.

flowers3The best part of the day was watching their faces sparkle with pride as they showed off their finished product and shared their plans for them.   To keep them secure on the trip home, we placed them in large, paper lunch bags.

The arrangement pictured is the design that my daughter made. I did not realize until we got home that she had placed her candy canes so that they looked like a heart. So sweet!

This was by far my favorite volunteer activity this year. I am quite positive I enjoyed watching the joy of the kids even more than they enjoyed the activity. Maybe I can get invited back again for Valentine’s Day……

Pansies Make Me Happy

Today we had the perfect weather for gardening. It was sunny, 77 degrees, low humidity and due to a cold spell last week, the mosquitoes have finally checked out for the season. What a wonderful day to get kids excited about plants!

Pansies 1We started out with a family trip to Lowe’s where we picked out pansies and bulbs for my favorite gardening activity with kids – planting container gardens. I love pansies. They have happy little flower faces that give the impression they are smiling, come in a wide assortment of colors (and of course I let the kids pick out their favorites), are fairly inexpensive, forgiving when planted poorly, can tolerate part shade and are just in general pretty hardy. We usually have trouble with aphids at some point, but that offers another educational opportunity and a chance for the kids to hit the plants with soapy water spray. Another benefit of pansies, the flowers are easy to press and so they come in handy for inexpensive craft projects.

I always like to add in a few bulbs with the pansy planting. We were a little late on our bulb shopping this year, but we managed to find one bag of daffodils that was not already dried up and so we will cross our fingers and see what happens. I like to pair bulbs with pansies because they create a combination of immediate and delayed gratification. The pansies are beautiful and instantly contribute to our landscape. The bulbs look nothing like a plant and so they are like a hidden treasure. It will take a few weeks for the leaves to appear and then even longer for the flowers to open up, but then one day, POP, a beautiful flower appears growing from that ugly little, rock-like thing we placed in the ground. We also planted an amaryllis in a pot to add a little indoor gardening activity to our lives for the holiday season (I love amaryllis too!).

I Love DirtMy son’s favorite part of gardening continues to be playing in the soil. As a reward for his diligent digging, we had the opportunity to study a few healthy earthworms and talk about all the good things they do for the soil and plants. We are experiencing some progress though because he did not dig up all the plants once they were settled in the soil this time.

We topped off the afternoon with my daughter getting to enjoy a ripe tomato from our amazing cherry tomato plant that has been growing and producing fruit in our garden on wheels since March. Although I know the cold will be coming soon, we looking forward to squeezing in a bit more quality gardening time in 2014.

Garden on Wheels

mobilegarden1After a year of hour long trips to the community garden (15 minutes to get everyone in the car, 15 minutes to drive there, a frustrating 10 minutes of watering and weeding while trying to convince my son not to run amuck in our bed and the neighboring beds, 5 minutes to change everyone’s shoes/clothes and another 15 minutes to drive home), I decided to try a simpler approach this spring.  Since we don’t have a space with enough sunlight to grow vegetables at our house, we planted a garden on wheels.

Using a lightweight planter and a plastic furniture dolly, we planted a mobile garden that we can move around our driveway to catch the maximum amount of sunlight.  We each picked out one plant. My son chose sugar snap peas, my daughter picked out a strawberry plant, and I selected a cherry tomato.  I found a couple of brightly colored tomato cages for the tomato and the peas. The cages not only add a little color to the garden, but also keep us from backing into with the car. In addition to our garden container, I also filled a second pot with soil alone for my two year old.  This keeps him from damaging our plant roots while fulfilling his digging needs.  I also made sure to select well draining soil to keep the plants from drowning since watering is another activity both kids enjoy.

mobilegarden2Although going from a 6’ X 8’ raised bed to a small container may seem like a step back in our gardening efforts, it has actually been a big improvement.  There is a lot more fun and casual exploration and a lot less frustration. We check on the plants daily (and sometimes multiple times a day) which gives the kids a chance to really notice the subtle changes of plant growth.  Another benefit is that they can easily show off their garden to their neighborhood friends.  The limited number of plants we can grow is of course a drawback and our harvest will probably only amount to a small snack, but truthfully, we had such a hard time keeping up with watering in our community garden plot, that our harvest was pretty small even with more space.

Certainly not a perfect solution, we are still pretty excited about our 2014 spring garden and will report back on it as the season progresses.

Integrating Gardening into the Curriculum

School gardens have been around for hundreds of years (Life Lab has a great link to some cool publications about school gardens from the early 1900’s) and yet planting a garden is still seen as somewhat of a novel project for a school to implement. It is rare to hear negative feedback about school garden project and there is a growing body of research supporting the benefits of gardening for students and teachers (check out the research database from the California School Garden Network ). So why don’t more schools have gardens?

I can still remember telling someone while I was in graduate school that my ultimate goal was to see a garden be as standard in a school as a library, a computer room or a cafeteria.  Still a dream of mine, over the years, I can better understand the challenges schools face when adding a garden like money, climate/weather issues, high volunteer turnover/burnout, and educators who are not interested in gardening (I like to think this is because they have never tried it before).  Probably the biggest hurdle for educators wanting to start a gardening program is standardized testing.  Nope, horticulture is not one of the subjects tested and the spring garden season is at its peak at the same time most standardized testing is conducted. A garden is seen as a nice extra, something fun, but not essential to learning environment.

Hope is not lost however because the garden can be used as a tool to teach the core subjects of English and math.  For example, students can practice writing skills through garden journals and reading comprehension by researching ways to control troublesome pests. They practice math skills by calculating the volume of soil needed to fill raised beds and estimating then recording germination rates of seeds. The connections are limitless and honing these skills in an exciting, living environment solving problems for practical, hands-on reasons is motivating and effective. We just need to work harder to create resources that provide educators with simple and innovative ways to make these connections.

I recently watched an awesome online presentation by Life Lab Educator Whitney Cohen on connecting gardening activities to the new Common Core Standards (adopted in all but 5 states… yep, fellow Texans we are one of the holdouts… anyone surprised?) who explains the concept of integrating a school garden into the curriculum eloquently and succinctly.  Hosted on the Growing School Gardens Network on edWeb.net, you can access the presentation at any time after completing their free registration process.

If you are looking for a way to convince administrators of the value of a garden program and demonstrate why the garden does not have to be just one more thing added to the day, but rather a tool to teach the required curriculum already in place, then this is the resource for you.  Even if your state is not one of the Common Core states, I highly recommend watching this presentation. I found it thoroughly inspiring. It left me thinking that maybe the idea of a garden at every school is an attainable goal rather than a lofty dream.