Tag Archives: Gardening with Children

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Top 10 Ways to Learn in Your Own Backyard

Many parents worry about summer slide, the learning loss that can occur while school is out for the summer. Great news: There is a hotbed of learning right in your own backyard. Science, math, art, history, and early literacy can come alive through the kinds of rich, hands-on, project-based experiences that make learning meaningful, all while you’re having fun exploring outdoors.

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Grow a Habitat Garden and Experience Citizen Science

Small creatures like birds and butterflies are always fun to watch. There are lots of ways to encourage them to visit your garden and linger a while, many of which provide fun and fascinating projects while benefiting your local habitat, your garden and the greater ecosystem of the Earth. You don’t need a large yard to have a habitat garden. Apartment balconies, window ledges, school gardens, and decks can all host local habitat.

Backyard creatures essentially need four things: Food, water, shelter and places to lay eggs and care for their young. Learn more and find resources about habitat gardening. Welcoming wildlife needn’t be complicated. One very easy way to start is by making a bird feeder.

Want to take it a step farther? The Great Sunflower Project is just one of many opportunities for kids to experience citizen science close to home. Citizen scientists are ordinary people of all ages who help scientists and organizations track the count and behaviors of birds, butterflies, bees and others. After all, researchers can’t be everywhere, and many of us have habitats in our backyards and neighborhoods that can help them gain important information about nature. If you have 15 minutes, you can count bees, which are vital for the Earth’s ecosystem, for The Great Sunflower Project. Other projects available year-round allow you to track birds, bats, butterflies, fireflies, wildflowers, meteors and snow, learning about each in the process. See a list of citizen science projects.

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Have Some Gardening Fun

Pizza Garden

You can grow just about everything needed for a pizza right in your own yard and then harvest and eat all the items baked in a pizza. All you’ll need to add is the dough and cheese! Pizza gardens teach design, planning, growing, harvesting, cooking and nutrition. Determine the shape of your pizza garden and decide what you’d like to grown and how you want to divide the space. Round pizza gardens, for instance, can be divided into four, six, or eight spokes, to resemble pizza slices. Mark off areas with string or rocks. Make sure to give plants like tomatoes plenty of room. In addition to tomatoes, try zucchini, eggplant, peppers, spinach, basil, oregano, onions, or garlic. Or grow flowers – red flowers to represent tomato sauce, yellow flowers to represent cheese, pink flowers for pepperoni, and some green leafy plants for spinach or peppers.

Seed Race

Why not make gardening into a game, and create a science experiment at the same time, with a seed race? Choose two or more types of seeds.
Plant them at the same time, in the same conditions, near each other in the ground or in similar containers, indoors or out. (Or plant the same seeds and vary one or more conditions as an experiment.) Water and watch which one emerges first and grows fastest. Stake them with a store-bought or homemade yardstick to measure their progress.

Growing Initials

Give your kids something they can claim as their own, and engage them in early literacy  at the same time by planting seeds in the shape of a child’s initials. Lay string in the shapes of the letters you like and dig a shallow furrow beside it. Plant your seeds – leafy greens work well for this project because they come up quickly and fill out nicely. These include lettuce, chives, radishes, cress, and various grasses. Most greens have fine seeds, which can be planted in a close, continuous line and thinned as needed.

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Make a Wind Chime or Music Tree

Kids love to make music and noise. What better place for that than outdoors? Hang old or recycled pots, pans, tin cans, lids, muffin tins, silverware, measuring cups and other items from tree branches. Group lighter items close together to create wind chimes, or place them farther apart to let kids make music with wooden spoons to experiment with different sounds or learn about the effects of wind.

Have Fun with Water

Outdoor time calls for water play, which allows even the youngest children to learn about the properties of water, as it allows things to float, sink, fill, empty, change textures and temperatures, and move at various speeds. Young children will enjoy a mud play area and lots of old cups and kitchen items for filling, scooping and dumping. Others may enjoy filling cups with water and making “magic potions” with food coloring, glitter and small found objects. Or fill a tub of water and make a fine sea-worthy vessel to play with.

Cork Rafts and Sailboats

You’ll need:
Corks
School or craft glue
Flat toothpicks
Construction or other paper
Ruler
Markers, crayons, or colored pencils
Scissors

Raft: Arrange corks in a square or rectangle, with long sides touching each other. Glue the sides of the corks together. Draw a small rectangle (approximately 1 x 4”) on the paper with the ruler and cut it out. Fold the paper in half, so that you have two rectangles approximately 1 x 2”. Draw your country’s flag, or flags from your imagination, on each outer side of the paper. Glue the toothpick into the inner fold on the back side between the two flags, and let the glue dry. Glue the two halves of the paper together to secure the flag. Affix the toothpick flags into one cork or several corks and set the raft in water.

Sailboat: Glue corks together, following the instructions for the raft, or simply use a single cork. Draw a triangular sail shape on the paper (approximately 1” long on the side that will be glued to the toothpick. Decorate your sail, if desired. Glue the sail to the toothpick on its 1” side and let the glue dry. Affix the toothpick sail into the cork or cork base and set sail!

Elementary and older children will enjoy making a paper boat and sailing it in a nearby body of water, alone or in a race with others.

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Create Garden Art

Artists and craftspeople have long been inspired by the garden. Just getting outside with art and craft materials can open a world of wonder and observation. Gardens, in all their color, variety and changing light, offer great subjects, as well as a place to clear the artist’s head. In addition, they often provide a place where one can get messier than inside a house. Bring tempera or finger paints and paper outside, for plein air painting, paint a flower pot that you can plant in, or make a pretty beaded spider web.

beaded_spider_web

Blow Bubbles

Bubble blowing may be one of life’s perfect activities. While providing endless possibilities and inexpensive fun, bubbles also illustrate properties of science. Each one is a thin skin of liquid surrounding a gas. The water molecules on their surfaces bond tightly together, because each is made up of two sticky hydrogen atoms and one oxygen one – H2O. More bubble science is explained here. Bubbles can be made using ingredients you have around the house. When the weather’s nice, I often make a bucket of bubble solution and leave it outside with wands and other fun equipment so my daughter and friends can make bubbles whenever they like. It’s always fun and magical to create bubbles and watch them trail in the breeze. Here’s a recipe for giant homemade bubbles and some fun bubble activities.

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Play Web of Life

This is a powerful group game that teaches older children about the interconnectedness of living things. We encountered it on a school field trip to a vibrant marsh and have never forgotten it.

You’ll need:
A ball of string, yarn, or twine

Players form a circle. The leader asks them to name a plant or animal that lives in the area. When someone names a plant or animal, he or she is handed the end of the ball of string. When someone names another plant or animal, the string is unraveled and handed to that person. The game continues this way until everyone is holding the same piece of string. It can be very dramatic for everyone to realize that they are webbed together. Choose one of the players to illustrate what happens when there is change, such as when a tree burns down or an animal is eaten. Have that person pull his or her piece of string to see its effect on all the others.

Slow Tip: If people get stuck on what to say next, go backward or forward in the food and shelter chain. The bird eats a frog, the frog eats an ant, the ant crawls under a tree, the tree provides oxygen for the deer, and so on.

Cook with the Sun

Box ovens employ one of the oldest energy sources of all, solar power. But while people have dried food in the sun for centuries, it was French-Swiss scientist Horace de Saussure who harnessed it for cooking. He used glass to trap heat and create convection while his 1700s peers were still burning mirrors. Anything that can be cooked in a regular oven can be cooked in a box oven, though it’s best to stick with recipes that don’t require raw meat or eggs, until you’re proficient.

You’ll need:
Large sturdy cardboard box, with four sides and a bottom (no top or lids), such as a 10-ream paper box
Heavy-duty aluminum foil
Duct tape
Cookie sheet or large cake pan
4 tin cans, filled with water to weight them
Charcoal briquettes and fire starter
Disposable foil tray or pie tins
Small stone
Recipe and cooking items
Bucket of water for fire safety

Choose a hot day with full sun. Completely line the box inside and out with foil, shiny side out. Tape only on the outside of the box (to avoid fumes getting in the food.) Choose a flat surface away from flammable objects. Line it with foil. Use the tin cans as “feet” to hold the cookie sheet or cake pan, which serves as the oven tray. Fill the foil tray or pie tins with briquettes, approx. one for every 40 degrees of desired oven temperature, and start. Place the item to be cooked on the oven tray (ideas follow). Slide the briquettes under the oven tray when ready (white). Place the box oven down over the items, using a small rock on the least windy side to lift part of the box off the ground for ventilation.

Follow the directions for your recipe. Cupcakes, biscuits, English muffin pizzas, and other items that don’t require long cooking times all work well in box ovens. Try one of our favorites:

Box Oven Pineapple Upside Down Cake

You’ll need:
2 boxes yellow cake mix, prepared
1 ounce butter or margarine
1 8-ounce can of pineapples
½ cup brown sugar
Dutch oven or large cake pan
Second pan or cookie sheet

Place butter or margarine in the Dutch oven or pan and melt it in the box oven. Stir brown sugar and pineapples into the melted butter. Pour prepared cake mix over the pineapple mixture. Bake for 25 minutes or more, until the cake is golden brown. Remove from the box oven and invert onto a second pan or cookie sheet.

Slow Tip: Want to try some super easy sun cooking? Make sun tea by filling a container with water, adding tea bags, and letting the container steep in the sun.

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Enjoy the Night Sky

Backyard fun needn’t only happen during the daytime. Nighttime offers lots of opportunities to explore constellations of stars; meteor showers, like August’s Perseids; or phases of the moon. You can’t help but be infused with a sense of wonder, awe, history and mystery while contemplating the cosmos, as countless people, back to the ancient Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks and others have done before us.

Get to Know the Constellations

With 88 constellations and numerous other stars, the night sky can seem a bit overwhelming. Begin to get to know it by locating a few key constellations and orienting to those. After all, the constellations were themselves created to help the ancients better understand the night sky.

The Big Dipper, which is part of a larger constellation, is a great starting point, as it has an identifiable shape and is usually visible over much of the Northern Hemisphere. It appears like a ladle (bowl) and handle. Seeking the North Star, or Polaris? Extend an imaginary line up from the top corner of the ladle that is furthest from the handle. Polaris is in turn on the handle of the Little Dipper, which appears upside down and facing the opposite direction from the Big Dipper. Continue on from the North Star, away from the Big Dipper, for about the same distance and you will reach Casseopeia (the mythical Queen of Ethiopia), another famous constellation. In the Northern Hemisphere, Cassiopeia is shaped like an “M” in the Summer and a “W” in the Winter.

Consult a star map and continue to find relationships to these constellations.

Slow Snippet: What makes stars twinkle? What we see as twinkling is really the light from the star bending as it moves through layers of the Earth’s atmosphere. That trip takes billions of years, so that what we see is a snapshot of a time in the cosmos that is long past.

Keep a Moon Diary

Taking note of the moon’s phases and rhythms, as it moves through its cycle, is a great way to feel the rhythms of our lives and of nature. Observing the moon and keeping a moon diary can help younger children understand how long a month is.

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Have a Scavenger Hunt

Scavenger hunts are a great way to get everyone exploring and observing in nature.

You’ll need:
Pencils and paper

Create a list in advance or have players contribute to one list of 10-20 things they might find in the backyard or park. A list might include an oak tree, a pond, a red bird, a dandelion, a wildflower, a nest, a feather, an acorn or a hollow log. You or the hunters could also list more subjective items, such as something rough, something orange, something unexpected, or a heart-shaped rock. Teams or players go off to seek the items on the list and cross each off when they see it. One point is awarded for each item found. The person or team with the most points wins.

Make a Nature Bracelet

This is a fun and easy way to get kids to look around them and observe small items in their own backyards.

You’ll need:
1″ or wider Masking Tape, enough to go around each child’s wrist

Tear off a piece of masking tape, slightly larger than the child’s wrist. Place it around the wrist with the sticky side out. Go for a walk or hunt and look for small items in nature that can be stuck to the masking tape, such as leaves, twigs, seeds, acorns and pods. (Generally things that have already fallen on the ground are safe to pick. If in doubt, leave something.) Fill the bracelet by sticking the items onto it and wear it proudly.

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These activities are adapted from Fed Up with Frenzy: Slow Parenting in a Fast-Moving World, which contains 300+ more fun family activities.

Want to take it further? Create your own backyard DIY summer camp with eight weeks of ideas from A Natural Nester and many others.

This post is part of the School’s Out Top 10 Summer Learning series. Be sure to read all the other great Top 10 lists!

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Photos: Susan Sachs Lipman, Kids Growing Strong (pizza garden), Public Domain (night sky), Pass the Cereal (nature bracelet)

Earth Day and Every Day: 11 Ways to Make Gardening Extra Fun for Kids

With Earth Day upon us, not to mention the warmer and longer spring days, many of us have been heading into our gardens. Around much of the Northern Hemisphere, this is the peak time to sow some seeds into the ground, as well as plant a lifelong gardening habit into the children in our lives.

Gardening helps families spend time together outdoors, take pride in growing our own food, and connect to others who have lived on the land before us. Even though gardening offers a bounty of simple wonder, beauty and fun for even the smallest children, it doesn’t hurt to employ a few methods for getting and keeping them especially engaged.

Here are some simple ways to maximize your child’s interest in the garden.

Let children select some plants they want to grow. Something magical happens when one has ownership of a project from its initial stages. When choosing plants, check that you have the right growing conditions for them to help ensure a successful experience. Planting information is available on seed packets and through garden-supply store folks, who are generally very helpful. You can choose seeds, young seedlings, or a combination of the two. Seeds are more cost-effective and can be especially rewarding and wondrous. Bedding plants of course give your garden instant color.

Some plants that come up quickly, and are easy to plant and grow, include nasturtiums, peas, sunflowers and beans.

(As an aside, my daughter always chose marigolds to plant, just like I did I when I was a kid. They’re so colorful and cheery and happen to be easy to grow from seedlings or seeds. Perhaps many children are drawn to bright marigolds.)

Chop chores into small blocks. Kids can lose interest if the project seems daunting. Try to break up the tasks into doable chunks and over more than one session if necessary.

Make a sign that identifies the garden, area, or container as the child’s. The sign can be as simple as a painted rock or as ambitious as a mosaic-tile kit from an art-supply store. If other people are sharing the garden, you can still identify different children’s plantings by putting each name on a wooden stick (available in bags at garden-supply stores) in permanent ink.

Create a fun space in the garden. Create a hiding place with trellises or plantings, or plant a sunflower house by planting sunflowers in the shape of a large playhouse that you can later go inside. (Leave room for your door!) Designate a tree stump to serve as a table for tea parties, or decorate an area with whimsical objects you make or find. For instance, use pipe cleaners and beads to make simple butterflies, ladybugs, mushrooms and flowers, and then place them among the plants. Or plant a pizza garden! Grow tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, basil and more in the shape of a pizza. At harvest time, add dough and cheese and bake your creation.

Attract animals to your garden. Certain plants and flowers are known to attract various butterflies and birds. This can add another level of delight for children. The National Wildlife Federation has information about how to turn any garden into a habitat for wildlife. Even if you don’t get your garden “wildlife” certified, there are a lot of fun, helpful tips for bringing creatures into your yard.

Let your child plant. In addition to helping children feel ownership of the garden, the act of putting seeds into the ground and then watching them come up is great fun. Large seeds like nasturtium, peas, beans, sunflowers, and gourds can be especially easy for children to handle and poke into holes. Smaller seeds can be mixed with coffee grounds for scattering. You can usually tell the relative size of a seed by shaking the seed packet.

Let your child water. Most children love to water. Teach them to check the soil by poking a finger down a couple of inches. If they feel moistness, there’s no need to water. If it’s dry, the plant is thirsty. It’s also best to water early or late in the day, so that the water doesn’t dry out in the sun before getting to the roots of the plants. Water fairly deeply and try to get the water into the dirt instead of right on the plants, where it can damage leaves and stems.

Let your child harvest. Children also love to harvest what they’ve grown. Be sure to have them experience picking their own vegetables or flowers (with you helping to cut stems, as necessary.) Cooking or baking with the food you’ve grown is, of course, a delight. Strawberries are really fun to grow and eat right in the garden — I’ve had the best luck with young plants rather than seeds. Catnip is fun to grow if you have an appreciative cat. And flowers are fun to give others on Earth Day, May Day or anytime.

Avoid the use of pesticides in any garden that you’ll be eating from, or even spending time in. If your garden does develop an unwanted species, take an affected piece of the plant to your local garden-supply store and ask for advice on how to treat it organically.

Let the diggers dig. Some children prove especially interested in what’s under the ground. For them, an area in which to dig and look at worms and other creatures may be ideal.

(Relatedly, when my daughter’s wonderful pre-school learned they were going to have new-home construction occur next door, they cut a hole in the fence and covered it with plexiglass. A whole group of kids regularly watched the bulldozers and other tools of construction with fascination. In other words, it’s good to remember that kids aren’t necessarily interested in the same things we are.)

Allow for mistakes and experimentation. Children can learn early that things don’t always grow as planned. Likewise, gardens can be wonderful places to explore, experiment, and observe. Try planting the same plant in different conditions, or grow something you’ve never grown, just to see what happens.

Photos by Susan Sachs Lipman

You might also be interested in: Earth Day and Every Day: Beginners Guide to Getting Your Garden Growing

Tulipmania 2012

Like the 17th-century Dutch who experienced one of the biggest boom-and-bust cycles in history, my family and I find ourselves gripped by Tulipmania each year. We pore over photos of tulips on the Internet and at our local garden center and ultimately choose a few for reasons that vary widely each year — a lovely pale shade here, a bright color there, a curve of shape or a frill of petal.

Whichever types you choose, planting tulips is a terrific family project that brings you a lot of beauty and wonder for relatively little effort. For more information about planting, see Tulips are in the Ground. Here are this year’s tulips:

Salmon Impression

We chose Salmon Impression for its wonderful pastel color, and it didn’t disappoint. This variety yielded beautiful large flowers on strong, tall (20-24″) stems. I especially enjoyed the subtle green coloring on each petal.

Ivory Floradale

Another gorgeous flower (and another Darwin Hybrid type), the Ivory Floradale came in colors ranging from yellow to cream. They also produced a large and interesting flower on a sturdy 20-22″ stem.

DAYDream

A favorite from years past, the Daydream continued to delight again and was a great compliment and accent to the other colors and varieties. Another sturdy flower on a 20-24″ stem, this Darwin Hybrid produced a bright, apricot color and dark centers that were revealed when the petals opened in the sun.

china town

Our last flower, China Town, looked like a lot of fun, with its frilly, multi-colored petals, but, alas, the bulbs went into the ground and failed to grow. Luckily they were in a separate container, so that our bright display bloomed in a happy group.

As always, we treasured our tulips while they were here. Until next year!

Photos by Susan Sachs Lipman

More Tulipmania from Slow Family:

Tulipmania 2010, Part One (Lots of tulip photos)
Tulipmania 2010, Part Two (More tulip photos)
Tulipmania: One Bubble I can Really Get Behind
Tulips are in the Ground

Enter the “First Peas to the Table” Pea Growing Contest

Each Spring, in the colonial U.S., founding father and extraordinary gardener Thomas Jefferson held a friendly contest with his neighbors to see who could grow the most peas. The first person to grow a bowl of peas was declared the contest’s winner and hosted a dinner for the other neighbors.

Now a children’s book and a school contest celebrates this tradition. First Peas to the Table: How Thomas Jefferson Inspired a School Garden, by Susan Grigsby and Nicole Tadgell, illustrates the life cycle of peas, while taking readers through a friendly modern-day competition modeled on Jefferson’s.

There is also an accompanying pea growing contest that encourages children in grades 1-4, growing individually or in teams, to be the first in their USDA Hardiness Zone to harvest 2 or more cups of peas. The contest opens March 1, with different end dates, based on Hardiness Zone. The First Peas Contest web site has all the contest rules, as well as links to lots of growing tips and information. Winners in each gardening zone will receive a set of four garden-themed books and will be featured on the Albert Whitman Publishers web site.

Since my foggy Bay Area, CA, climate is uniquely suited for peas, and we’ve grown more than our share of them, we’re eager to grow along with the contest and see how we do. (We usually grow peas in the Summer or Fall, so March planting is new for us.)

Before planting, we soaked our pea seeds in warm water for 24 hours, which should give them a good start on sprouting. (This works especially well with large, soft seeds like pea.) We planted both soaked and dry seeds, alternating every other one, to see if the soaking really makes a difference. We marked the two different types with stakes. We figured that, by planting every other seed rather than in bunches, we would account for any differences in sun or soil. You can see that the soaked seeds are much plumper than the others.

Let me know if you’re growing, too, and we’ll enjoy the contest, the tradition, and our spring pea harvests.

Until then, wishful thinking from a previous year’s pea yield:

Photos: Susan Sachs Lipman

Tulips are in the Ground!

My family and I love tulip-planting time. We have many memories of going out on bright and chilly late November or early December days, digging into the dirt and placing our bulbs into the ground, along with our visions of colorful and elegant tulips coming up in the spring.

The big bulbs (and, of course, the gorgeous flowers) make tulips especially fun and easy for kids to plant and then watch emerge from the ground, sometimes among the first flowers to do so after the winter. Kids usually enjoy learning that the bulbs have most of the nutrients inside to create a flower (but still like a little boost at planting time – we use an organic bulb food.) This makes bulbs a great item to plant in school yards or public spaces because they don’t need a lot of watering or care while they’re growing.

Because we live in Sunset Magazine’s gardening zone 17 (USDA Zone 9), we refrigerate our bulbs for 6 weeks to simulate a Northern winter. And, because we haven’t had much success preserving our tulips from year to year (see the next paragraph for ideas about that), we always have some new tulips to try. Of course that’s a big part of the fun – poring over web sites and practically drooling over the local nursery displays. The chosen bulbs then go into the fridge for their hibernation. And, on an invariably cold, crisp day — in 6″ deep holes (aided by a simple bulb digger) and with a little organic fertilizer (the white stuff you see) — into the ground they go. We used sticks to mark different color bulbs while we were planning our planter boxes.

Because tulip bulbs are generally indicated to bloom early, mid or late spring, you may want to choose bulbs that bloom at about the same time (which we did, because we have a small planting area) or choose bulbs for continuous blooms. Heights are also estimated so that you can plant taller ones in the back of a display.  Tulips tend to look best grouped, rather than in a line.

Want to know more about bulbs and planting? The Blooming Bulb site sells bulbs and offers more detailed tulip planting and storing instructions. The Plant Expert is a fabulous resource about choosing, planting, storing and growing bulbs and all kinds of plants. Another is Doug Green’s Flower Garden Bulbs, which sells bulbs as well. Colorblends (which offers more great planting information), Brent and Becky’s Bulbs and K. VanBourgondien and Sons also sell wonderful selections of bulbs throughout the year by mail order. I also recently found an article about storing bulbs for use the next year, which the writer says is a good idea in any garden where the bulbs will be planted over, not just our warm-winter gardens. I think we will try these new techniques this year!

So, what did we plant?

Come drool with us!

DAYDream

Of our four different tulips, one was brought back from two years ago, the lovely Daydream. A Darwin hybrid, the Daydream is a classically shaped tulips in a soft apricot color, with with a little color variation for interest. The flower height ranges from 20”-24”. I found the stem to be nice and sturdy, and the bulb a pleasing size and perfect color. Some of the flowers tended toward pale yellow tones. Daydreams open in the sun to reveal a black center.

Darwin Hybrids were originally cultivated by crossing single late Darwin and Cottage tulips with early Fosteriana tulips to produce beautiful results.

Salmon Impression

Salmon Impression is another in the sherbet-like color range that I like. A Darwin Hybrid, like the Daydream, we’re told the Salmon Impression is especially sturdy and does well in various climates and conditions, as well as producing large, pretty flowers on strong stems that reach 20-24″.

Ivory Floradale

I think a light or dark accent color is nice among the tulips. This year we went for the light and creamy colored Ivory Floradale. It’s another Darwin Hybrid (I guess we know what we like) and is said to grow to 20-22″ on a strong stem.

china town

We usually try to plant one especially exotic tulip – one with frilly edges, or flames of color shooting through it, or a Viridiflora, a tulip type that offers streaks of stem-like green along its flower. This year’s is the China Town. Writes Bissett Nursery: “Flaring petals of pink, edged in cream streaked with a moss green.  Artistic and unusual in design.  China Town also has especially attractive foliage – dark green leaves with white borders.” This flower is said to grow 14-20″ and is in its own pot in a very visible spot.

Photos: Daydream: Susan Sachs Lipman; Salmon Impression: Botanus; Ivory Floradale: Van Bourgondien Nursery; China Town: Bissett Nursery. All others: S. Lipman

More Tulipmania from Slow Family:

Tulipmania 2010, Part One (Lots of tulip photos)
Tulipmania 2010, Part Two (More tulip photos)
Tulipmania: One Bubble I can Really Get Behind

 

 

12 Days of Green Holiday Gifts: Root Viewer Garden Kit

I recently saw this wonderful toy and immediately got very excited about it. The Root Viewer Garden, from Toysmith, allows you to see what’s happening underground when you grow root vegetables like carrots, onions, radishes, and beets. And, best, it contains everything you need to grow your own root veggies and watch the show: a wooden tube holder; three 5 1/2” plastic tubes; growing medium; carrots, onion and radish seeds; instructions; and a journal for recording their progress from sprouting to harvest.

I’ve forced flower bulbs before, by growing bulbs in a water-filled bulb-forcing vase, but I think growing root vegetables in the Root Viewer’s tubes is far more visual, and therefore rewarding, for kids. With root vegetables, all the action is normally underground! Plus, there’s something about growing a food and learning about that process that is educational and stays with one for life.

Find Root Viewer Gardens at Home Training Tools or Wild Bird & Gifts. Or, make your own and spend time this holiday season enjoying it.

You’ll need:

Clear plastic cups, or bottles or jars
Seeds and dirt

Fill containers most of the way with dirt.
Plant root vegetables or quick-sprouting seeds, like beans, peas, lettuce, radishes, bachelor’s buttons, Sweet Alyssum, or Sweet William, close to one side, one or two per cup.
Place containers in the sun or on a sunny windowsill and water gently.
Watch as roots form and plants sprout.

My criteria for a green holiday gift? One that :

Promotes nature play or care of the earth
Uses all or mostly natural ingredients
Fosters observation and/or open-ended active and creative play
Doesn’t use extraneous plastic or other wrapping
Doesn’t break the bank to buy it.

Got any suggestions? Send them my way!

Growing up Green: A New Book for Budding Gardeners

There’s nothing fancy about it, and that’s okay. Growing up green, by Charles E. Majuri, is down to earth, in the best way. It’s for people who wish to share gardening with their children, no matter what experience level everyone has. It’s an especially wonderful and comprehensive book for beginners.

Majuri writes about the necessity of patience in the garden and the book is handled in a correspondingly patient manner. Gentle explanations let readers know which gardening activities might be best for children and what they may glean from the experience.

All the basics are covered, from planning and preparing, to planting, watering, mulching, growing in containers, encouraging worms, and saving seeds. Most of the book is divided by Northern Hemisphere months, with a generous number of suggested projects for each month.

Especially emphasized are projects that are easy for small children and help create family bonding. Majuri, after all, is a longtime clinical psychologist who has noted a continually widening gap in meaningful interaction between children and adults and has used and studied gardening as a way to provide healthy and joyful activity. He also includes bits of gardening history and lore that he hopes will serve as further springboards for interaction and fun.

Growing up green packs a lot of useful and inspiring inspiration in its slim volume. I recommend it to parents and others who seek simple information about getting their gardens growing.

Earth Day and Every Day: 11 Ways to Make Gardening Extra Fun for Kids

With Earth Day upon us, not to mention the warmer and longer spring days, many of us have been heading into our gardens. Around much of the Northern Hemisphere, this is the peak time to sow some seeds into the ground, as well as plant a lifelong gardening habit into the children in our lives.

Gardening helps families spend time together outdoors, take pride in growing our own food, and connect to others who have lived on the land before us. Although gardening offers a bounty of simple wonder, beauty and fun for even the smallest children, it doesn’t hurt to employ a few methods for getting and keeping them especially engaged.

Here are some simple ways to maximize your child’s interest in the garden.

Let children select some plants they want to grow. Something magical happens when one has ownership of a project from its initial stages. When choosing plants, check that you have the right growing conditions for them to help ensure a successful experience. Planting information is available on seed packets and through garden-supply store folks, who are generally very helpful. You can choose seeds, young seedlings, or a combination of the two. Seeds are more cost-effective and can be especially rewarding and wondrous. Bedding plants of course give your garden instant color.

(As an aside, my daughter always picked marigolds, as did I when I was a kid. They’re so colorful and cheery and happen to be easy to grow from seedlings or seeds. Perhaps most children are drawn to bright marigolds.)

Chop chores into small blocks. Kids can lose interest if the project seems daunting. Try to break up the tasks into doable chunks and over more than one session if necessary.

Make a sign that identifies the garden, area, or container as the child’s. The sign can be as simple as a painted rock or as ambitious as a mosaic-tile kit from an art-supply store. If other people are sharing the garden, you can still identify different children’s plantings by putting each name on a wooden stick (available in bags at garden-supply stores) in permanent ink.

Create a fun space in the garden. This can be a hiding place that you create with trellises or plantings; a tree stump that can serve as a table for tea parties; or an area that is decorated with whimsical objects you make or find. For instance, pipe cleaners and beads can be used to make simple butterflies, mushrooms and flowers — they can be placed among the plants and can get wet and still last a long time.

Attract animals to your garden. Certain plants and flowers are known to attract various butterflies and birds. This can add another level of delight for children. The National Wildlife Federation has information about how to turn any garden into a habitat for wildlife. Even if you don’t get your garden “wildlife” certified, there are a lot of fun, helpful tips for bringing creatures into your yard.

Let your child plant. This goes back to ownership, plus it’s just so much fun to put seeds into the ground and then watch them come up. Large seeds like nasturtium, peas, beans, sunflowers, and gourds can be especially easy for children to handle and poke into holes. Smaller seeds can be mixed with coffee grounds for scattering. You can usually tell the relative size of a seed by shaking the seed packet. You may also want to look for seeds that will sprout and mature relatively quickly.

Let your child water. Most children love to water. Teach them to check the soil by poking a finger down a couple of inches. If they feel moistness, there’s no need to water. If it’s dry, the plant is thirsty. It’s also best to water early or late in the day, so that the water doesn’t dry out in the sun before getting to the roots of the plants. Water fairly deeply and try to get the water into the dirt instead of right on the plants, where it can damage leaves and stems.

Let your child harvest. Children also love to harvest what they’ve grown. Be sure to have them experience picking their own vegetables or flowers (with you helping to cut stems, as necessary.) Cooking or baking with the food you’ve grown is, of course, a delight. Strawberries are really fun to grow and eat right in the garden — I’ve had the best luck with young plants rather than seeds. Catnip is fun to grow if you have an appreciative cat. And flowers are fun to give others on Earth Day, May Day or anytime.

Avoid the use of pesticides in any garden that you’ll be eating from, or even spending time in. If your garden does develop an unwanted species, take an affected piece of the plant to your local garden-supply store and ask for advice on how to treat it organically.

Let the diggers dig. Some children prove especially interested in what’s under the ground. For them, an area in which to dig and look at worms and other creatures may be ideal.

(Relatedly, when my daughter’s wonderful pre-school learned they were going to have new-home construction occur next door, they cut a hole in the fence and covered it with plexiglass. A whole group of kids regularly watched the bulldozers and other tools of construction with fascination. In other words, it’s good to remember that kids aren’t necessarily interested in the same things we are.)

Allow for mistakes and experimentation. Children can learn early that things don’t always grow as planned. Likewise, gardens can be wonderful places to explore, experiment, and observe.

Look for future articles here with more specifics about how to get your garden started and some fun ideas for kids’ garden projects.

Photos by Susan Sachs Lipman

12 Days of Green Holiday Gifts: Root Viewer Garden

I recently saw this wonderful toy and immediately got very excited about it. The Root Viewer Garden, from Toysmith, allows you to see what’s happening underground when you grow root vegetables like carrots, onions, radishes, and beets. And, best, it contains everything you need to grow your own root veggies and watch the show: a wooden tube holder; three 5 1/2” plastic tubes; growing medium; carrots, onion and radish seeds; instructions; and a journal for recording their progress from sprouting to harvest.

I’ve forced flower bulbs before, by growing bulbs in a water-filled bulb-forcing vase, but I think growing root vegetables in the Root Viewer’s tubes is far more visual, and therefore rewarding, for kids. With root vegetables, all the action is normally underground! Plus, there’s something about growing a food and learning about that process that is educational and stays with one for life.

I happened to see the Root Viewer Garden at a store called Farmer’s Friend in Columbia State Park, in California’s Gold Rush Country, which I highly recommend as a fun, colorful place where a lively chapter of California’s history comes to life.

If you’re not planning a visit to Columbia, the Root Viewer Garden can be found online at Kiddly Winks, Toy Blaster, and Amazon.

I plan to feature 12 green holiday gifts, be they toys, objects, activities, or contributions to others. If you have any ideas, send them my way!

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