Why Moms and Kids are the Future

moms and kids

Moms and kids are a powerful force. I became a mother in 2015 and right away issues I was most passionate about became causes I wanted to advocate for on behalf of my son, and other vulnerable little people. More than anything, I want clean air for my son to breathe, healthy soils to grow our food and fiber in, a livable climate for plants and animals, and clean, uncontaminated water to drink and grow crops. These are the most basic things, but they are not a guarantee in so many places.

I’m not without hope, though. So many kids I meet in my role at KidsGardening understand the importance they play in ensuring natural resources are sustained into the future. In my experience, teachers and parents are working hard to instill in young people an understanding of what it means to live within the planet’s limits.

And I am so proud that KidsGardening is a part of this solution. We enable educators to establish and sustain youth gardens as a tool to foster environmental stewardship. For over 35 years, we have seen firsthand that youth garden programs grow a generation of young people who understand how to live responsibly in local and global communities. 

Each year, KidsGardening surveys our grant winners. We’ve learned that 91% of educators we serve notice gardening results in improved environmental attitudes in students. How do these attitudes hold up over time? A study by Lohr and Pearson-Mims out of Washington State University indicated that participation in gardening activities in childhood was closely linked to appreciation and respect for nature in adulthood. 

And the other thing that brings me hope? Moms. I would argue that as caretakers and nurturers of children, no one is more powerful than a parent. Individually and collectively, moms have achieved amazing things. Recently I met Kelsey Wirth, of Mothers Out Front, a grassroots coalition of moms working to ensure a livable climate for all children. Kelsey explained that Mothers Out Front is, “led by our local teams of dedicated volunteers, who determine their community's needs and choose their own goals. We empower them with training, coaching, and ideas to move their communities and states from dirty to clean energy. Team members come together to learn, strategize, meet with elected and business leaders, testify at hearings, and plan and show up at rallies and other events.”

And of course, in many cases, parents are the primary educators for their children. We can lead by example and show our kids how critical it is to protect natural resources by advocating for the environment with groups like Mothers Out Front, choosing environmentally friendly products, switching to clean energy, recycling, composting, biking, carpooling, or taking public transportation to school and work.

And of course, one of the most important things you can do to raise a young environmental steward is to spend time in nature. Those positive associations children make with the natural world are what will propel them to be caretakers of it as adults. Want a fun and practical outdoor family activity? May we recommend gardening?

What can you do?


Is gardening the answer to the screen time epidemic?

kids play

North America has an epidemic on its hands. And gardening just might be the best antidote. Kids spend some 45 hours a week in front of the TV, computer, or tablet, with little to no time outside in nature. We know that spending hours sitting in front of a screen isn’t good for their physical, social, and mental well-being and numerous studies have proven the worth of outside play. The challenge for most parents and educators, however, is how to keep kids entertained outside with activities that are easy to manage and—above all else—fun.

A garden can be just that. It can be a place for creative discovery, imagination, and good-old physical activity. It’s also the perfect place for over-scheduled children to step away from their devices and engage with the quieter, slower-paced natural world.  A garden is a place to learn patience, true work, respect for the fragile, and how to pay close attention to the details of our natural world.

child playing in a garden
The author as a young child.

When I was nine years old, my family moved from Indianapolis to outside New York City in New Jersey. That first spring, perhaps in an effort to make us feel more at home, my younger brother and I were each allowed to order a packet of seeds from the Burpee Seed catalog. After poring through the glossy pages, I eventually selected annual forget-me-nots (I know) and my kid brother picked nasturtiums. We carefully planted our seeds…and both grew like Topsy (a Harriet Beecher Stowe reference) in our suburban backyard. Our simple success sparked my life-long love of growing plants, which I especially enjoy sharing with young people every chance I get.

Early on in my career as a magazine editor I was able to indulge my love of nature as an editor of Science World, Scholastic Inc.’s classroom science magazine aimed at junior high school-aged students, researching and writing all kinds of science stories (physics of baseball, pyrotechnics, the Chernobyl disaster), but my favorites were definitely those from the world of the natural sciences: sociable spiders, carnivorous plants, the science of tree rings (dendrochronology), hydroponics, and bioluminescence. And for years I wrote a bi-monthly kids gardening column for a national magazine (called Kinder Gardening) focused on garden projects for children like bark rubbings, how to make a rain gauge, and growing houseplants from produce.

These days I put all this work to good use with the curious young people who live in my neighborhood. I organize nature scavenger hunts and tree-climbing competitions. We look for praying mantis egg cases and Monarch caterpillars. We collect autumn leaves and identify bird nests and feathers. We look for fossils and four-leaf clovers and collect rocks and keep our eyes peeled for Cedar Waxwings. We sample daylillies and cherry tomatoes and chocolate mint. We open up dried milkweed pods and release the fluffy seeds on windy days.

Which is why I am so excited to join the KidsGardening Advisory Board.   I'll be ​shar​ing ​some of my favorite tried-and-true activities to get kids unplugged and outside in nature. I will be posting a series of blogs exploring fun and creative projects—broken down by age appropriateness—anyone can employ to help battle nature deficit disorder in our young people. I believe it is our responsibility to help young people become good gardeners and good stewards so they can help make this world a better place.

Be “Berry” Good to Winter Birds

planting for winter birds

I happened to glance out of my kitchen window the other day and was rewarded with a beautiful sight—a flock of cardinals flitting back and forth among the trees and shrubs in my yard. There must have been at least a dozen bright scarlet male birds and less showy females. As they flew about foraging for food, the sight of their colors and movement against the background of white snow was breathtaking!

While cardinals generally hang out in pairs during the breeding season, in winter they come together in groups to look for food in the winter landscape. They love to dine on seeds and fruits, and they are delighted to feed on sunflower and other kinds of seeds offered in birdfeeders. Setting out feeders is a sure-fire way to attract cardinals (and many other kinds of birds). But feeders need regular maintenance — filling and cleaning. They also attract pesky squirrels that not only raid the seeds; they’re also likely to chew up the feeder itself to get at them!

 After many seasons of battling the bushy tailed rodents, about five years ago I decided to forgo feeders and provide natural bird food instead in the form of berried trees and shrubs, along with the seed heads of flowers and grasses. While I already had a number of bird food-providing plants in my gardens, as I selected additional plants I looked for those with the best bird feeding potential. I tried to choose mainly native plants, as these generally provide the best nutrition for native birds, but I’m not a stickler. Some of my choices are native to more southerly areas, such as fringetree (Chionathus virginicus) with dark blue berries on female trees or the evergreen inkberry (Ilex glabra) with its inky black berries.

The result is a landscape that not only looks attractive, but gives me the satisfaction of knowing that I’m helping my feathered friends make it through the cold and snow of a Vermont winter. Some of the berried plants I grow include gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa) and northern bayberry (Morella or Myrica pensylvanica). The fruits of these plants make especially good bird food because their berries contain a high percentage of fat — just what birds need for fuel on cold winter nights!

I also grow winterberry (Ilex verticillata) with its bright red berries that hang on into the winter on the female plants (be sure to include a non-berried male for pollination). Did you know that cardinals get their bright red color from the foods they eat? As the birds digest colorful berries, the pigments make their way into the birds’ feather follicles, giving them their vivid hue.

Viburnums are also good bird food choices. Sadly, a relatively new pest, the viburnum leaf beetle, has made growing many species in New England a challenge. Some, like arrowwood and American cranberry (V. trilobum) are very susceptible to damage. I’ve pruned down my viburnum collection as a result and now only grow Viburnum x rhytidophyllum ‘Allegheny’. This hybrid is not a native plant, but its berries (red, maturing to black) do attract hungry birds and the leaf beetles leave its thick, leathery leaves alone.

I’ve also made sure there are evergreens to provide cover from predators and shelter from winter winds. One of my neighbors conveniently planted a row of arborvitae on his lot line, and I’ve planted pines, spruces, and junipers around my yard. In addition, the rear third of my yard is a natural wooded area that welcomes birds with food, shelter and nesting spots throughout the seasons.

Landscaping to feed the birds is a great strategy for school gardens. It gives students the chance to help birds, while providing lots of opportunities for the observation and study of these beautiful creatures. Winter is a good time for students to research the kinds of plants that are best suited for feeding birds in their part of the county and to plan where in the school landscape the plants can go. Then, when spring planting time comes around, they’ll be set to do some “berry” good deeds for their feathered friends!

Spring Garden Preparation

For my last blog, I took a look back at our fall gardens, but in Texas the pause for winter is short and this month we are full steam ahead jumping into spring garden preparations.

Last year, our school invested in purchasing grow lights not only to allow the students to be able to watch the plants go from seed to fruit, but also to try and save some money and diversify the types of plants we can grow. In addition to starting tomato plants (enough so every 3rd grader can not only grow them at school but also take one home for their family to grow too), this spring we are also starting herbs including basil and cilantro along with flowering plants like salvia, cosmos and tithonia.

These little chive seedlings have an amazingly big smell.

It is so rewarding for the kids to be able to plant seedlings in addition to seeds on our big spring planting day, but the cost of providing enough small plants for approximately 250 students who participate in the garden is beyond what our little budget can provide. By growing our own seeds we are able to extend the season and offer fun plants that would be too expensive to purchase already grown. For example, this year the kids asked to grow strawberries. As a gardener, I know that getting bare root plants is the best way to have success with strawberries, but I just could not resist the $4 packet of strawberry seeds. They are going to be our big experiment for this season (and if it does not work out, hopefully we can find some money in the budget for bare root plants). Another plant we are trying to grow from seed for the first time is chives (also hard to locate at a reasonable price for the quantities we need). Did you know that even when they are less than 1 inch in height they still have that distinctive oniony smell? I guess I should not have been surprised, but honestly I was shocked the first time I removed the humidity lid and they delivered their powerful smelly punch.

Speaking of trying new things, we are also experimenting with a new technique for garden clean up. In the past we have always removed all of the old plants including the roots. We would of course try to shake off as much of the soil as we could before adding them to the compost pile, but without a doubt we would lose some soil. This year, instead of full removal, in some of the beds we cut the plants back at the soil line, leaving the roots in place. The idea behind this is that the old roots will slowly break down, returning nutrients to the soil while also decreasing the disturbance to the soil and helping prevent soil erosion. We removed the plants from about half the beds and cut them back on the other half. It will be interesting to see if we notice any difference between the two practices.

From brainstorming ways to offer more hands-on experiences to coming up with ideas for planting day stations, it already feels like our spring garden is in motion. The warm lights of the grow lab and fresh green of the seedlings are a welcome sight to help brighten up the cool (I live in Texas – we have more cool than cold), gray days of winter.

Have you started planning for spring yet? If you are looking for a new and exciting project for your school garden program, don’t forget about the 2018 Carton 2 Garden Contest from Evergreen Packaging and KidsGardening. You can register your interest to learn more about the contest here and we will also mail you some FREE SEED packets to help you get started.