Strawberries in a Hanging Basket

strawberries in baskets
Kristen's first ripe strawberry!

I don’t have a lot of space at home to garden, so I do most of my gardening at a community garden. However, I do have a small porch at home and try to utilize that space as best I can. This year, I decided to try growing strawberries in a hanging basket. I wasn’t sure how it would go, especially since I have monster squirrels around that have been known to eat budding peppers and the heads off sprouting sunflowers, but I gave it a shot. I’m excited to announce that, last week; I ate my first ripe little strawberry!

It was a pretty easy and fun project and I highly suggest trying it if you don’t have a lot of space at home or school to grow. Plus, kids of all ages will love watching the flowers blooming and the fruits growing out of them and eventually turning into DELICIOUS little berries.

A puppers who likes to help with planting

I used Alpine strawberry plants. They are much smaller than other varieties and are better suited for draping over a hanging basket. I wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of taste, as I had never tried them before, but I was pleasantly surprised. When picked at peak ripeness, they have a brilliant tart taste. I think I might like them even more than June-bearing! They also produce for longer, so I’ll be able to enjoy them into the fall.

Strawberries need a lot of water, so I invested in a self-watering container. It was worth it because the basket is wider and I could fit three plants inside, and don’t have to worry about watering if I go away for just one night. However, I did need to add moss to soften the edges of the basket in order to prevent the stems from breaking as they draped over the side. It was pretty cheap and easy to do. Just use paper clips to pin it down.

If you have a critter problem like I do, hanging baskets can be a great way to keep them out of reach. Unfortunately, most places to hang a basket on my porch are still accessible to squirrels, so I bought a hook and hung it off the front! This left space higher on my porch available for flowers!

Dangling from the porch, and safe from squirrels!
Moss around the basket edges provides cushioning for strawberry stems.

When the cold weather returns, I’ll bring the basket inside to care for it through the winter – and continue to enjoy them next year!

What are your tips for maximizing food growing in small spaces? What unique garden projects are you trying out this summer?

Plant a Seed and Watch it Grow – or Not

plant a seed and watch it grow

A few months ago, while we were starting pepper, eggplant, and tomato seeds, my 6-year old really wanted to plant an apple seed. She said she wanted to grow an apple tree to plant in our community garden so she could eat apples anytime she wanted. I delayed her a few times, because I knew that 1) the seed wouldn’t germinate and 2) it wouldn’t just sprout a tree that would produce apples within six months.

Well, when we were starting a second round of plants this winter, she found an apple seed she had covertly saved from a few days back and asked if I could save a seed-starting cell for her apple tree. So she stuck it in some seed starting mix. And whaddayaknow, it sprouted within a week. I was shocked. Everything I’ve read about starting apples from seed says it’s not the best idea because 1) you don’t know what type of apples it will actually produce and 2) there is an elaborate process of scoring the seed, cold storage for several weeks or months, then planting in specific conditions.

She doesn't care which apple variety she produces, and did none of the horticultural requirements for success. 

But it sprouted!

Her little apple seedling did great under the grow lights, and has since been transplanted to a magenta pot outside. The plan is to let it get bigger this year, and then plant it in a family member’s orchard next spring. If the apple tree survives long enough to produce apples – we know nothing of tending apple seedlings – it will be nothing short of a miracle.

Why was I so hesitant to plant the apple seed? A seed failing to germinate wasn’t going to send my kid into a tailspin of disappointment. And we could always try again.  

I like to think that I encourage my kids to take reasonable risks. Usually I think of this as physical risks – jumping from stumps, hanging upside down on the monkey bars, or learning to use a carving knife. But taking educational risks are maybe even more important (and less likely to require stitches). This was a time where I failed at encouraging reasonable risk taking. (Luckily I was saved by my child’s persistence.) It’s ok to fail. It’s ok to have a science experiment fizzle instead of pop. It’s ok to have a vegetable fail to produce in the garden. Sometimes you can follow all of the rules and advice, and still not be successful. It's ok to have it be about the journey rather than the destination. 

Monarch Monitoring

About 5 years ago, our family planted a pollinator garden and although we started with an assortment of plants, the milkweed quickly took over. For the next 3 years, we enjoyed watching the seasonal onslaught of monarch caterpillars and we even got lucky enough to catch one right as it was forming its chrysalis (a very cool thing to watch live).

In the fall of 2016, we began to notice that our caterpillars seemed to be disappearing. One day we would see the leaves covered with them, the next we would only be able to find a handful. It was pretty obvious that something was eating our monarch caterpillars. I started bringing a few caterpillars indoors to grow in one of those pop-up butterfly cages and I would harvest leaves to feed them. Even though their numbers were down, we could pretty much find a continuous supply of caterpillars to stock our cage.

Unfortunately, that changed this spring. We began looking for caterpillars in early April like usual and finally about mid-April, I was able to find one lonely little caterpillar. I could tell that there had been more because I could see small little holes where it looked like they had started chewing, but even after an extensive search, we only found one.

monarch monitoring
A monarch emerging from its chrysalis

My youngest son is in kindergarten and as part of their science curriculum, they learn about butterflies, so I took the cage in to school so that his class could watch the caterpillar grow. That little guy put on a quite a show of mowing down leaves and pooping (the amount of poop they make is truly amazing). Finally one morning, they came in and he was hanging in his “J” formation getting ready to form his chrysalis. Of course that little stinker waited until the 30 minutes they were at PE to transform. To top it off, he also emerged from his chrysalis on a Sunday so they missed that too. Perhaps it is a survival mechanism to be able to sense a peaceful time to make these changes? Since it takes time for them to dry out their wings and get ready to fly any way, I left him in his cage until Monday morning, so the kids did get the opportunity to watch him fly away into the world.

monarch monitoring
A monarch egg on the underside of a milkweed leaf

The kids enjoyed the process so much, I told them I would bring them more. No problem, I thought, our milkweed always has some caterpillars at this time of the year. I began checking our milkweed every day. I did not find another crop of eggs until mid-May. This time I picked the leaves with the eggs on them rather than waiting for them to hatch. We ended up with 5 caterpillars with 4 of them making it to the chrysalis stage (not sure what was wrong with the last one, he just stopped eating and eventually died). Unfortunately, they once again transformed into their chrysalis form over the Memorial Day holiday and did not emerge until after school was over. Thank goodness for YouTube where you can find great videos of the transformations they missed.

While it was a successful learning experience for my son’s kindergarten class, it was also was an engaging lesson for me. I can’t help but ponder the very obvious signs that the monarch population has taken a significant dive in the last 2 years. I believe I have narrowed down the predator eating my caterpillars to wasps, but we have always had wasps, so are there more wasps now? Are there fewer monarchs? Did the caterpillar population use to be high enough to provide food for the wasps and still leave some to grow to maturity? Are the wasps emerging earlier so that the monarchs do not have time to get a foothold? This spring at our school garden we also saw a significant increase in the wasp population and a decrease in bees and butterflies. Wasps are pollinators too, and they can help control caterpillars we consider pests (like cabbage loopers and tomato hornworms). Is it wrong for me to dislike them because they are not as cute, are more aggressive, and they sting?

So many questions…so many learning opportunities. I hope this post will help convince you that you need a pollinator garden too. Pollinators are a fascinating group of animals to study for any age and are an important part of ecosystem and our food system. These are all facts I have known since, well as long as I can remember. But even for me, actually growing a pollinator garden and specifically observing the life cycle of one of its inhabitants has increased my interest in pollinators to a whole new level.

I am reminded of the quote by Baba Dioum: “In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand and we will understand only what we are taught.” We can preach words of doom and gloom about decreasing pollinators populations all we want, but youth need personal experiences with pollinators to be able to truly understand and respect them. This June, to celebrate National Pollinator Month, if you don’t already have one, start planning your pollinator garden today!

Say YES to High School Gardening Intensives

high school gardening intensives

For many students the end of the school year is fast approaching, for students at Burlington High School this means YES Programs are in full swing. Year End Studies (YES) Programs are two week non-traditional intensive courses that can focus on topics ranging from foreign language, poetry, and paper mache classes to training for a 10K, advanced lake fishing, gluten free baking, and a trip Scandinavia (the full course description book is worth a look).

“Burlington Farming: Growing the Future” is one of the many amazing courses that students can sign-up for (my high school self probably would have chosen “Welcome to Middle Earth”). The class focuses on the “thriving and growing farm and garden culture” in our small city, with trips to local farms and community gardens where students lend a hand planting, tending and harvesting produce.

For the past three years I’ve worked with students for the first three days of this YES Program to prepare and plant the two large production gardens in our school district. For me, these are the three most important and most fun days of the year. Here are some of the highlights from this year’s program:

high school garden intensivesDay 1: Preparing the Front Garden and Cleaning up the Perennial Garden at Burlington High School

  • Sixteen fearless high school students arrive and jump right into some serious work after a quick tutorial on weed extraction (including how to tell what’s a weed and what’s not).
  • Two students brave pruning and trellising the prickly raspberry bushes.
  • The rototiller refuses to start and a single student tills a 10’x40’ space with a shovel.
  • A handful of students work to re-establish the garden beds that were inevitably plowed over (as they are every year) during the snowy winter months.
  • Half the gang rallies to unload and spread 4 yards of mulch.
  • Two giant pick-up trucks are entirely filled with weeds and garden debris.

high school garden intensivesDay 2: Preparing and Planting the Hunt Middle School Garden

  • Two students show up a half hour early and expertly dismantle a 190 foot long old fence without any urging… they just love to work that much.
  • These two students now team up with a few others to begin installing a new fence with the help of Brian, the high school English teacher who manages this YES Program. A giant gas-powered auger is involved.
  • The rest of the crew helps transplant over 100 starts (planted by the Food Science class earlier in the school year).
  • Once the plants are in, students band together to install over 500 feet of drip tape and approximately 200 feet of row cover.

Day 3: Preparing and Planting the Left Field Garden at Burlington High School

  • high school garden intensives
    Left field garden after lots of hard work. The before picture is the photo at the top of this post.

    Students clear the pathways and beds of weeds in record time.

  • A yard of compost is delivered and added to the newly re-established beds.
  • A core team transplants another 100 starts, including multiple varieties of winter squash and hot peppers (which will eventually be coveted by the Food Service staff to make soup and Food Science students to make salsa).
  • Three students tame the always unruly asparagus bed.
  • We break out the power tools and a handful of ladies assemble a large wooden trellis for the tomatoes.
  • A special delivery of popsicles and ice cream sandwiches arrive and we celebrate three incredible days of truly amazing and dedicated work.
  • One students stays 45 minutes late, quietly helping me trellis the tomatoes. He doesn’t ask for direction, just sees the job and decides to help.