Winter Fun at Botanical Gardens and Arboreta

Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens

While much of the country is still under a blanket of winter, you may be on the search for ways to keep your garden activities going strong. A couple of weeks ago, KG’s Christine Gall shared some ideas for Indoor Garden-Based Activities to Get You Through the Winter, but if your family is like mine, getting outside of the house for even a little bit of time is also a priority. Need to get your garden fix this winter? Check out local botanical gardens and arboreta.

I use to tell my school group tours that botanical gardens and arboreta were like museums for plants, but although they may have started as places to house and display plant collections, they have evolved into so much more. From family-friendly programming, to widespread installations of children’s gardens, botanical gardens and arboreta are claiming their place as community centers designed to provide high quality, many times interactive, nature-based experiences. Providing displays to help people connect to both local and sometimes global ecosystems, gardens and arboreta offer inspiration and engagement for gardeners of all ages.

Our new Executive Director Rachel Stein captured the photos above while on a recent trip to Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Columbus, Ohio. In addition to offering the weather-protected conservatory space to explore, there is also fun to be had year round in The Scotts Miracle-Gro Children’s Garden along with a beautiful collection of glass artwork by Dale Chihuly. In my neck of the woods, my kids and I regularly visit the The Cockrell Butterfly Center, a conservatory located at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Although not usually as a reprieve from cold temperatures (we do live in Texas), my kids love the chance to explore the rainforest inspired conservatory and see what life is like in a different area of the world.

Botanical gardens and arboreta are scattered throughout the United States in all shapes and sizes. Some were started on public property while others began as private estates that were later opened to the public. You may find them connected to colleges and universities, zoos, museums or libraries. For example, in our community, our local public library created a small children’s reading garden with a maze that leads to an area for reading which we often would visit after checking out our books. Some offer free admission, others may have a charge. There is wide variation in both size of the space and complexity of programming, offering a wide variety of experiences to find the right fit for your family.

Regardless of your location, if you are looking for a fun day trip, you should be able to find a local botanical garden and or arboretum within driving distance of you. Although not a complete listing of all gardens, the American Horticultural Society’s Reciprocal Admissions Program website offers a great directory of many opportunities available (and you may want to think about investing in an AHS membership if you travel a lot and might take advantage of their reciprocal admissions benefit).

Keeping kids excited about gardening through winter months can some times be a challenge. But just think how much fun your spring and summer gardens will be when the anticipation of diving into their own gardening space builds all year long!


Garden Planning Calendars

garden planning calendars

In the most recent In the Weeds video I mentioned garden planning calendars and how they’re a great project to tackle with students. A detailed garden calendar can also be an extremely helpful and effective tool when it comes to overall garden planning, so whether or not you have the opportunity to create one with students, it’s an activity that I would highly recommend to help streamline and improve your garden systems. 

Here in Vermont, February is generally the month when I develop my own garden calendar, and so I wanted to share the main framework that guides my thinking: harvest time. Do I want to be able to pick fully grown cabbages by early summer? Are there crops like lettuce and spinach I want access to all summer long? Do I want my students to be able to harvest fresh basil leaves when they return to school in the fall? By asking all these questions, I’m forced to think about my ideal harvest date or window. 

garden planning calendarsOnce I’ve decided when I’d like to harvest, I can work backwards to figure out a planting date. Most seed packets will have information on how long a particular variety takes to mature—for example, Yellow Sweet Spanish Utah Onions take approximately 100 days. That means if I want to harvest them with students right when they return to school the first week of September, then they need to be planted around the final week of May at the latest. 

After figuring out all my plantings dates, I take anything that falls within a week or two window and pick one planting day to log on my calendar. Most of the time I start veggies by seed instead of purchasing starts, I also utilize produce all summer long, so I typically begin starting seeds by mid-March.

Garden planning calendars are one approach to strategic garden planning, but you can check out one of my blog posts from last spring for additional tips.

Flower Garden Dreaming

flower garden

We have eleven hundred inches of snow on the ground here in Vermont and so naturally I'm thinking about this summer's flower garden. Last year I made an effort to grow even more flowers than in years past, and hardly any of them did well. The dahlias were attacked by slugs, the zinnias we started indoors from seed were pokier to grow then if I'd just tossed the seeds in the ground, and the sweet peas didn't flower. I dreamed of vases of flowers in every room and settled for child-picked wilted dandelions on the dining room table. (Which of course is charming in it's own way.)

Like all gardeners, this year I believe it will go better! I want to have an abundance of flowers so the kids can pick what they like to create bouquets for themselves, friends, and neighbors. And maybe they'll cut some for me, too? A parent can dream. Maybe we'll even try this flower arranging activity!

flower garden
A mix of seeds from a butterfly friendly flower packet.

One thing that is really fun about planting flowers is how varied all the seeds are! From tiny poppy seeds to big round sweet peas, or the miniature broom shape of a bachelor button, seed shapes can be fun to explore with your young gardeners. One of the things that I had great luck with last year was a "Bring Home the Butterflies" flower mix . (The header picture is my little pocket garden in bloom with this mix.) But the seeds are all varied, and it can be a fun guessing game to try to guess which seeds will grow into which plants. Maybe an expert gardener can help out here (that would not be me).

This year I'm planning on a combination of starts from the garden center (lots of snapdragons, as well as coleus and cosmos) plus I'm trying 5-6 types of flowers that can be sowed before the average last frost. Here in Vermont, our growing season is short and this can help with getting flowers in bloom before it gets too cold. Oh and this year I'll just direct sow my zinnias. One thing I will start from seed under grow lights, next to my tomatoes, is this very lovely anniversary aster from our friends at Botanical Interests. These look amazing! Huge white blooms that will either be stunning alone, or mixed in with other cut flowers. Did you know that Botanical Interest will donate $1 for each packet of these asters sold to KidsGardening? We're so honored to be partnering with them, and this will truly be a stand-out addition to your garden. Although eek, will I let my kids just pick these?! Or will those be just for me? Luckily I have many months to figure that out. You can buy these online, or from your local garden retailer.

flower garden

Tomato Time: Comparing hydroponic and grow light growth

tomato time

Hard to believe it, but it is tomato seed planting time in Texas (which probably sounds ridiculous to those of you shoveling snow in northern regions). Each year our 3rd grade gardeners plant tomatoes from seed under grow lights, usually around the third or fourth week of January, to transplant outside the first week of March before spring break. Our goal is try to get the plants ready to harvest before school lets out and also before night time temperatures stay above 75 degrees F (tomatoes will stop setting fruit when the nights are this warm thus tomatoes are spring and fall crops in our area). We usually plant cherry tomatoes because they have shorter days to maturity rates than most other varieties.

tomato growing comparison
Tomato seedlings under grow lights, after 2 weeks.

tomato time
Tomato seedlings, grown hydroponically, after 2 weeks.

This year, in addition to planting tomatoes under grow lights, we also have tomatoes growing hydroponically in an AeroGarden Farm hydroponic unit.  Contrasting the two has been an interesting endeavor. The hydroponic tomatoes have grown so much faster and look so much happier than the ones growing under lights. The pictures to the right shows both 2 weeks after planting. Eventually down the road, I know the grow light tomatoes that we transplant outdoors will over take those being grown in the hydroponic unit, but it is amazing how vigorously they are growing in water. Below (and above) are pictures of the hydroponic tomatoes at 3.5 weeks. The growth rate truly is remarkable and everyone is enjoying watching the tomatoes change daily using this new growing technique.

tomato time
Tomato seedlings, grown hydroponically, after 3.5 weeks.

Another first for our garden this year, we never had a true winter freeze so our fall gardens are still growing strong.  The lettuce beds are full and there are so many sugar snap peas on the vines that the plants are falling over. We are going to break some hearts in two weeks when we have to pull everything out to prepare the soil for our spring gardens (the sugar snap peas have been popular snacks at recess time). Our wildflowers are already blooming too. What will the spring hold I wonder? I am sure there will be many new lessons to share (and a healthy crop of weeds and insects too). Just goes to show that no two seasons are the same in a school garden. Even if we buy the same seeds, plant at the same time and provide the same care – the garden is an ever changing adventure for our young and young at heart gardeners. Never a dull moment in the garden classroom!