Celebrating Moths

Moths

Anyone else have night owl children right now? I think my kids are practicing for their college days. In fact my daughter, in light of the fact that schedules are changing, just asked if night school would be a choice in the fall. The reason I bring this up is to point out that yes, there is cool stuff to do out in the garden, even when the sun goes down! There are many flowers that bloom and are at their full glory at night such as moonflowers, evening primoses, and nicotiana. They usually give off a strong, sweet scent that helps them attract the attention of pollinators such as moths and bats.

Speaking of moths, this week is National Moth Week and a perfect time to go on a hunt for these nocturnal creatures. They can be distinguished from their butterfly relatives because they are usually out at night, they have feathery antenna and in their pupa stage they transform in cocoons whereas a butterfly transforms in a chrysalis. That’s right folks, The Very Hungry Caterpillar has mixed it up for us! Most moths spend time as a cocoon and most butterflies as a chrysalis (although there are certainly exceptions, you can read Eric Carle's explanation about why he wrote it that way). This was one of my son’s favorite books when he was young and I love it too, but I did swap out chrysalis for cocoon when I read it to him. I thought it sounded just fine that way.

Back on topic though, moths are pretty cool. From yellow spots that make them look like they have owl eyes, to mottled colored wings, moths have some of the most remarkable and fun camouflage adaptations. If your kids are up like mine tonight, go out and see what you might find. Moths are frequently attracted to porch lights, so you might want to start there. Also while you are out there, make sure to enjoy the evening chorus of critters who sing throughout the night during summer months.

Above is a picture of an Imperial moth, a common visitor to our school garden. They frequently spend the day resting on the brick of our school building and the kids get such a kick out of finding them. They are well camouflaged, but different enough from the red/brown brick to draw attention. Their larval form eats on pine and other trees, which means they do not cause any damage in the garden (unlike the long-tailed skipper caterpillars which keep eating all of our bean foliage). We also sometimes spy luna moths which are really cool too.

Another great kid-friendly night garden resource you may want to check out is Our Shadow Garden by Cherie Foster Colburn. A very touching story about a grandchild creating a special garden with his grandfather for his grandmother who has cancer and is unable to garden during the day, the book’s illustrations were drawn by children who were patients at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. It's another book I love!

Cooler temperatures, a non-electronic environment, and sensory engaging activities are just some of the benefits you can reap from a night-themed garden. Make sure to keep an eye out for garden friends you might want to avoid (in Texas we have to watch out for copperheads, skunks, and mosquitoes). It’s a whole different world out there when the lights go out and another fun way to teach kids to appreciate and respect the beauty and intricacies of relationships in nature.

Gro More Good Hydroponics Pilot Project

hydroponics pilot

This past school year, KidsGardening had the exciting opportunity to work in collaboration with the National Farm to School Network and The Scotts Miracle-Gro Foundation on the Gro More Good Hydroponics Pilot Project which resulted in the creation of the Exploring Hydroponics Guide.

Hydroponics in short is growing plants by supplying all necessary nutrients in the plant’s water supply rather than through soil. From an educational standpoint, it provides a lot of interesting opportunities to teach kids about plant needs and gives them the chance to investigate ways we can use engineering and technology to grow plants in nontraditional settings. They get the chance to explore ways to grow plants in challenging environments and think about how this type of growing technique might be used to meet the needs of our current and future food systems. From a student’s perspective, it is just plain fun too.

As part of this partnership, just like the 15 pilot sites, I had the chance use the guide and an AeroGarden Farm Plus system with the fourth grade students at our school garden and you may remember I shared a bit about our experiences in a blog in the fall. I kicked off each session by taking an anonymous vote on paper, asking students “Do plants need soil to grow?” and not surprisingly, a majority of students said yes. Many times to simplify teaching plant needs, kids learn soil is one of those needs rather than learning that soil provides the needs of water, nutrients and place to grow to the plant. It was awesome to watch their amazement as our plants quickly grew in the hydroponic unit (much faster than the lettuce growing outside) and really be able to demonstrate for them that you can in fact provide for the needs of plants without soil. We then tied that into lessons about what hydroponics mean for growing plants for increasing populations and in challenging environments like in urban centers, deserts, Antarctica and even on the moon.

I just want to mention here, that I always make sure to include in these lessons that soil is very important and share the wonder of how perfectly it is designed to naturally meet the needs of plants. I place the emphasis on using hydroponics in situations where we might need to look for alternate solutions (including environments with challenges such things as water scarcity, low land availability, and temperature extremes) and the benefits hydroponics can offer in those solutions. My absolute favorite finding from the feedback shared by the Gro More Good Hydroponic pilot programs we worked with was that they found working with the hydroponic systems in the classroom increased the interest in and enthusiasm for their outdoor gardens too. Because it was regularly accessible and because of the faster growth rate, the gardens proved to be a great hook to get kids excited about gardening. How cool is that? You can read more about the highlights of the pilot program from the National Farm to School Network.

The Exploring Hydroponics Guide offers 5 lessons (with 3 distinct learning activities in each) targeting 3rd through 5th grade. We include suggestions for using with younger and older students too. The focus is on hands-on exploration and real world application. It also includes an extensive appendix offering hydroponic basics for anyone new to this type of system. The pilot programs used a prefabricated hydroponic system, but in the guide we also share ideas on how to build your own systems too. I want to make sure to give a shout out to Joreen Hendry, Eve Pranis, and Victoria Beliveau who authored the original KidsGardening Exploring Classroom Hydroponics publication many years ago which laid the ground work on these easy (and inexpensive) DIY systems.

You can download the Exploring Hydroponics guide for free both on the KidsGardening website and the The National Farm to School Network website. We hope that you find it to be a useful resource to add to your youth garden library.

Searching for Inspiration

Inspiration

As we continue to be in a season of change, I am pretty sure I am not the only one in search of inspiration and support to renew my spirit not only for my work with youth gardens, but also for life in general in the time of Covid-19. This spring was exhausting and frankly, the upcoming school year is looking like it will be more of the same. Change is an inevitable part of life and it is good and necessary, but does anyone else feel like you are a GPS that is in a constant state of recalculating right now? So looking for a bit of recharging, I want to put in a plug today for the upcoming National Children and Youth Garden Symposium.

Launched in 1993 as a grassroots effort to bring youth garden advocates from across the country together to share our experiences and collectively help us gain momentum, the conference has been held at sites all over the country and always attracts a diverse audience including formal and informal educators, garden professionals, and a wide range of community volunteers. This is one conference where simple introductions are never enough because the programs represented are always uniquely designed to meet local needs and I always want to find out more. I have only had the chance to attend a handful of the events over the years, but I wish I could have gone to them all. I always leave with an amazing wealth of new ideas and knowledge that I can immediately put into practice. The information I have gained has helped shaped my work at KidsGardening, my volunteer time at our school garden, and even my activities gardening at home with my own kids.

Like most conferences these days, the 2020 NCYGS is moving to an online platform using a combination of live and pre-recorded events. I know it will not be the same as being in person and experiencing the hands-on activities and the live discussions, but I hope that many of you might take this opportunity to check it out in this highly accessible format. As always, the costs are being kept as low as possible and they are devising ways to creatively provide live interactions too. The conference will be held July 8 – 10th and registration is available now.

Check it out and get it on your calendar! The more of us that participate, the more impactful it will be. Find the time to recharge your batteries to keep growing!

Love Makes Me Grow

gardening programs for families

This week I want to share with you another inspiring story from one of our 2020 Gro More Good Grassroots Grant Winner. Their organization’s name, Love Makes Me Grow, should tip you off to the scope of their mission and the amazing work they are doing in their community and around the country. Below you will learn more about how they are responding to the needs of families during COVID-19. Their work is a great example of gardening programs for families.

Love Makes Me Grow, Kissimmee, Florida

Partnering with a local elementary school, Love Makes Me Grow is a nonprofit in central Florida focused on teaching families how to grow their own gardens to secure a sustainable food source and make healthy lifestyle choices. Participants in the program come from a variety of high needs circumstances including those who are challenged by food and housing insecurity. Families sign up to participate in a nine week program that includes a diverse offering of educational programs focused on nutrition and exercise, but also featuring topics such as careers in horticulture, affordable housing, financial literacy, and self advocacy. Each family is provided with the resources they need to begin home gardens (containers, soil, seeds, and plants) and they also contribute to the planting and maintenance of the school garden whose site they use for their weekend programs. During a normal year, they are able to offer four different sessions and reach 100 families annually.

As many community garden programs, this spring the educators at Love Makes Me Grow had to get creative about how to reach their audience. Fortunately, they were still able to provide the garden supplies to the families, but they had to find alternate ways to provide the educational support and in doing so they ended up expanding their audience far beyond their own community. The president of the organization, Nilisa Council, shares this about their spring efforts:

“We had to adjust with the times. Our website, Facebook and Instagram have been instrumental during these uncertain times. We have also collaborated with RadioMision 105.5 (transmitted in Spanish) on Facebook Live. They have provided a timeslot of 1:00 pm to 3:00 pm on Saturdays where we can educate and demonstrate our work. As a result, families throughout the U.S. have been in contact with us requesting seeds. Love Makes Me Grow has been able to assist over 800 families ranging from Florida to California. Along with the seeds, if requested, we do send a harvest guide, a planting calendar, and instructions on how to plant. We have also created several Power Points, which will be used during the Facebook Live show (depending on the week).

We have received incredibly positive feedback from our families. We have families that have planted a handful of seeds while they are at home with their children just to see what happens and others who have taken on bigger projects such as creating their own raised garden beds. Dads that have decided to build greenhouses, moms that have bucket gardens, and grandmas that have planted herb gardens. There is never a seed too small or too big. We are here to guide and educate.”

A key point of advice that the educators at Love Makes Me Grow pass along to new gardeners is for families to really think about how they plan to use their harvest. Instead of planting all their seeds at once, they recommend planting a few seeds at a time so that they are also able to harvest continuously and in the quantities needed by their families. They also promote the idea of saving seeds and other plant parts for their garden such as drying tomato seeds and planting potatoes that have started to root.

One last aspect of the Love Makes Me Grow program that I would like to emphasize is their focus on whole families. The program requires that adults and children participate together. In doing so, they are creating an opportunity for the family to spend valuable time together and also reaching multiple generations. The work they are doing will not only impact their community today, it will also help shape the future.

 

Eliada Homes Therapeutic Tea Garden

Eliada Homes

Throughout this tumultuous spring, those of us at KidsGardening have been encouraged and comforted by all of the remarkable stories of families, schools, and community organizations who are using gardens and garden activities to offer hope and joy to the children in their lives. Many of these stories have been shared with us by our 2020 Gro More Good Grassroots Grant winners. This year’s recipients were notified of their award on the first day of spring right in the midst of a rapidly changing world. We offered them the opportunity to decline or delay their award or to alter their plans to meet more immediate needs wanting to be as flexible as possible, but the overwhelming response we received was one of determination that the garden programs would continue. It was amazing to me how quickly they created new plans and adapted their programs to meet pressing needs arising from the pandemic. Over the next few blogs, I want to share with you some of these inspirational stories from our Grassroots Grant winners which I hope will bring you as much hope as they have brought to me.

Eliada Homes Therapeutic Tea Garden
Asheville, NC

Eliada Homes
Completed green house

Eliada Homes is a residential facility offering a wide variety of treatment programs for youth who have experienced trauma and abuse. From substance use issues to juvenile justice involvement, Eliada residents are there to focus on learning how to overcome their personal mental health challenges. Many have bounced through systems of care as children and are distrusting of adults and the systems they represent because of the way they've been failed in the past. Three years ago, a garden and farm program was started on the grounds of Eliada to provide a therapeutic activity that would help staff build trust with youth and offer experiences to help them regulate their emotions, manage their impulses, and help them develop the coping skills they need for the future.

Eliada’s gardening program currently centers around a geodesic grow dome and a growing tunnel. Hydroponics and aquaponics methods are used to produce large quantities of leafy greens, herbs, and fruits. Everything grown is used in the cafeteria on a daily basis. With their Grassroots Grant award, Eliada plans to expand beyond the enclosed indoor gardening spaces to create a no-till, regenerative educational garden. They plan to dedicate one section of the garden to a therapeutic tea garden.

Assistant Director of Development Nora Scheff, shares this about why planting a tea garden is so important: “Youth living at Eliada are in our high-level treatment program. Youth in this program have experienced trauma which results in internalizing such as self-harm or externalizing such as aggressive behaviors that make it unsafe for them to live at home. Their time at Eliada is for healing, and one of the things the kids love most is herbal tea. Many of the kids in the program have bounced around in the mental health system for years, and have been hospitalized. They have been prescribed a menu of medications, and they have often felt out of control of their treatment experiences. Self-soothing techniques like drinking herbal tea are popular because the kids have agency around their use.”

Due to the pandemic, the installation of the tea garden has been delayed, however as an essential and residential service, Eliada’s garden has continued to grow strong. Nora mentioned that with students unable to leave their facility, “Expanding on-campus opportunities has been really important so that we can continue to offer enriching activities that help with healing and build resiliency.”

She continues, “This is such an unprecedented time. For youth living at Eliada who have experienced so much trauma, it has been important to us to create as much normalcy as possible. Having a structured routine and keeping kids engaged has been vital. Having gardening opportunities offers so many sensory experiences from taste and touch, to smell and sight. Youth who have experienced trauma often struggle with emotional regulation. While at Eliada they learn what coping skills they can use to calm themselves and deescalate when feeling angry, anxious, depressed, or out of control. Visiting the garden can be a coping tool, same as drinking herbal tea. The garden offers so many opportunities for youth to identify personal strategies for achieving calm and focus. While in the garden, youth also get to help out with farm chores, work off some excess energy, learn a new skill, and take their mind off of everyday tasks. Gardening gives their brain a chance to focus in on something else that is alive and growing, too, and kids learn how to be gentle and handle fragile plants and animals. They get to help plant seeds, watch food grow, and harvest their dinner salad- getting a sense of pride and taking responsibility for feeding themselves.”

Gardens offer so many ways to help heal and I hope Eliada’s efforts are as encouraging to you as they are to me.

Mother’s Day

mothers day

As I was contemplating what to write today with Mother’s Day approaching, I decided to take a stroll down memory lane and look through some of our old garden photos. The picture above is one of my favorites and taken in front of our community garden plot at the time. It was so nice to see the smiles and joy shining through. Our adventure with community gardening came to an end once my kids started elementary school and I became involved with our school’s garden program, but I hope some day we might give it a try again.

Got to be honest, the smiles have been few and far between around here lately. There have been a lot of Mom fails in our household the last couple months. Lots of nagging to get schoolwork done. Should it really take 3.5 hours to finish up 5 second-grade level word problems? It did at our house today. Plus more time on electronics while I try to juggle work at home with kids being home than I care to admit. I have been reminded over and over again that being the Mom is the hardest job out there.

And please know that when I say "being the Mom," I fully recognize this role is not a matter of biology. It is being that person who is in charge of nurturing and protecting those little people in your life who do not come with instructions, but really should. It is a responsibility that is critical in our world, but rarely comes with recognition or thanks (and you can’t call in sick either).

This Mother’s Day, Gardeners Supply has generously stepped in to not only support KidsGardening and the work we are doing right now to encourage families to get into the garden to work off some of that stress by spending some solid positive time together (and maybe even add some fresh fruits and vegetables into your diet too), but also they are helping us help you thank those special mother figures in your life with a gift card. Right now, with a donation of $50 or more to KidsGardening to support our mission, you can select a special honoree to receive a $50 Gardener’s Supply gift card. So with your donation, you help us get more kids in the garden to learn how to nurture and care for our planet while you also honor that person who taught you those same life lessons.

Learn more about how you can give the Gift of Gardening this Mother’s Day and Father's Day. Thank you for your support!

Gardening Together – Sharing Teaching Resources

sharing

Over the last few weeks, we have shared some of our favorite, easy KG activities to do at home and some of the resources from partner organizations we are relying on for inspiration right now, but this week I am excited to share a brand new resource created by the School Garden Support Organization (SGSO) Network to help youth garden educators across the country share their best lessons, activity ideas and garden tips for students, teachers and families that have been crafted specifically to provide support during these ever-changing times.

The SGSO Network has launched a special COVID-19 resource page where you can discover a database of distance teaching resources, find entry into a very active online forum, and take advantage of opportunities to register for weekly virtual gatherings for live sharing of ideas. Topics of focus include:

  • Distance Teaching/Learning Resources
  • Garden Care and Management During COVID-19
  • Maintaining Fiscal Stability for Your SGSO
  • Running Your SGSO/Supporting Your Staff During COVID-19

A BIG shout out and thank you to our dear friend John Fisher at Life Lab for all of his hard work bringing this amazing resource together!

Although the main focus of the SGSO Network is to support school garden professionals as learning has shifted to homes this spring, amazing garden educators from around the country are quickly adapting their lessons and activities to meet the needs of home gardens and ‘new’ teachers (AKA family members who are so very appreciative of the hard work of our teachers and schools) and making them available for everyone.

The School Garden Distance Teaching Resource Round-Up database offers tons of awesome digital resources from garden tours/plant walks to pre-taped cooking lessons, activities that can be done with minimal, common household items, and fun lessons that won’t have your kids hiding from you. If you have a resource to share, you can submit it via a very simple Google form. The Forum has ideas that range from what to do with gardens that cannot be accessed at this time to policies put in place for gardens that are remaining operational. The Virtual Gatherings join these two resources and give us all the social connection that we need to make it through the physical distancing.

So if you are looking for some resources and inspiration for engaging in garden-based learning at home this spring--- make sure to check out this great new resource.

sharing resources
A preview of the offerings on the SGSO resources page.

Let it Go

Let it go

Yes friends, I do hear Elsa’s voice singing in my head quite a bit lately. Like many of you, I entered Spring Break with a long list of all the tasks and projects I wanted to accomplish this spring in our school garden. Before the break, we had planted seeds for our Tops and Bottoms garden (lettuce, kale, carrots, radishes and corn), grew our own tomatoes from seed for the pizza garden and were watching our hydroponic tomatoes beginning to show signs of turning red to the amazement of teachers and students alike. And then, in a very rapid sweep, each day of Spring Break brought news of a changing reality. By the end of the week, we were no longer returning to school in the near future.

My first thoughts were along the lines of: How can we get things weeded and cleared out now? What can I do to keep what is already planted going? How can I keep it all watered? Will school return this year? If we do go back, will the kids be sad if the garden is a disaster? What will happen if we don’t go back? The school district does not want people on campus, can I even get special permission to water the plants? Add that to keeping up with work and taking on the task of home schooling using all the content coming my way from our school district and I was feeling a bit frazzled and stressed after week one. Over the weekend, I had a chance to take a breath and I heard a wonderful message about how at this time, it is okay to let things go. It was exactly what I needed to hear.

For all of you who are dedicated to keeping your school gardens going during this challenging time, a big WOW! and thank you for your efforts. Your kids will be so very excited when they go back. I have heard wonderful stories of educators able to share the growing garden with their students through digital communications. For those of you who are maintaining food gardens to help make sure fresh fruits and vegetables are available in your community, an even bigger applause. The value of gardens to local food systems is higher and more evident than ever.

But I hope that you guys don’t mind that I want to share this message too, just in case some of you might be in my situation where the balls in the air are just too many: it is okay to let it go if you need to. I found homes for most of the tomatoes that were slated to be planted in the pizza garden and then potted up what I had left in 5 gallon buckets with holes drilled in the bottom. If Mother Nature throws rain our way, some plants may make it, and some plants may not. The weeds will probably take over. There will probably be fire ants. But the bottom line is that when we get back, we can reclaim it. Perhaps there will even be some good lessons to learn along the way as we do.

Deciding what can be let go and what cannot is a constant process and that list will be different for everyone. I am trying to make it a priority to get outside in some way or another every day because I know how important that is for all of us. With my new class of two students, we are continuing to visit our pollinator garden on wheels to watch the monarch caterpillars chomp away (we have 1 chrysalis already) and we also make sure to swing by our honeysuckle vine to taste the flowers (my son’s absolutely favorite garden activity right now) and check in on our nesting cardinals there. It is not the grand garden program I had planned, but I will tuck those ideas away for a later date and keep dreaming while remembering to look for the peace that I can find today in whatever bit of nature I can find.

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!

 

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!