Get the Most from your Vegetable Garden This Fall

vegetable garden garlic

When fall arrives with its shorter days and cooler temperatures, vegetable gardens in most parts of the country begin winding down. But there is still plenty to keep gardeners busy as the seasons change. Here are some things you and your young gardeners can do to get the most from your vegetable garden, even as the growing season draws to a close. 

  • Plant Garlic Plant garlic for harvest next summer a week or two after the first killing frost up until about six weeks before the ground freezes. Separate a bulb into individual cloves just before planting, and place each clove with the pointed end up, 2-4 inches deep if you are north of zone 7, 1-2 inches deep in southern gardens, and 4-6 inches apart within the row. In the north, once the ground freezes in late fall, mulch the bed with straw, weed-free hay, shredded leaves, or pine needles spread 4-6 inches deep.
  • Let Frost Sweeten Fall Crops Kale, Brussels sprouts, and collards all taste sweetest if you wait until after light frost to harvest. But if a sudden early cold snap into the teens is predicted, cover plants, as the sudden drop in temperature may injure plants. Leaves of collards and kale are ready for picking as soon as they reach usable size. Sprouts are ready when they are about an inch in diameter. Pick off and compost yellowing lower leaves.
  • Harvest Green Tomatoes Once the nights are consistently below 50 degrees F, it's best to harvest any remaining mature green tomatoes (those that have turned light green to white), even if the vines haven't yet been hit by frost. These tomatoes will ripen better indoors once the weather is this cool. Clip tomatoes from the vine with a short piece of stem attached. Red tomatoes well on their way to ripening can tolerate cooler temperatures and can be left on the vine until frost threatens.
  • Cover Greens for Extended Harvest Cover beds of lettuce, spinach, arugula, and other greens with floating row covers to extend your harvest season. The row covers will provide a few degrees of frost protection, enough to often give you several weeks or more of garden-fresh produce compared to uncovered plants.
  • Pinch Brussels Sprouts To get the sprouts to ripen together, pinch off the top couple of inches of your Brussels sprouts plants to direct their energy into the sprouts that are already developing along the stem. Unpruned plants will continue to produce new sprouts until the weather is quite cool, though they may be smaller. Clip off any lower leaves that have yellowed, and keep plants watered if fall weather is dry. Sprouts harvested after the first frost will be sweetest. Harvest from the bottom up when the sprouts are between 3/4- 1 1/2 inches in diameter.
  • Plan for an Extra Early Spinach Harvest Try planting some spinach seeds about 4-6 weeks before average date of the first hard fall frost in your area. This will give you plants about the size of a tea cup, the best size for overwintering. In areas with good snow cover, plants often overwinter without additional protection. But covering plants with winter-weight row cover fabric after cold weather hits provides extra insurance. The baby plants will take off growing in early spring (be sure to remove any covering), and you'll be picking homegrown spinach in short order. Look for hardy varieties like 'Winter Bloomsdale' to plant for overwintering.

 

Blog by: Susan Littlefield

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KidsGarden Month Winner: It Started With Carrot Seeds

Can gardening change a kid’s life? Monica Velgos, mother of Silas Nahan, the grand prize winner of KidsGardening’s 2017 KidsGarden Month video contest, certainly thinks so. She saw first-hand the many positive changes that gardening brought for 13-year-old Silas, even given the challenges of growing plants in an urban backyard in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

He had been introduced to growing things at his elementary school garden, but his interest really took off when his mom happened to bring home a few packets of seeds in May 2016 for Silas and his sister to plant in a couple of containers in the backyard. As his mom says, “The carrots sprouted, the wildflowers grew, and he got excited. He wanted to grow more.”

“Silas now likes to set goals,” she notes. “Besides planning what he wants to grow, sometimes months in advance, he also tries to improve his grades. He will talk about the number of books he wants to read over the summer, the points he wants to reach with online math. After a summer of gardening on his own and participation in the local CitySprouts middle school gardening program, he ended up getting mostly As. This was new for him. Perhaps having a deep focus like gardening set the course for him wanting to go deeply into other subjects, too.”

She also has noticed that growing vegetables in his garden has translated into healthier eating habits overall. Silas invented a green chicken taco filled with homegrown herbs, scallions, and fresh greens like kale and sorrel, in addition to chicken and mashed avocado. He asks his mom to include kale and poblano peppers from his garden in burritos, to put homegrown lettuce on turkey burgers, and to include broccoli and carrots with family meals.

The garden has become a second living room, says Monica, one that the entire family enjoys for its pleasant atmosphere, not just its harvest. Silas checks out things in the garden each morning, and again in the afternoon. “In the evenings he can spend up to two hours transplanting, moving plants around, and filling new pots." His parents and sister often join him. “We go down there too, it’s fun to watch, and he loves to narrate as he works,” she says.

Silas’s gardening enthusiasm is contagious. His sister has become interested in native species and now cultivates a garden area of her own, filled with native flowering plants to attract bees and birds, along with a little oasis where they can drink. “There are many more birds in the yards now, because of all the greenery. Watching the birds adds to the fun! Both kids feel a lot of responsibility now toward their plants and the creatures who visit them. They celebrate every bee.”

Monica also notes the important lessons that the sense of ownership of a garden provides for a young gardener like Silas. “Creating a garden has given Silas ownership,” she says. “He gets to plan it; he gets to choose when to harvest; he gets to make decisions. There are not many things in life that kids get to make all decisions about. This garden represents his interests expressed the way he wants them expressed. There’s no garden mistake that he will ever make that he won’t learn a lot from. And when he has success, like he had from his delicious husk cherries, which he chose to grow himself, he is so proud. As parents we’ve discovered this great opportunity to let him exercise decision making at a level that he sees as important but that is not going to be disastrous if there is failure.”

Silas has lots of plans for his future garden —and his future as a gardener. He’d like to try growing different varieties of potatoes, some more unusual herbs like epazote, and perhaps some Jerusalem artichokes. But he also has lots of ideas for way to grow as a gardener, including possible work for the nonprofit Food Project on their farm in Lincoln, Massachusetts in coming summers and high school courses in plant biology and food systems.

Watch Silas's winning video entry:

Wouldn’t it be great if all kids had the opportunity to grow and learn in the garden, the way Silas and his sister have? Each $12 you contribute to KidsGardening allows one more child the opportunity to learn through the garden, engaging their natural sense of curiosity and wonder and creating a generation of kids connected to their food and community and engaged in nurturing a healthy planet. 

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Blog By: Susan Littlefield

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Plan for Fall Harvests

I’m not a hot weather lover. Sure, I want some summer days in the 80s to help the tomatoes and squash ripen. But while those veggies are reveling in the hot sun in July and August, I’m out in the garden, weeding and watering, and thinking wistfully of those nice, cool fall days ahead. I think the autumn months are the pleasantest time of the year to be outside, so I always look forward to the fall gardening season. Lots of delicious crops are suitable for a late harvest, even in areas like Vermont with a short growing season. Fall crops are also a great choice for school gardens, as they can be harvested (and in some cases planted) after students have returned from their summer break.

Late season gardening does take a little advance planning, however. For many of the crops to be ready to pick in early to mid-fall (or even late fall and winter, depending on your climate), they’ll need to be planted in mid to late summer in order to have time to mature before the weather turns too cold.

One of my favorite veggies for fall eating is kale. In order to have an ample harvest of both baby greens for salads and full-size leaves for soups and sautés, I plant some seeds in cell packs in mid to late July. When the seedlings are several inches tall, I set them out in the garden, covering the bed with lightweight row cover fabric stretched over hoops. Covering plants is an easy way to keep away pests like flea beetles and caterpillars, although kale seems to be less enticing to these critters than many other cabbage family members. I’ll make another sowing of kale a few weeks later, in mid-August. Then toward the end of the month and again in mid-September, I’ll sow seeds directly in the ground, to be harvested as “baby” leaves. If I’m really organized, I’ll even sow some seeds inside a cold frame in late September. This way, I’ll have a good chance of being able to serve home-grown kale at Thanksgiving dinner – maybe even Christmas!

Many other greens make great fall crops. Spinach delights in cooler temperatures and isn’t tempted to bolt (flower and go to seed) in the shortening days of fall. Swiss chard, bok choy, Asian greens like mizuna and tat soi, arugula, and mache are all great candidates for late season harvests. Root crops such as carrots, beets, radishes, and turnips are other possibilities, along with that weird and wonderful member of the cabbage family called kohlrabi.  Cabbage, broccoli, and Brussel’s sprouts can all be grown for fall harvest, but because they take a relatively long time to reach maturity, in many parts of the country at this point they would need to be set out as started plants purchased from a garden store.

So how do you know when to start these various plants so they’ll be ready for harvest in the fall? You just need to do a little arithmetic. First, find out the average date of the first hard fall frost in your area (most of the crops suggested tolerate temperatures at least down to 28°F). Next, look for the days to maturity listed on the seed packet. Take this number and add in 10-14 days as a fall factor, which takes into account the slower growth that happens as a result of the shorter, cooler days of fall. Add to this the number of days of the harvest period. Then count back this number of days from the frost date and —ta-da!—you have your planting date.

Actually, what this really gives you is a good “ball park” idea of when to plant. Because the weather and actual frost date varies from season to season, starting some seeds earlier and some seeds later than the calculated planting date will give you the greatest likelihood of a long and abundant harvest season. And if you plan to give plants protection, in a cold frame for example, you can often add another 2-4 weeks to you growing season.  Keep in mind that cold tolerance can also vary within a particular crop, depending on the variety you choose. For example, choosing lettuce varieties bred for fall harvests will set the stage for late season success.

Enjoy the fun —and wonderful weather—that fall gardening affords. A little planning now will let you and your students enjoy the bounty of a school garden for months to come!

Blog by: Susan Littlefield

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Gardening with Allergies

Ahchoo!   Summer is here, plants are in leaf and flower, and lots of folks are sneezing.  The cause of much of this allergy misery? Contact with grains of plant pollen. What to do if you are among this sensitive lot and you still like to garden? If you want grow your own veggies or plant a garden to help pollinators, are you just making your allergy woes worse? Is there such a thing as allergy-free gardening?

Well, there’s good news and bad news, as they say. The good news is that growing your own fruits, vegetables, and many kinds of flowers is not likely to exacerbate your allergy problems. The bad news – you’re still probably going to encounter some symptom-inducing pollen when you’re outdoors, regardless of what plants you decide to grow.

To understand why, we need to start with a little background info on pollination, the process by which pollen grains produced by the male parts of a flower are transferred to the female parts of the same or a different flower, leading to the eventual formation of seeds.  The flowers of some plants are perfect, meaning each blossom carries both male and female parts, while other kinds of plants may have separate male and female flowers on the same plant. Some plants are dioecious, meaning that male and female flowers are borne on completely different plants. The plants with only male flowers produce pollen exclusively, while those with only female flowers bear only fruits and seeds.

Some plants rely on living creatures called pollinators to move their pollen for them. Pollinators are most often insects such as bees, but in some cases birds and even bats act as pollinators! Plants with showy, fragrant, nectar-rich flowers, whether on trees (like apple trees), flowering shrubs (like lilacs), or flowering annuals and perennials, generally have heavy pollen that needs to be moved from one flower to another by pollinators, which is why the plants expend their energy producing blossoms and scent to attract these needed creatures.

Other plants simply toss their pollen out on the breeze and depend on the wind to carry it to receptive female flower parts. Because they don’t need to attract pollinators, their flowers are not showy or fragrant. But because this method isn’t directed, the wind-pollinated plants need to produce large quantities of light-weight pollen in the hope that a small portion will reach its intended targets. Wind-pollinated plants include grasses, many weeds (like ragweed), and nearly all conifers, along with a great many broadleaf trees like aspens, cottonwoods, oaks, ashes, elms, birches, and olives. (And just to keep things interesting, some plants use both strategies to some degree!)

These wind-pollinated plants are the ones causing allergy problems because their pollen is traveling through the air, often for long distances – and up into people's noses. However, not all wind-borne pollen has the same allergenic potential. For example, oak, birch, pigweed and ragweed pollen is considered highly allergenic, while pine and spruce pollen is less so. For those plants that are dioecious, the male plants are the trouble makers, allergy-wise, because every flower they bear is a pollen-producing male. Seedless male clone tree varieties are popular for street and landscape plantings of trees whose female flowers produce a messy litter of fruits and seedpods, for example ash and mulberry (e.g. “seedless” ash and “fruitless” mulberry varieties are pollen-producing male clones).

The pollinator-dependent plants with their showy flowers are generally less of a problem for allergy sufferers because their heavy pollen isn't carried on the wind. This means that most flower and vegetable gardens don't contribute much to allergy issues. Sweet corn is wind-pollinated, but most other vegetables are insect or self-pollinated or are harvested before they produce pollen-bearing flowers (for example, carrots and spinach). And since showy flowers are the point of flower gardens, most of these plants generally do not cause big problems for allergy sufferers. Of course, if you bury your nose into a blossom to enjoy its fragrance, you’ll be exposing your sensitive nose to pollen. And it’s probably best to skip cutting flowers for indoor bouquets that may shed some pollen indoors.

But what about goldenrod, you may be wondering. Isn’t this plant with its showy flowers the cause of lots of late summer sneezing and misery? The answer, actually, is no. Goldenrod has heavy pollen that is ferried from flower to flower by pollinators like bees and butterflies. The real culprit is usually ragweed, a wind-pollinated plant with nondescript, greenish flowers that blooms at the same time as goldenrod. Its highly allergenic pollen wafting on the breeze bedevils hay fever sufferers, while the more eye-catching goldenrod, unfairly, takes the blame. 

When you’re choosing plants for your home landscape or schoolyard, it’s a good idea to keep their allergenic potential in mind. When choosing dioecious plants like most ashes and junipers, skip male tree clones and select a female, pollen-free clone, if available. (Check garden references or consult knowledgeable garden store staff to find out which kinds and varieties of plants are wind-pollinated and dioecious.) You’ll probably also want to give ornamental grasses a pass. Take care to locate allergenic wind-pollinated trees and shrubs away from building foundations to reduce the chance of pollen blowing indoors when windows and doors are open. And be sure to keep weeds under control, especially ragweed!

But keep in mind that what's growing in the vicinity of your home or school landscape can also contribute to your allergy woes, and unfortunately, there is not much you can do to stop this “traveling” pollen from reaching your property on the wind. Wearing a mask outdoors when pollen counts are high may help keep you more comfortable, and promptly showering and washing the clothing you wore after outdoor activities will help keep pollen from making its way indoors. Pollen counts are generally highest in the morning, so scheduling gardening or other outdoor activities later in the day may also help.     

If seasonal allergies make you miserable, a visit to an allergist for testing can help you identify the specific plants that are most problematic for you and let you fine-tune your plant choices. Finally, check out the website of Thomas Ogren. He is a widely recognized expert in this area and has written a book on allergy-free gardening that rates a wide variety of plants according to their allergenic potential.

And, between the sneezes, enjoy those homegrown fruits and veggies!

Blog by: Susan Littlefield

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Ten Tips to Help Pollinators

You’ve heard the saying, “Think globally; act locally.” Well, here’s your chance! June is National Pollinator Month. Pollinators are vital to the production of many of the foods we eat. In fact, it’s estimated that a third of the crops we grow depend on pollinators. But many pollinators, including honeybees and native bees, are in trouble. Populations are in sharp decline due to pesticide use, disease and parasite problems, and loss of food and nesting habitat. How can you help?

Just like people, pollinators need food, water, shelter, and a safe and healthy environment to live in and raise their young. Here are some ideas for ways you can help pollinators in your schoolyard, community garden, or home landscape.

  1. Plant a pollinator-friendly garden with a variety of flowering plants to give a succession of bloom from spring to fall. This will provide pollinators with nectar and pollen to feed on all season long. Remember that many flowering trees and shrubs are important sources of food for pollinators early in the season. Especially when planting flowering annuals and perennials, try to group each kind of plant into clumps of three or more rather than dotting them individually throughout your garden. This makes it easier for pollinators to locate plants!  
  2. Include lots of native plants in your garden. Native plants have evolved along with native pollinators, making them generally the most beneficial to these insects. Choose native plants that are adapted to the soil, light, and moisture conditions in your garden and you’ll help pollinators and make your garden care easier.
  3. Include plants to feed all stages of pollinators’ life cycle. There are no butterflies without caterpillars! Make sure you have plants that will feed both the immature as well as the adult stages of pollinators. For example, while adult monarch butterflies feed on many kinds of flowers, their caterpillars feed exclusively on milkweed plants. Similarly, the caterpillars of eastern black swallowtails feed on plants in the carrot family, like Queen Anne’s lace, carrots, parley, and dill. And accept that these caterpillar host plants will be chewed on – plant them in an inconspicuous spot if you don’t want to look at ragged leaves.
  4. Minimize the use of pesticides, even organic ones. Even pesticides approved for organic gardens may harm pollinators, so try to keep any pesticide use to a minimum. If you do use a one, choose a pesticide with the lowest risk to bees and other pollinators; check the label for bee hazard information. Spray in the evening after the pollinators have stopped flying.
  5. Go wild! If you can, let a corner of your schoolyard or backyard go “wild.” A wooded area, hedgerow, or unmowed “mini-meadow” will provide shelter, food, and nesting areas for many pollinators.
  6. Provide a source of water. A shallow basin of water set on the ground with some stones or piles of gravel in it on which insects can perch will help pollinators quench their thirst. Some insects, especially butterflies and some pollinator bees, prefer a mud puddle. Let a hose or faucet drip just a bit to form a damp, muddy sipping spot. Add a bit of sea salt or wood ashes to the mud to add micronutrients and minerals to their diet.
  7. Don’t be too tidy. Leave some leaf litter and plants standing over the winter to provide spots for pollinators to overwinter. If you can, leave some dead wood standing in an out-of-the-way area to provide nesting sites for native bees.
  8. Build bee housing. Make nesting blocks for pollinating bees that nest in wood, such as mason bees, by drilling at least 10 holes 4 to 8 inches deep and 5/16” in diameter in a block of untreated wood. Hang your bee “condo” with the holes set horizontally at least 3 feet off the ground and facing as close to southeast as possible.
  9. Enhance your lawn. Lawn “weeds” like white clover and dandelions provide a source of food for pollinators when they’re in bloom. Think of your lawn as pollinator habitat and embrace the idea of letting more than just turf grasses grow there.
  10. Spread the word. One pollinator-friendly garden is good; an entire neighborhood or community of them is even better! Share information with your school community, neighbors and others in your town or city about the importance of protecting and nurturing pollinators, and encourage them to make their gardens and landscapes welcoming to pollinators too.

 

Blog by: Susan Littlefield

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Growing Pest-free Cabbage

I love cabbage! Not only is it tasty and loaded with nutrients, it’s one of the prettiest vegetables in the garden. Those plump heads in shades of green and reddish-purple nestled in their ruffs of crinkled leaves look so nice; I almost hate to harvest them. Cabbage is also a great crop for young gardeners to grow in school and home gardens. It can be planted both early in the season and grown for fall harvest, so it fits well with school session schedules. And kids are always excited to check on the progress of those rapidly expanding cabbage heads, some as big as basketballs at harvest!

Confounding Cabbageworms

But, alas, we’re not the only creatures that love cabbage. Grow cabbage anywhere in the country and you will most likely have to deal with cabbage worms (they’re actually caterpillars, in spite of their name). You'll know they have paid your cabbage patch a visit if you see large, round or irregular holes chewed in the leaves between the veins and midribs, as well as masses of green or brown frass (the polite word for caterpillar poop) between the leaves. The cabbage heads may also be tunneled into. This damage comes courtesy of green worms that are up to about an inch and a half long and have a light stripe down the center of their backs. They are either cabbage loopers or imported cabbageworms. Most gardeners have seen small, white, day-flying butterflies with a black wing spot flitting through the garden– these butterflies are the adults of the imported cabbageworm. The cabbage looper adult is a brownish moth that flies in the evening.

If your cabbage leaves are riddled with small holes or have areas where only the outer layer of the leaf had been chewed, leaving a translucent spot, the caterpillar of the diamondback moth is at work. Smaller than the other worms, these 1/4-inch long green caterpillars feed on the undersides of the leaves and wriggle rapidly when disturbed.

All of these pests also happily dine on other members of the Cabbage family, so you may find them on broccoli, cauliflower, kale, and collards as well. But fortunately, all three of these pests can be controlled relatively easily and safely on cabbage and related crops.

My preferred method is exclusion. As soon as I put my cabbage seedlings in the ground, I cover the bed with a floating row cover and keep it on until I harvest my crop. These lightweight covers let in light and air, but exclude the adult butterflies and moths. No flying females, no eggs laid, no worms! And since what’s getting harvested are the leaves of the cabbage plant, I don't need to worry about removing the covers to let bees in to pollinate flowers, as I would with fruiting crops like squash.

If you don't want to use row covers (they do keep those pretty cabbage heads from view) and you only have a few plants, you can handpick worms from leaf undersides and drop them into a container of soapy water to kill them. Or you can spray plants with the safe microbial insecticide Bt, which only affects butterfly and moth caterpillars. They need to ingest Bt in order for it to work, so be sure to spray the undersides of leaves where the caterpillars are feeding. Bt works best when the caterpillars are small, so begin spraying as soon as you see the adults flying or notice any leaf chewing. You'll need to make repeat applications throughout the summer, as the adults lay eggs all season long.

Imported cabbageworms and cabbage loopers spend the winter as pupae attached to plant debris, so clean up the garden well in the fall to reduce the number that overwinter. (Loopers may not overwinter in colder areas, but they generally work their way up from south by mid to late summer.)  Diamondback moths overwinter as adults under plants debris, so garden clean-up will also help to reduce their numbers.

Cutworms and Root Maggot Control

Cutworms and cabbage root maggots are other cabbage pests that may be encountered in many parts of the country. Damage from these pests can also easily be prevented with the use of barriers. Cutworms are night-feeding caterpillars that chew through the stems of young plants right at soil level. To protect plants, place cutworm collars around the stems of seedlings at transplant time. One easy strategy is to wrap the stems of your cabbage seedlings with 4-5 thicknesses of 3-4 inch wide newspaper strips, placed so that 2 inches of the strip extend below ground when the seedling is planted. You can also encircle stems with collars made from cardboard, yogurt containers, or the like, with two inches pushed into the ground and at least one inch above.

Root-feeding cabbage maggots hatch from eggs laid by small flies in the soil around the base of a cabbage-family plant. Row covers will exclude the female flies and prevent egg-laying, but this method needs to be combined with crop rotation to be successful. The adult flies emerge in the spring after having overwintered as pupae in the soil, so covers only work in areas that were not previously infested; otherwise the adults will emerge under the covering.  You can also prevent egg-laying by placing mats made from flat, 6-inch wide squares of weatherproof material around the base of each plant when you set it in the garden. Make a slit in one side leading to a small hole in the center for the stem and tuck the mat around the stem. Make sure the mat is firmly in contact with the soil so flies can’t sneak under to lay eggs.

Blog by: Susan Littlefield

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Big Seeds for Little Hands

Want kids to develop a love of gardening? Get them growing early! Kids as young as preschool age are thrilled to plant seeds and watch their baby plants sprout from the soil and turn into big plants. Even picky eaters are usually willing to try a vegetable they’ve grown and harvested themselves. And what child isn’t thrilled to pick a bouquet of homegrown posies?

But small seeds like those of carrots and lettuce are challenging even for adults to handle. When young children are planting, keep things fun, not frustrating, by choosing seeds that are relatively large and easy to handle. Here are some suggestions for kid-friendly vegetable and flower seeds that are easy to sow and easy to grow. All of them are appropriate for sowing directly in the garden once weather conditions are suitable.

Peas: Peas are easy seeds for kids to handle because they are, well, the size of a pea! They are one of the first crops that can be planted in the spring – as soon as the soil can be worked in the spring or 5-6 weeks before the last spring frost date in your area. Early planting gives cool weather-loving peas time to produce their pods before hot summer weather hits.

Beans: These large seeds sprout quickly in warm soil, so wait until the weather is settled and all danger of frost is past, usually a week or two after the last frost date, before showing your kids how to tuck seeds into the soil. Bush beans grow quickly, need no support, and are ready for harvesting in just 7-8 weeks. Pole beans take a little longer to begin bearing and need some type of support, but produce a harvest over a longer period of time. All kids love having a special spot to play in and growing the fort themselves just adds to the fun. Growing a bean teepee is a great kids’ garden project. Erect a framework of 6-8 tall poles in a circle. Bind the poles together at the top; then plant 4-6 bean seeds at the base of each pole. Thin to the two strongest vines per pole.  As the vines grow up the structure, they’ll create a shady spot inside where kids can hang out.

Squash and pumpkin: Pumpkins are always a popular crop with kids. It’s exciting to watch the fruits develop and grow, getting bigger and bigger and changing color in time for Halloween decorating. Like beans, pumpkins and squash are warmth lovers, so wait until a week or two after your last frost date to sow seeds. Pumpkin vines are large, sprawling plants, so make sure you plant them where the vines will have plenty of room to roam.

Sunflowers: These are one of the most satisfying plants for young gardeners to grow. The seeds are large and easy to handle; they germinate quickly in warm soil, and the reward is towering plants with enormous, colorful flowers that provide edible seeds for snacking. Sunflowers are also great for making bouquets, as they are long lasting cut flowers, and they even attract beneficial insects to the garden! If you’re going for record-breaking height, plant varieties like ‘Russian Giant’ or ‘Mammoth’ and give plants rich soil and lots of water and sun.

Zinnias: Plant a rainbow! Most kids love bright colors, and zinnias come in just about every color except true blue. The seeds  are easy to handle and direct-sow once the soil is warm and the danger of frost is past. Mildew can be a problem in humid climates, so look for mildew-resistant varieties such as the Zahara and Profusion series. Then keep an eye out for the beautiful butterflies these flowers will attract to the garden.

Blog by: Susan Littlefield

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Soil Microbes: Helping Your Tiny Garden Helpers

Want to drive a gardener crazy? Call that stuff plants grow in “dirt” instead of “soil.” What’s the difference? Dirt is what you track into the house on your shoes. Soil is an amazing and complex ecosystem that is one of our planet’s most valuable natural resources. It’s a mix of inorganic minerals, water, air, organic matter from dead and decaying plants and animals, and an incredible array of living organisms, ranging in size from microscopic bacteria and fungi to earthworms, moles, and shrews.

Show students a cup of soil taken from an undisturbed area of native soil and ask them to estimate the number of organisms living in it. Let them dig around in the soil to see if they can see any creatures in it. Unless they find a stray earthworm or possibly some tiny mites or springtails if they look closely, it’s likely they’ll say that there aren’t any living creatures present. But they’ll be off on the order of billions! While there may not be any that you can see with the naked eye, if you looked through a microscope at the same soil sample, you’d be overwhelmed. There could be as many as 200 billion bacteria, 20 million protozoa, 100,000 nematodes, and 100,000 meters of fungal hyphae in that cup of soil!

Many of those microscopic organisms benefit plants, either directly or indirectly. (Of course, some soil microbes cause plant diseases, while others have no effect on plants, for good or bad.) For example, a special type of bacteria, called rhizobia, inhabits nodules on the roots of legumes (plants like peas and beans). In return for some food from the plant, the rhizobia take up or “fix” nitrogen (an essential plant nutrient) from the air, where it is not in a form available to plants, and change it into one that plants can take up and use. This is a good example of a symbiotic or mutually beneficial relationship between plants and soil microbes.

Mycorrhizae (my-cor-rye-zay) on plant roots display another symbiotic relationship. Mycorrhizae are fungi that form an association with the roots of specific plants (their name translates as “fungus root”).  The fungi receive nutrients from the plant; in return, they enlarge the surface area of the roots, allowing them to take up water and nutrients for the plant more effectively. 

There are also untold numbers of soil microbes that help plants less directly by breaking down organic matter in the soil and changing the nutrients it contains into forms available to plants. As these decomposing microbes break down organic matter, they also produce natural “glues” that bind soil particles into aggregates, enhancing soil structure and improving soil drainage and aeration.

What do all these millions and billions of garden helpers need to keep them thriving? Plenty to eat, in the form of organic matter that supplies them with the energy they need for growth and reproduction. Adding organic matter like compost to the soil keeps these beneficial microbes thriving. Remind your students of all the creatures they’re supporting as they spread compost on the soil in your school garden this spring!

Blog by: Susan Littlefield

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Introducing Blogger, Susan Littlefield

My love affair with plants began as a young child at my grandmother’s side. I loved to wander through Grammy's gardens with her, marveling at the oddly shaped purple blossoms on the Dutchman’s pipe vine that scrambled up the porch trellis or the delicate speckled blossoms of tiger lilies that bloomed in her side garden. But my favorite spot was her backyard garden. Within the neat border of a white picket fence, a riotous mix of flowers bloomed with wild abandon. My grandmother believed that Nature's hand was a great designer and she was delighted when plants sowed themselves. Foxglove, cosmos and larkspur sprouted up amidst the peonies and phlox, but my favorite flowers were the tall spires of hollyhocks that came up year after year in places of their own choosing.

I grew my first vegetable garden when I was eight years old. I don’t remember now what sparked my interest in growing food plants (no one else in my family grew vegetables), but I do remember that my mom was, as always, eager to help me explore and learn by trying something new. I still recall the thrill of my first harvest from that small garden. Later, when my interest in plants had grown, she joined me for many trips to our local nursery so I could search out new perennials for my flower gardens. And when as a teenager I decided I wanted to try growing vegetables in a big way, she hired a local farmer to come and plow up most of our half-acre backyard – much to the dismay of my non-gardening father! That early encouragement set me on the path to degrees in biology and plant and soil science and a career in horticulture that’s spanned more than three and a half decades.

It also gave me a blueprint for introducing my own two children, now grown, to the wonders and joy of gardening. I loved sharing with them the delicious taste of home harvested fruits and berries and the beauty of trees, shrubs, and flowers in the landscape. But we also delighted in discovering all the living things that frequent a garden – from birds and toads and bunnies to earthworms, fungi, and insects of every kind. Even pests and diseases are fascinating if you overlook the fact that they’re competing with you! We marveled at the weird fungus called corn smut (it’s even edible, I’m told, but we never dared to try it) and learned that the ferocious looking tomato hornworms in our veggie garden would metamorphose into large, night-flying sphinx moths, cousins of the amazing hummingbird moths we observed sipping nectar from our petunias! Gardening with my kids showed me firsthand the important role it can play in cultivating curious minds, healthful bodies, and an ethic of environmental stewardship.

So it’s a privilege to work with KidsGardening.org, helping to bring the joys and benefits of gardening to kids everywhere. In my blog posts I’m looking forward to sharing a little of what I’ve learned over many years of gardening – sometimes practical tips; sometimes ideas or information I find interesting or inspiring. And I’d also like to hear from you, the educators, volunteers, and parents who are out in the garden with kids making good things happen – please feel free to use the comment section below to connect. If you have a gardening question, I’ll do my best to provide an answer. I’m also eager to get suggestions for topics you’d like to see covered in future blog posts, and hope you’ll share your own experiences and ideas for connecting kids to the wonderful world of plants.

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Forging New Connections with our New Blog Format

One of our goals at KidsGardening is to establish a strong connection with those of you around the country—educators, parents, and community members—who are actively working to bring the many benefits of garden-based learning to youngsters through school, community, and home gardens. We want to develop dynamic and meaningful relationships with all of you who are out there “in the field,” cultivating children’s minds, hearts, and bodies as well as plants. We hope we can pass along information and ideas that will inspire you and make your youth gardening endeavors more successful. And in return, we hope that you’ll connect with us through your comments to let us know about your real-life achievements and challenges and to offer your suggestions for how we, as a national organization, can help you get the resources you need to connect kids to the garden and to keep the world of school and youth gardening growing and thriving.

To this end, we are excited to share news of some changes we’ll be making to our Growing Ideas Blog. For starters, you’ll now see posts twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays, instead of just once a week. Next, four members of our KidsGardening staff will be posting regularly in rotation. Each of these staff members will bring a specific focus to her posts, one that reflects her unique interests, expertise, and experience.

Executive Director Emily Shipman’s background in sustainable development, agriculture, food systems, and food security reflects her interest in youth gardening as a catalyst for social change. In her posts she’ll be exploring both what we know and what we’re learning about the transformative power of gardening with kids. In addition to writing from her own perspective, she’ll be talking with advocates, practitioners, and thought leaders across the youth gardening spectrum, sharing their inspiration and information we all can learn from.

 

Senior Education Specialist Sarah Pounders has been active in the field of youth gardening for more than 20 years and brings wide-ranging experience helping educators integrate garden-based learning into the classroom. And as the parent of a 9 year-old and a 5 year-old, she also brings a parental perspective to the world of kids’ gardening, both as the garden coordinator at her daughter’s school and as an avid home gardener. In her blog posts she’ll offer ideas for ways educators and parents can enhance the learning opportunities and fun that gardening offers.

 

Education Specialist Christine Gall brings a wealth of hands-on experience in garden and food-based learning, both in school settings and in programs at educational farms. Her blog posts will be drawn from her personal experiences as an educator as well as her passionate commitment to connecting kids with healthful food systems.

 

 

Horticulturist Susan Littlefield brings more than 30 years of experience helping folks solve their gardening problems and get the information they need for successful growing. Her background as a garden writer and enthusiastic home gardener, along with the fun she had introducing her two now-grown kids to the world of plants, will help her connect in an accessible way with those active in school and youth gardening. In her blog posts she is looking forward to sharing practical tips and interesting ideas and information, as well as answering your gardening questions.

 

Please join the conversation! We welcome your feedback on our new blog format. We’d also like to hear suggestions for topics you’d like to see addressed or ideas for ways to make our communications with you more useful, as well as your thoughts and comments on specific blog posts. We hope our blog will become an on-going dialog, connecting the KidsGardening organization with the wide and wonderful world of kids’ gardening!

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