Monthly Archives: September 2016
“What’s best for the environment?” is often asked these days. Well, what’s best for the environment is teaching our children respect and concern for nature. One way to start this training early, and have some fun doing it, is a child’s garden. The immediate and long-term benefits of encouraging a child to plant his or her own garden are enormous.
Through school and the media, many youngsters, even preschoolers, are already very aware of nature and ecology. The garden is an excellent place to reinforce what they have heard and learned and a great place to encourage their creativity and self-discipline. They will be exposed to the beauty of Nature, a beauty they will help nurture, and through growing vegetables they may learn a degree of self-sufficiency. A childhood start on understanding and respecting the environment plants the “seeds” for future responsibilities. We all know it needs to be done, so let’s do it with fun.
Lions and Dragons
Did you ever “snap” the jaws of a snapdragon, or “see” fantastic faces in pansies, or savor the tangy aroma of fresh mint when you crushed some leaves in your hands when you were a child? Whether you did or you didn’t, there are numerous plants that provide their own extra-special sense of fun and learning. Below are a few suggestions. Maybe you have some childhood memories to add.
Some “Fun” Plants to Grow
Calceolaria – called the “”pocketbook” plant, the blooms resemble old-fashioned purses.
Four O-Clocks – Easy to grow from seed, these colorful flowers don’t open until mid-to late afternoon.
Torenia – The “wishbone plant.” Inside the bloom is a small ridge shaped just like a wishbone.
Lunaria – The ‘money plant’ forms disc shaped seedpods that can be easily rubbed and polished to resemble a silvery quarter sized coin.
Scallop Squash – Summer squashes that resemble flying saucers
Impatiens – “Bizzy Lizzy” or “Impatient” plant. The ripe seedpods burst open to scatter seed. Put a fat one in your hand and press lightly for a good tickle when it bursts.
Sweet Peas – Dwarf or climbing, these lovely flowers have the same name as the character in Popeye cartoons. Maybe you should plant it next to the spinach.
A small garden, perhaps no more than 4 feet by 4 feet and planted with a mix of flowers and vegetables, can instill not only an appreciation of Nature, but also provide a place for fun learning activities. Although there is a chance that a child’s garden might not be as neatly tended as a parent’s, give the choicest garden spot you can to the child. Lots of sun and good soil will aid in success. A section of your garden or a separate child’s garden next to yours can make the garden chores a family affair.
Let your child help prepare the garden soil. Dirt can be turned over with a small shovel or trowel, and clumps broken up by hand or by “stomping” on them. Kids love dirt!
Choose easy-to-grow plants and as many different ones as you can get into the small space. Carrots, radishes, lettuces and tomatoes are good vegetable choices. If you have room for the vines, maybe a giant Jack O ‘Lantern or a mini-pumpkin can make the garden experience last a little longer.
For flowers, choose at least some that can be used as cut flowers or decorations for the dinner table or for special “gifts.” Zinnias, marigolds, salvia, and snapdragons are a few recommendations. For something spectacular to a child, plant a few sunflowers, which can range form 2 feet to 10 feet tall. The seeds can be toasted and eaten for a healthy snack, or saved to be put out to feed squirrels or other animals.
Starting from seed is a good learning experience, and starting early indoors in a sunny spot will provide daily “excitement” as a child watches the growth. Small children will find large seeds such as beans and sunflowers easy to handle and plant. Bedding plants too, are an excellent choice for getting started and are good choices for selections such as geraniums, petunias, begonias and many vegetable plants.
Recycling is an important part of our planet’s future, and few activities lend themselves to this as well as gardening does. To grow up to 12 plants you can use a clean egg carton as a seed starter kit. Be sure to punch holes in the bottom of each section for drainage, and use a soilless germinating mix.
Outdoors, small plants can be protected from the weather and hungry animals by cutting the bottom or side out of a milk carton and covering tender plants.
Grass clippings, shredded leaves and vegetable matter can be put into a composting bin to be recycled into composted soil that is very nutritious for plants.
Many communities have active recycling program on a drop-off basis, or as part of their garbage pickup. Instead of just separating recyclable materials for some far-off re-use, using the materials in gardening demonstrates the true meaning of active recycling and may instill the idea of recycling in other ways as well. Less garbage in landfills means more land left for nature.
Don’t despair if you don’t have an outdoor garden plot. Vegetables and flowers can be successfully grown in pots and containers. There are books and online sources available on container growing, and many general gardening books cover the topic as well. A container garden on a balcony, patio or deck can produce a lot of flowers and vegetables, and it often makes the task of weeding simpler.
Children love something to be their “very own.” Keep your child interested and aware of his or her garden by putting a sign in it that says “Mary’s Garden” (or whatever name is appropriate). For real personalization, make up plant stakes or labels that say “Mary’s beans,” “John’s zinnias,” etc. If more than one child has plants growing in the same garden, this can minimize disputes over whose plants are whose.
If you start from seed, you can use the seed packet stapled to a stake with the child’s name written on it. Bedding plants usually come with a plant tag you might use. Colorful pictures help children imagine what will eventually grow.
Watering and Weeding
Children love to water – particularly at full force of the hose. You will want to remind them that rain usually falls a little more gently and they should imitate the rain. A personalized sprinkling can is a good idea for younger children.
Weeding is another matter. At first, even for adults, it can be difficult to tell small wanted plants from small-unwanted weeds. You may want to let things grow a little before weeding too much. Since children may find weeds as fascinating and as pretty as the chosen plants, a little explanation that the weeds are “little bullies” and want to take too much room and too much food away from the “good” plants may ease the trauma of pulling out some plants.
“Patience is a virtue,” goes an old saying, and the wait for flowers and vegetables to mature can begin to teach the rewards of patience. Watching a garden grow may not be easy: children may want to pull up young carrots and radishes to see if they are “done.” Even if they do pull up a few young plants, they may be far enough along to wash off and give a taste of bigger things to come.
Children by age eight or nine may want to be more involved in what plants are grown in their gardens. They might enjoy planning a salad garden that can be harvested and shared with the family at dinnertime, or they might enjoy something special like a garden planted to look like the American Flag.
You may not have to supervise weeding and watering quite as closely, but a wise parent always keeps one of the eyes in the back of the head open.
Watching your child grow
Gardening activities provide an ideal time to really talk to your child. Of course you will want to talk a little about how plants grow, and talk about the birds, insects and worms (kids love worms!) and all that good gardening stuff. But the privacy and quiet of a garden is also an excellent place to just talk about “things” such as school and friends, hopes and dreams. Ask them if they were a plant, what would they tell the gardener?
You’ll be surprised what you can learn in your child’s garden, and your opportunity to hear your child’s thoughts will help you guide their personal growth as well as their gardening growth.
Whether you are in a city, suburb or rural area, the future of the environment is a concern to all. Instilling love, respect and understanding of how nature works and how it affects us all is especially important for the future of our children and the world at large.
And it can all begin in a child’s garden.
Start Small. If you decide to plant up some new areas this year, start small so that you can test for success and appearance. You can always make it bigger next year.
Consider water access. If you are planting an area far from a water source, figure out how you are going to get water there. If a long hose isn’t practical, you may have to carry water there, or plan on carrying the plants (assuming they are in containers) to the water source.
Try something new each year. If something in a seed catalog or in the garden center captures your imagination – try it. Starting on a small scale and a new spot, you can test the plant without a lot of expense or disappointment if it doesn’t please or doesn’t succeed.
Go for variety. Even within the confines of a color family you can achieve a pleasing mixture of different flower forms, heights and textures. While large displays of a single flower can be awesome, too much of a good thing can be boring.
Keep a “cookbook.” In a notebook, write down which classes and varieties you planted where. Often you can just tape a plant label to a page and write “front door,” or “patio tubs” next to it. At the end of the season you can write down how it performed and whether you want to plant those again, try them somewhere else, or try something new.
To be sure you take advantage of all your growing areas, get a piece of paper and a pencil and make a rough “bird’s eye” sketch of your lot, including marking out where your house is. Indicate which areas are the sunny, partially sunny, and shady areas. Be as detailed or as rough as you want. The idea is to identify all potential growing spots and then decide what to put where.
Once you have your sketch made, think about each area and where you would like the color and texture of plants. If you have a deck or patio, baskets or tubs of flowers can add a lot to the appearance. If there is a spot in your yard that you look at all the time from the kitchen window or that guests in your yard naturally tend to look at, brighten it up with flowers. And there is no rule that says you have to shove your garden back against the fence or property line – a garden spot in the middle of a yard can become a focal point and attractively break up boring expanses of grass.
If you already have a focal point such as a fountain, a brick barbecue, or even a tree, you can make it more attractive by planting flowers around it to draw even more attention to it. This idea also works for storage sheds or objects that you may consider as less than attractive focal points. Chances are these aren’t going to go away, so dress them up and make them worthwhile to look at.
Choose a Color Theme
For a really sophisticated look, choose a family of colors for all your flowers. If you choose red, for example, you can select flowers in pink, rose and bright red. You will still be able to get a variety of flowers and plants, but the look will be more unified if you have an overall color theme.
Sun and Shade
Most yards have a mix of full sun and some shade, so you should have plantings for both. If you are planning a vegetable garden it should get the prime sunny spot whenever possible. Even if the sun shines only on your deck or patio you can grow vegetables. Many can be successfully grown in containers, letting you “move” the garden into the sun.
Many people get discouraged over getting any color into shady areas. However, prudent planning can get color just about anywhere. There are a number of colorful plants that will do well in all but the deepest shade. Impatiens are outstanding for brightening up shady spots, as are coleus and begonias. These also have the advantage of a wide variety of colors for your overall theme. If the shady area also has the problem of poor soil conditions, a raised garden bed or different size pots and containers can overcome that problem without a lot of work. Baskets hung from tree limbs can draw attention to the beauty and position of the tree in the garden.
In addition to the yard areas where you are most likely to want an attractive display of flowers and plants, consider the impression your house makes on passersby and visitors. Baskets, pots or a small flower bed near the front door can say “welcome” and give your home a well-cared for appearance. The driveway and garage area is another often overlooked opportunity for gardening. Lining the driveway or putting some baskets or pots in a few selected areas can make an otherwise utilitarian area come alive.
One of the ways to get your garden into bloom or fruit as early as possible is to start plants indoors. Basically, a good sunny location for the started plants is all that is needed, or grow lights if you don’t have a sunny location. You can buy “seed starter kits” at most garden retailers, or do your own seed starting in containers as simple as egg cartons. Books on the subject can be found at your library and at garden retailers, and a wealth of information is available on the web. Within reason, the earlier you start, the more mature and established your plants will be when transplanted outdoors to the garden or to containers. If you start too early, your plants will become overgrown and you may have to cut them back and start with a funny-looking garden. Six weeks or so before the last frost date or normal planting time in your area is a good rule of thumb for starting indoors.
If you don’t have the time or confidence to start plants from seed, there are a rainbow of colorful bedding plant flowers and vegetables at your local garden centers or retailers.
Depending on the weather and how soon you can get outdoors, it is a good idea to prepare your garden bed by digging it up, turning it over, adding amendments such as compost or fertilizer. Your local County Extension Agent can tell you how to have a soil test performed, or soil test kits can be purchased. Soil preparation is one of those areas that often gets ignored, yet is vitally important to your garden’s success.
To create a garden with beauty and balance, begin with planning, not digging. A way to start a plan is by drawing a sketch of all garden areas. This sketch will help identify all of the outside areas to be decorated with flowers or vegetables. Adding a color theme to your garden will help unify it. To record successful plans, or even failures, keep a simple ‘cookbook’ of plants and their performance. This “Cookbook” can be the start of next year’s garden.
They are usually called “bedding” plants (they go in your garden beds), although some people think of them as just “plants,” but it isn’t the terminology that counts. What counts is that these started plants give you a handsome beginning on your garden; both in design and success, and gardening could hardly be easier.
If displays of bedding plants haven’t started showing up at your local chain store outlets, greenhouses and garden centers, supermarkets or even hardware stores, they will soon. And after a winter of not having had much to look at in the way of flowers and plants, you may find yourself irresistibly drawn to the rows of neat, green flats topped with buds and blooms as a dieter drawn to an ice cream sundae. But wait! Before rushing in and buying plants with the greatest eye appeal, take a moment to become a savvy shopper.
Generally, bedding plants are grown in small “packs” divided into three, four, or six sections, each containing one or more growing plants (if you read a garden center ad for a sale on “6-packs,” think plants, not beer). Larger, plastic “flats” hold 12 to 24 packs. Packs are often individually priced a little higher than a whole flat, so, if you are so inclined, taking a pocket calculator with you when shopping can help you figure prices and number of plants quickly.
Unless you are buying a plant variety that is supposed to have purple, blue, rose, yellow or gray leaves, avoid those that do. This is an indication that the plants have been stressed in some way. Chances are they will recover, but let someone else worry about that. Look for plants with well-formed leaves of uniformly green color. Brown and damaged-looking leaves should be avoided, as should any signs of pests such as spider webs or small insects crawling over the plants. Be picky, after all, it is going to be your garden.
No doubt your immediate impulse will be to buy the packs or flats that have the most blooms on them. Retailers know this and encourage their suppliers to give them “lots of color.” But you are about to become a savvy shopper and learn why you want to avoid that temptation.
For the best success in your garden (beds or containers) you want to select plants without any blooms and even without buds if possible. Why? Because once the plants are transplanted to a new location, they need a little time to establish themselves. It’s something like moving to a new house or rearranging a room of furniture – until you get used to it, you just aren’t as productive as you were before. And the “energy” a plant spends on producing blooms takes away some of the “energy” it could be spending on establishing itself in your garden, and so the process takes a little longer. As a smart shopper, you want plants that will spend their immediate energy on getting established so that later they can get busy producing blooms in your garden.
Should you totally shun those plants in bloom? Of course not – they are your “samples” of what you can expect in your garden. Pick out those you want and carefully read the labels. Then find packs or flats of the same plants without blooms and buy those that are mostly green.
Once you’ve made your purchases, take the plants home. Place them on the seats or in the trunk (flats and packs are often dirty and wet on the bottom, so you might want to have a blanket or old shower curtain along), taking care not to stack them on top of each other or too loose so that they will tumble around and get damaged. If they are going to remain in the car for some time before you get home, protect them from too much sun. Even on a mild spring day, the sun can heat up a car considerably and possibly wilt or even kill your plants. Leave a window open a little to allow some air circulation, or open the trunk every now and then to let some fresh air in and allow built-up heat to escape.
Preparing for Planting
If you can’t plant immediately, store your plants in a protected area out of wind and free of danger or a late frost. Water as necessary, keeping them from drying out. If days are warm but nights are cold, you might want to put them outside during the day and move them to a more protected place such as the garage overnight.
If you haven’t already prepared your garden soil, work it to loosen it, add compost and use a granular fertilizer to make it ready for the plants.
When ready to plant, gently “pop” the individual plants out of their packs by pressing on the bottom of the pack. One easy method is to place one hand over the top of the pack, turn the pack upside down, and with your other hand press on the bottom of the pack to release the plants. Just be ready to catch any plants that may already be loose. Handle them with care, holding them by the ball of soil and roots, or by holding onto the central stem close to where it meets the soil.
Follow the recommended spacing (on the plant label or from a gardening book), and arrange and rearrange your plants on top of the garden bed until you have them where you want them. Then use a hand trowel to dig a hold for the plant. Put the plant in the hole and fill in around the plant firmly but not compacted too hard. You want the garden soil to just cover the top of the soil the plant is growing in, leaving the top of the green plant to catch the sunlight.
If there are any open blooms on your plants, ruthlessly pinch them off. Your plants will recover faster from the transplanting if you do.
Special Words about Vegetables
Some people find it hard to believe that the spacing recommendations for vegetables are right. Planting those “scrawny” tomato plants two feet apart, or allowing lots of space for melons and zucchini seems like an awfully generous thing to do. But once they get growing, those plants really do need all that space. For tomatoes and other vegetables that you will want to stake or cage, plant them and put the stake next to them or cage over them right away. If you do it later when the plants are bigger, you may end up damaging the plant or the root system. Do it all at once.
Gardens for Procrastinators and Those Who are Impatient
If you are late getting your garden planted, or are one of those people who kept waiting for the weather to “get better,” or you just “can’t wait” for plants to get larger, there’s still hope for planting an enviable garden. Bedding plant retailers often offer larger size plants for “instant” show in garden beds and containers. Frequently called “4-inch,” “6-inch,” “8-inch” and even “10-inch” plants, be aware that the size given is referring to the diameter of the container the plant is growing in, not the size of the plant itself. Supermarkets often advertise “10-inch house plants,” and you might be surprised to find a much larger plant than you expected, because the plant isn’t 10 inches tall (it’s probably taller and wider), it’s the container that is 10 inches across. The same is true for bedding plants advertising as “4-inch,” etc.
If you buy larger plants, plant them in your garden or containers as you would smaller plants. For spacing, measure from the center of one plant to the center of the next. Larger plants will need more water and fertilizer to get established, so be prepared to water a little more often at first.
Larger plants are often hard to find in the “green” stage and may be covered with blooms and buds. Again, to help the plants become established in their new home more quickly, ruthlessly pinch off any open blooms, but you can leave the buds.
On With the Show
Keep your plants watered and fertilized, take some time each week to pull out weeds that may appear in the garden, and watch your garden grow. Hanging baskets and plants in containers may need frequent watering during hot weather (sometimes even twice a day in really hot weather), so watch for signs of wilting.
Don’t be shy about your garden – it’s one of those things that everyone enjoys – so invite your neighbors over to see how well it’s doing. And, if you are like many gardeners, you’ll probably have extra vegetables you can share when things really get going, so share the abundance.
Take notes or photographs of your garden to plan for next year. If you really liked a certain variety, write it down so you won’t forget it next year when you go shopping (saving plant labels is one easy way of doing this). If you think you could use more of something next time, make a note of that, too. And if you think you could use a bigger garden, start planning early so you will be ready when the bedding plants are again available at your garden outlets.
Container gardening offers many advantages that people can tend to overlook: containers can be less work because they can be placed closer to a water source; they offer a smaller soil area to have to weed; they can be placed at a height that can minimize bending for watering and tending; movable containers can “follow the sun” if you have changing exposure; they can provide a garden plot even in high-rise apartments or homes with no space for a traditional garden; and just about any plant—flower or vegetable—can be grown in a container.
Selecting a Container
Virtually anything that will hold soil and water is a candidate for container growing. From a bag of soil with holes punched for planting and drainage to wooden tubs, old riding boots, milk cans, hanging baskets and fancy ornamental pots. You can choose the size, shape and cost to fit your needs and desires.
The deeper the pot the less watering it will need. Pots with a small soil volume will dry out faster and require more frequent watering. Unlike plants in the ground, plants in pots or hanging baskets in the yard, on a deck or on a windowsill are exposed on all sides to the drying effects of wind and sun. On hot, windy days you may have to water them more than once.
Darker colored containers will absorb more heat, which can get seeds and transplants off to a faster start, but these containers will need more watering if they are in direct sunlight. Lighter colored containers may be better for most people.
Select a container that will give your plant’s roots room to grow, but not so much that it will not fill out the pot. Consider the mature size of the plants you will be growing, and follow the spacing recommendations on the seed packet or plant label. Plant leaves should grow to touch each other in a container, providing shade that will help retain moisture in the pot. Because weeding will be minimal and you can easily reach into a pot, there is no need to plant in rows and you can space plants closer together in a container than in a garden.
Plastic vs. Clay
While unglazed clay containers, such as those made of terra cotta, may seem more “natural” or appeal to those who want a certain look, plastic containers offer an advantage if they are to be placed in full sun. Unglazed clay pots are porous and water can quickly evaporate from them, while plastic containers do not “breathe” and therefore they will not need watering as often as clay. If you like the look of clay, there are look-alikes available in plastic.
Drainage is Important
Be sure that your container allows for drainage when you water. If the pot doesn’t have a drainage hole in the bottom, add one. If you don’t want to put a hole in a decorative ceramic container you can simply put a smaller pot inside the decorative one, being sure there is some room at the bottom for water to drain out. This will provide a reservoir for the water to drain into. The soil has to drain water or the plant roots won’t be able to breathe.
Some people are tempted to just dig up some garden soil and put it in a container. Generally, though, you are better off buying a prepared soilless mix for container growing because it is free of weeds and often contains added nutrients to help plants grow. Choose a potting soil that will provide support for plants as they grow, and one that will help retain moisture. A peat and perlite or peat and vermiculite mixture is usually a good choice.
Thoroughly water the soil before planting. Water gently until water drains from the bottom of the pot. This way you can be assured that the entire soil mass is wet. If you are going to move the pots, you may want to move them before watering so they will not be as heavy as they will be after watering.
For seeds, follow the seed packet directions for spacing and whether or not to cover the seeds with soil. Keep the soil moist by gentle misting or watering several times a day. When seedlings emerge keep them watered, and if you have too many plants thin them by plucking out the weakest looking ones.
For transplants, plant the top of the root ball even with the soil line and keep plants well watered as they get established.
A simple test as to whether or not to water is to stick your finger into the top inch of soil. If it feels damp, there is no immediate need to water; if it feels dry then you should water until some runs out the bottom of the container.
Plants that will be grown outdoors in full sun in containers can benefit from a layer of mulch on top of the soil. Mulch will help retain moisture in the soil, discourage weed growth, and break the harshness of raindrops or watering from a hose or watering can. Sawdust, shredded bark and gravel can act as mulches—choose one appropriate to the container and the plants.
Containers placed in semi-shady or shady areas do not need mulch as much as those planted in full sun, but it is never a bad idea.
Staking Tall Plants
Vining plants such as tomatoes, cucumbers, morning glories, thunbergia and others will need the addition of stakes or a small trellis to support them. Add the stakes or trellis when you first plant the seeds or transplants so that you won’t damage roots by adding them at a later date.
When the plants are large enough that you need to fasten them to the stakes or trellis, do not tie the stem tightly to the stakes. Leave a big loop that will support the stem but not constrict it. For large-stemmed plants like tomatoes and melons, strips of cloth are gentler than plastic or metal twist-ties. When fruits begin to get large, a cloth sling tied around the fruit and fastened to the stake can keep the fruit from falling off before it is ripe.
Extending the Season
One of the special advantages of container growing is that you can extend the harvest or bloom season by moving pots indoors when the weather grows cold. When you move them indoors, put the containers in a location where they will receive maximum sunlight during the day. Eventually, winter’s shorter days will take their toll and your plants will get scraggly looking. You may want to finally get rid of them, but with the right exposure, you can keep plants growing indoors for months after their usual outdoor life.
Other Advantages of Containers
Growing in containers gives you an opportunity to try something new on a small scale. If you have a shady area that you want to test to see how certain plants will grow, putting a few in a pot in that area will let you see how they do without a lot of work. Of course, you can do the same for sunny locations too. By grouping several pots, each with a different selection, you can see which ones do better so that you can decide what to grow more of next year.
Container growing is also an excellent choice for introducing children to gardening. Containers are easy to tend and can be sized to the age and interest of a child. A child’s favorite vegetable or cutting flowers are popular choices to get them started.