Monthly Archives: December 2016

Weeding and Writing Your Plant

Avid gardeners have always known that growing a garden is not only fun for children, but also teaches them skills such as patience, caring for something other than themselves, and the value of regular work, among other things.

The virtues of gardening have been expanded and taken into school classrooms around the country through a joint program by the National Science Foundation, the National Gardening Association, and the National Garden Bureau. Children in grades kindergarten through 8 learn not only simple growing methods, but also use their indoor gardens to study history, business, sociology, math, science, environmental concepts, and gain personal enhancements such as greater self-confidence and self-esteem. Who would have thought that a small garden could open a whole world of social and educational growth?


The program centers around an indoor growth chamber called a GrowLab®, a commercially produced indoor lighted garden. Through funding from its members, the National Garden Bureau donates GrowLabs to schools and organizes for materials such as growing media, seeds and other supplies to be donated as well. The National Garden Bureau also arranges for a nearby horticultural professional to “adopt” the class and work with the classroom teacher to set up the indoor garden correctly, answer questions from the students and teachers, and periodically visit the classroom. “These kids ask good, intelligent questions,” commented Nona Koivula, Executive Director of the National Garden Bureau, and one of the professionals who has adopted a class. “They want to know how cross-breeding and hybridization is done. And they want detailed answers, not simple explanations. The kids love it!”

The National Science Foundation is involved in funding this program because it wanted to get kids interested in science projects, and hopefully nurture future scientists. By being a student-centered project where the students learn by actually seeing and doing rather than just reading about concepts, students get a better grasp on what they are doing, and gain a lifelong understanding of the concepts they explore.

According to Eve Pranis, Associate Director of Education at The National Gardening Association, the GrowLab® program initially began with outdoor gardens in Cleveland, Ohio in the inner city. The positive aspects of using a garden to teach a variety of subjects was well recognized, but it was also recognized that an indoor program would overcome concerns such as safety, so the indoor gardening program was launched.

The National Gardening Association also annually awards $500 worth of outdoor gardening supplies to each of 300 schools through its Youth Garden Grants Program.

Weeding and Writing

So how does a garden teach more than botany? “It’s really quite easy to tie the garden in with other subjects,” said Eve. “Take potatoes. Kids plant potatoes and watch them grow, and then they study the history of the potato, learn its importance as a commercial crop, and also learn how it affected history such as the great potato famine in Ireland. They can study the effects of acid rain on crops in classroom science projects using the garden, and that opens many other doors about our environment.”

In Rochester, New York, Monroe Middle School teacher Jose Veras has his students using the garden to learn about business. They grow herbs that they sell to local restaurants. Students therefore learn about planning ahead (crop scheduling), selling, accounting and marketing, as well as learning about the herbs and how to grow them.

Eve pointed out that there are a variety of teaching materials available, and teachers can fashion an indoor growing program in an infinite number of ways. “They can pick and choose what they want to do,” she said, “but of course they have to have a garden.”

Equipping The Classroom

The GrowLab® units National Garden Bureau donates are 52 inches wide by 23 inches deep and 39 inches tall, and fit on a table top. The metal frame of the unit holds two 4-foot light fixtures with four special grow lights, and also has plastic trays to hold plants, a 24-hour timer for the lights, and a climate control tent to help control humidity. Up to 72, 3 1/2-inch pots can be grown on the plastic trays.

The indoor garden also comes with a guidebook produced by the National Gardening Association to help teachers set up the unit in the classroom, along with practical advice on choosing plants and supplies, and basic growing information.

And going beyond the basics is another National Gardening Association guide with a variety of classroom-tested activities and extensive teacher background information. The activities range from 2-week projects to year-long studies, so they are adaptable to virtually any classroom situation.

The activities follow a step-by-step inquiry-based cycle that promotes teamwork among the students and encourages children to think for themselves along the way. A distinctive aspect of the program is the way it is designed to teach a variety of subjects that spring from the garden. Subjects as widely ranging as language arts and drama are woven into the plant-based explorations.

There are also video tapes available that show teachers additional ways to use the indoor garden to capture students’ minds and help them to grow in knowledge.

To further support teaching efforts, there is a three-times-a-year newsletter that includes tips and advice from other educators, along with additional growing information and a variety of fresh ideas. There is also an extensive database of “partners” such as garden clubs, gardening professionals, educators and consultants that teachers can use as a resource for solving problems and getting advice.

Getting Straight A’s

What do teachers think of the program? Comments received by the National Gardening Association are highly enthusiastic. One high school teacher wrote: “I can’t say enough about how good the GrowLab®curriculum is. I’m using it with environmental units. The activity ‘PlantAcid’ was a great motivator. It spurred my class to further investigate problems from acid rain and other pollutants.”

Another teacher wrote of the program’s social benefits: “GrowLab® has provided a means to get to otherwise unreachable troublemakers. Their academic grades have improved as a result of the garden. We use it not only to teach communication skills, science and gardening, but also as a therapeutic model.”

Are the benefits of the program truly measurable? Yes, said Eve, mentioning a past evaluation study that showed that students who were involved in indoor gardening projects were scoring higher than before on understanding science and environmental concepts, and had greater confidence in their abilities to tackle difficult subjects. “After a while,” said Eve, “they say to themselves, ‘Gee, I can do this.'”

Parents or others who would like to support the program can purchase a series of informative plant posters from the National Gardening Association that can be donated to a class (see address below).

Educators wishing to learn more about the GrowLab® program and other educational programs should write to: National Gardening Association, 180 Flynn Avenue, Burlington, VT 05401. Phone 1-800-LETSGRO.

There has always been a lot of wisdom to be found in a garden, and The National Garden Bureau’s participation in this indoor gardening program is helping to bring even more wisdom and learning to young people around the country.

National Garden Bureau is a not-for-profit organization funded by 48 seed companies. Part of its mission is to encourage gardening among children. National Garden Bureau is proud of its participation in the GrowLab® program, and plans to place six additional GrowLabs in schools in 1996.

Fresh and Flavorful Vegetables Fruits

It won’t be all that long before those vegetable transplants are setting fruit and getting ready to be harvested. Nothing compares to the stand-alone taste of fresh picked vegetables eaten for their own sake, and many gardeners grow vegetables just to have raw, fresh, tasty vegetables to enjoy at harvest time. But, of course, no vegetable is truly a meal entirely unto itself. When vegetables are combined with other companions from the garden for a planned purpose, the resulting combination often has as much or greater appeal than the individual fruits that went into the recipe. While fresh vegetables enjoyed right from the garden and eaten au naturel are a worthy goal and accomplishment, preparing or using vegetables in recipes that bring out their best and combine them with other garden produce are also noteworthy. Here are a few favorites and suggestions from the National Garden Bureau.

Saucy Salsa

The growing popularity of Southwestern and Mexican cuisine has brought salsa to more tables than ever before. Americans now consume more salsa annually than they do ketchup, and since 1988 the Mexican sauce market (primarily picante and salsa) has grown at an annual rate of 13 percent. While you can purchase prepared salsa at almost any grocery store, there is always something special about salsa you grow and prepare yourself. One big advantage to homemade salsa is that you can include ingredients in the proportions that distinctively suit your taste.

What’s in a Salsa?

What goes into a salsa? While individual recipes vary, the vegetable basics include ripe tomatoes, onions, cilantro, parsley, basil and a “secret” ingredient that really makes a salsa appealing – tomatillos. Tomatillos are small members of the tomato family. They are as easy as tomatoes to grow, and their special tart flavor and texture really “make” a salsa. Toma Verde is an excellent tomatillo variety to grow for salsa. The small, ping pong ball size fruits are formed inside a paper husk that splits when the fruit is ripe. Fully ripened tomatillos are yellow in color, but for salsa, however, you’ll want to harvest tomatillos while they are still green and before the paper husk splits. Be sure to remove and discard the husk before chopping.

Cilantro, another important ingredient in salsa, is also easily grown in the home garden. There is no substitute for the tangy flavor of cilantro, and like parsley it grows quickly to a usable stage. Grow some in a garden bed or in pots in a sunny location. If you aren’t familiar with cilantro, use it sparingly in salsa or other recipes until you are comfortable with the taste it imparts. If you really like cilantro, sow successive crops a few weeks apart so that you will always have some available.

Parsley, another easy plant to grow, has a much milder flavor than cilantro. Both cilantro and parsley add color as well as flavor to a dish.

For additional color in a salsa, grow both green and purple varieties of basil. Pick mature leaves, you’ll only need a few, and leave the rest for other dishes.

Salsa Basics

To create your own salsa, remove skins from several tomatoes (scalding them in boiling water makes it easier to peel them), and chop them finely. Put them in a colander to drain. Finely chop all the other ingredients except the herbs, and add them to the tomatoes. Sprinkle with a little salt, and let everything drain in the colander for an hour or so. Depending on your personal taste, assorted hot peppers can be chopped and added to the recipe, as well as several cloves of garlic.

After draining, put all the ingredients in a large pot, add some olive oil, vinegar, the herbs that have been finely chopped, and cook over medium heat until the whole pot bubbles. If you plan to use it immediately on steaks or seafood, ladle the warm salsa directly onto the food. If you plan to use the salsa later, remove the pot from the heat and let everything cool off. Serve salsa with taco chips or other chips that can scoop up the medley. Salsa can also be canned and kept for later use or as a special holiday gift.

In addition to use as a dip, salsa also makes a great topping on potatoes, grilled steaks, and seafood.


Just as the popularity of Mexican cuisine has grown, so has the popularity of Southern Mediterranean dishes, most notably Italian. One all-time Italian favorite is Eggplant Parmesan, a popular choice with many diners because it is a tasty, meatless entree.

In addition to more elaborate preparation, eggplant is also delicious when it is simply sliced, brushed with a little olive oil, and then broiled or roasted until tender (this takes only a few minutes, so you may want to watch the slices closely so that they don’t burn).

Another excellent way to prepare eggplant is to dip slices in a beaten egg, and then coat the slices with seasoned bread crumbs. Fry these in a pan with a little olive oil and serve as a hot, tasty side dish.

Broiled or roasted eggplant slices are also excellent in sandwiches. Try some with or instead of a slice of cheese. Eggplant is also an interesting topping on pizza (try it, you’ll like it!).

Some gardeners like to peel eggplants before cooking, but this is generally unnecessary and the color of the peel adds, well, appeal.

Eggplants like a hot, sunny location for growing. To get the maximum fruit production from eggplants, feed them with a well-balanced fertilizer about once a month, and mulch around the base of the plants so that the roots stay cool and moist. Eggplants shouldn’t be transplanted to the garden until the soil has warmed and air temperatures are consistently warm both night and day. An important harvesting tip is to cut off the fruits rather than trying to pull them off when ripened. Ripened fruits will be glossy and firm. Over-ripened fruits start to soften and turn dull.

Your Own Accent

The National Garden Bureau encourages gardeners to explore different ethnic cuisines, and also suggests that gardeners be creative and add their own accent to vegetable dishes. All recipes started as experiments, and you never know what great dish might be created in your own kitchen (how about eggplant with salsa?).

Since Mother Nature frequently provides more than enough produce in a home garden, home-grown vegetables are an encouragement to try new recipes and new cuisines. And don’t forget — because they come to you straight from the garden, home-grown vegetables often have a higher nutrient content than store-bought ones.

Versatile Containers For You

One of the most versatile and easy ways to grow bushels of colorful annual flowers is in containers. The fast-growing popularity of “color bowls” is proof positive that Americans like container growing, whether they do it themselves or have someone else prepare it for them.

If It Will Hold Soil, It is a Container

While many people think primarily of terra cotta, plastic pots, glazed pots, or half-barrels as likely containers for plants, just about any “container” is a possible prospect. Car tires, old shoes, coffee pots, raw bags of growing mix, and just about anything imaginable can be used to grow plants. If whimsical is your style, don’t be afraid to try it. The basics remain the same.

The Benefits

Container growing offers many benefits, not the least of which is that you can put a “garden” just about anywhere. Cement balconies on a highrise building can become urban gardens, or splashes of color can be put on a backyard deck or patio. And, providing the containers are not too heavy, potted plants can be moved and rearranged whenever the need or mood arises.

Without a doubt, container gardens will require less weeding than in-ground counterparts, making them ideal for busy people who love gardening but have limited time. However, watering has to be watched more closely. Containers in hot sun can dry out quickly, and even a gentle summer breeze will wick moisture from plants. Be prepared to water daily or even twice daily during long, hot, dry spells.

Start with a Plan

Where would you like to put your containers and what would you like to grow? If an area receives full sun most of the day, you can choose from a wide selection of sun-loving flowers. If the area receives limited sun, choose plants that tolerate less light, and shady areas, of course, call for shade-loving plants. With containers, one of the advantages is that you can move them to keep them in the sun, if you have the time.

Once you know where you want to grow, choosing WHAT to grow is the next big step. No matter what you grow, plan out each container or grouping of containers, making notes of what you would like where. For appealing groupings, include plants of different heights, colors and textures, keeping in mind that plants taller than one and one-half times the height of the container may look unbalanced.

For maximum interest and to create depth, plan groupings of three to five different sized containers – for example, one or two large pots with plants reaching about 2 or 3 feet tall, one with 18-inch plants, and two with 12-inch or smaller plants. When grouped, these plants will give a three-dimensional look to your mini-garden.

One common mistake made with container gardens is choosing the wrong combination of plants. Don’t mix shade-loving plants with sun-loving plants in the same container or in the same grouping. Shade-plants will not perform as well in full sun, and full-sun plants will not perform their best in limited light. Even if mixed and put in partial sun and partial shade, neither type will give its best show. Stick to one type in a container and in a grouping.

You can also create a garden that you can vary quickly by planting masses of one color and variety in separate containers, and then grouping and re-grouping them as you like; one pot of a trailing flower, or one of a mass flower such as marigolds, as illustrated.

Container Basics

Choose a container deep enough for the root systems of the plants you will be growing, and one that will hold ample soil for both support and water retention. A good container will have a drainage hole at the bottom. Before adding soil, put some gravel or pieces of broken pots over the hole to prevent the soil from washing out with each watering. Good drainage can prevent soggy soil that limits a plant’s uptake of needed oxygen. Overwatering is more of a problem with plants grown in the shade than with plants grown in full sun. If you want to use a decorative container that doesn’t have a drainage hole, consider placing a pot in a pot. Put a few inches of gravel in the bottom of the decorative pot to hold the flowering pot off the bottom.

Use a good, sterile, porous potting medium for filling your containers. Mixing a time-release fertilizer into the medium can help feed the plants as they grow.

There are three ways to grow plants for your containers. You can sow seed directly into the container to start them. If you do this, follow the germinating instructions on the seed packet, and be prepared to thin out the plants when they are young. You can also start from seed using a starter kit, and then transplant the seedlings to the containers when they are ready. Or, you can purchase started bedding plants at your local garden center or nursery and plant those in the containers.

How many plants per container? If you provide enough soil and water you can space plants closer together than usual recommendations. In a larger pot, you could plant nine to 12 transplants of flowers, depending on how spreading they are. Be careful not to overplant, or when the plants mature they will overpower and overshadow one another and look too crowded.

Designing a Container Garden

Color, texture and flower form are the basic elements in designing a container garden. With color today, anything goes. Gone are the days when pink and scarlet clashed – today you can combine any colors you want in a pot or in a grouping.

Texture is often best brought out by including foliage plants such as leather-leaved ferns, or asparagus sprengeri with its long lacy fronds. Let trailing plants spill over the edges of the containers to soften and de-formalize plantings. Some perennial ground covers offer interesting textures, and can be dug up and replanted in the garden in fall when the annuals have died back.

Flower forms can be grouped into three basic shapes. Line forms like salvia spendens or snapdragons are tall and spiky. Mass forms such as daisies, petunias or marigolds have many small or large flowers. Focus forms such as African marigolds, or a spectacular geranium plant, are characterized by large or distinctive flowers.

One example of combining these forms would be a large container of red salvia (upright form and tall), pale blue petunias (round, masses of flowers, medium height), and white alyssum (small, lacy flowers, low and trailing). Or use tall blue lavender for height, and white petunias and red creeping phlox for color.

Plant individual pots of one type (all salvia, for example, or combine one or two types in a larger pot (salvia and sprengeri), depending on the look you want for your grouping. The idea is to combine color, texture and varying heights in a grouping of containers.

Container Garden Care

Keep your containers well watered, and watch for any wilting when the wind blows. If no fertilizer was incorporated with the growing mix, be sure to fertilize plants so that they keep growing smartly. Weed as necessary.

Container growing isn’t that much different than growing plants in a garden plot, but can offer more versatility and a lot less weeding work.

This Flowering Vines

There’s something irresistibly romantic about a split-rail fence softened with intense clove-scented sweetpeas. Flowering vines of all sorts add an extravagant air to outdoor living areas. Whether a living curtain of morning glories softly shading a west kitchen window or a white picket fence embellished with a tumble of bright, sunny black-eyed Susan vines, flowering vines can add privacy, disguise harsh landscape elements, and give an aura of beauty.

Many annual vines grow fast enough to cover a trellis in only a few weeks. By mid-season, you can have an entire trellis softly covered with foliage to block the winds, offer some shade and add privacy.

The options for using annual vines are endless. Plant them in the ground in front of a window pane trellis or a tree wrapped with a flexible trellis. Use them in a planter box with a redwood fan, a pot with a topiary frame, or in a hanging basket or window box.

A particularly attractive option if you have limited room is to construct a trellis in a planter box on a deck or balcony. Annual vines covering the trellis will add beauty without sacrificing room.

Most annual vines attach themselves to a supporting structure with twining stems or twining tendrils. This allows them to attach easily to chain link, wire or thin strips of wood. Although it takes considerably more work to train one of these vines to a trellis made of wide boards, it can be done. They will not cling to a brick or wooden wall, though.

It may take some assistance from you to get them started onto a trellis, but once they’ve taken hold, your job is finished except to sit back and enjoy. A good way to “help” plants onto trellises is with vinyl-covered fencing. This is heavier than chicken wire, has holes about 1 x 2 inches and lasts several seasons because of the vinyl coating. The vines and tendrils twine readily around the thin wires. This fencing is fairly inexpensive and since the vinyl coating is green, it literally disappears from view when it’s in place.

Now for the vines! Sweetpeas (Lathyrus odorata), old-fashioned favorites, come in all sizes, from two feet and bushy to eight foot climbers. Their pea blossoms range from splendid scarlet to soft pink to white to purple with all combinations of bi-colors. Although their beauty can be overwhelming, perhaps their best trait is the intoxicating perfume. Sweetpeas bloom best in full sun in the cooler weather of spring and summer. They need rich soil that retains moisture, and can be planted directly outside after frost or started indoors about six weeks before the last frost.

Morning glories (Ipomoea purpurea), with their familiar clear blue, pink, scarlet or magenta trumpets, are some of the fastest growing annual vines with the added benefit of glorious flower displays. Whorled buds unfurl gracefully each morning and fade by early evening, only to be replaced by new buds for the next morning.

Morning glories are a logical choice for containers with trellises since the plants can get somewhat rampant in the garden. They will grow in almost any soil, in full sun or partial shade, and are easily started directly in the garden after frost is passed. Morning glory seed has a hard seed coat, be sure to soak the seed overnight or nick the coat with a file before sowing seed in prepared garden soil.

A close companion to the Morning glory is Moonflower or Moon Vine (Ipomoea alba). Its crystal white flowers resemble morning glory blossoms, but unlike Morning glories which peak in the morning, its blossoms open as dusk approaches and remain open through the night. As the flowers open, a sensual perfume begins to waft through the evening. Moonflowers on a trellis next to a bedroom window is the stuff dreams are made of. They require the same growing conditions as Morning glory, but do not have quite the rampant habit.

For a dense screen coupled with unique flowers, consider the Balloon Vine or Love-in-a-Puff (Cardiospermum halicacabum) or Cup-and-Saucer vine (Cobaea scandens). Both vines will cover a trellis or pergola quickly to give you shade or a solid screen. Balloon vines, which grow to ten feet, have tiny white orchid-like flowers followed by whimsical greenish balloon fruits. Plant balloon vines in full sun and average garden soil after danger of frost has passed. Cup-and-Saucer vines have peculiar reddish-purple cup-shaped flowers, nestled in light green saucers. Start seeds indoors about six weeks before the last frost or seed directly into the garden after danger of frost has passed. These prolific vines can stretch to twenty feet in one season.

Nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus), another old-fashioned flower, deserves its place alongside other annual vines. Although it grows only to about six feet, it is a beautiful companion to other vines that grow higher. Its bright yellow, orange, red and white spurred flowers appear like jewels amid round matte-finish dusty green leaves. The blossoms have an extraordinarily sweet scent that will fill a room when cut and brought indoors. A close relative, Canary flower or Canary Bird Vine, (Tropaeolum peregrinum) will envelop a trellis with small feathery yellow flowers and delicate palmate leaves. All Nasturtiums grow and bloom best in poor soil. Rich soil will produce abundant foliage and few flowers. Seed Nasturtiums and Canary flowers directly into the garden after the soil has warmed somewhat.

Black-eyed Susan vine (Thunbergia alata) is a delicate vine that grows only to about six feet. Although it can be trained onto a trellis, its best use is in a hanging basket or window box where its thin stems can dangle in the wind. The blue-green foliage is decorated with bright orange, gold, yellow or white flowers with dark brown eyes. The aging flowers turn varying shades of cream to yellow, so the plant is covered with many variations of color at one time. Start seeds indoors six weeks before the last frost, and provide well-drained soil and full sun.

Hyacinth Bean (Dolichos lablab) produces attractive blue-green leaves to complement its striking dark purple pea-like flowers and lovely purple bean pods. Hyacinth beans can grow to 15 feet or more in a summer if given average garden soil and plenty of water. Sow seeds directly in the garden after danger of frost has passed.

When planning to use annual vines, keep in mind that combinations can be absolutely charming. Combine old-fashioned Sweetpeas with Morning glories to cover the upper and lower parts of a trellis. Canary vine combined with climbing Nasturtium or Hyacinth bean makes a truly beautiful display.