Friday, June 1, 2018

Sprout Scouts Playcamp: Grow Your Own Green Thumb! Part 1

Grow Your Own Green Thumb!
Part 1: From Seed to Sprout...

Gardening is truly the overarching theme for our Sprout Scouts Playcamp and as such, I'm breaking it down into four parts: From Seed to Sprout, Plants & Flowers, From Garden to Table, and Terrific Trees. Today's post is a great starting point! Whether or not you have a green thumb, gardening with children is an incredible experience for everyone involved and the advantages are plentiful. I love this Fact Sheet from the University of Colorado that summarizes some of the many benefits of gardening with children. I have incredible memories of my own childhood gardening experiences, but to be completely honest--I've had a home garden in some form each year since my eldest was born and this is the first year I have enjoyed it. On the one hand, my eldest is now old enough to help and understand more (and help "teach" his younger brother). I also did some things quite differently this year and in today's post, I will aim to sow some seeds of inspiration and encouragement for you, whether you are an avid gardener or trying it out for the first time.

Why garden with children? Here are a few of my favorite reasons:
  • it gets your body active
  • it encourages healthful eating habits
  • it connects children to their environment, to nature as a whole and the creatures we share it with and especially to the foods on the table (or flowers that decorate it)
  • it inspires curiosity, self discovery and critical thinking
  • it connects families and communities together
  • it beautifies your home and neighborhood
  • it can be done with very little space, on a low budget
  • it fosters responsibility and independence
  • it can be fun for a variety of age groups and generations
  • it provides an opportunity to experience success and failure as part of a process rather than a means to an end
What resonates with you on that list? What would you add? To begin with today, I'll provide a suggested materials list. I do highly encourage planting and growing something this summer. Not every home and family is equipped to have a huge, edible garden. We actually live in a townhouse style apartment and share a common yard space. We're able to plant some things directly in the ground and have quite a plentiful crop in process this year through container gardening and a pop up greenhouse in our backyard. If you do have an interest in and means for a larger garden, go for it! You might even designate a space that is just for the kids. This was something my own mother did when I was growing up and it was quite special! If you are low on space and/or time, perhaps a container garden or a raised bed is more your style. You can even keep your gardening experience indoors with an edible kitchen garden if outdoors is not an option. Perhaps you live near a community garden and can rent/volunteer with a plot there. Or perhaps you have a neighbor who gardens and would like some help pulling weeds and sharing the harvest. I have heard incredible stories of school gardens being supported by families in the community over the summer months and even apartment complexes where neighbors banded together to create a community garden in a public space. While there is apparently such a thing as guerrilla gardening (who knew?), I recommend  taking the safer route and asking permission before planting anything in a space that is not your own.

Many people avoid gardening with children because they fear their plants will die. I've even heard folks encourage parents and families to only plant things that will be "easy" and "successful" so as not to discourage budding botanists. I could not disagree more! Failure is a natural part of the planting process and even with "easy" crops, it's still a possibility. Let this be a part of the experience and lesson rather than something that discourages or ends it. A good portion of the fun we have had this year in our garden so far has been navigating unexpected torrential downpours and troubleshooting ways to organically combat a host of unwanted creepy crawly visitors.

So, now that you're geared up to get going, where should you start? I'd highly recommend a local nursery and garden center. These are amazing community resources. Certainly big box stores, hardware suppliers and home improvement centers all have a variety of gardening products for sale and even the grocery store and Amazon can get you what you need without much of a drive (or any at all). But the one thing all of those places lack is the sense of community and connection that comes from talking to fellow gardeners! One of our local garden centers even has a free kids club that encourages young children with a free gift each month to get them planting, growing and learning in the garden. Just perusing the aisles of the greenhouse will certainly spark your children's interest and curiosity (if not your own as well)! 

My three year old fell in love with a strawberry plant on our first visit to the garden center this spring. I honestly thought it was not a good idea to buy one (the one we saw was actually enormous and half dead). Strawberries are also very prone to bug infestations and that is an issue for a kosher kitchen (not to mention the plant itself and anything else in your garden). I distracted him, walked on and then drove to another local garden center the next morning to pick up this lovely little guy. Well that was the best $5 I ever caved in and spent! He visits his plant at least twice a day to check how many berries are red, how many there are in all and pick (and wash and devour) whatever is ready to harvest. So be bold, be brave, try growing something you've never tried before--it's all part of the incredible process of gardening with kids!

Here are a few more tips to get you started from seed to sprout...

  • Don't bite off more than you can chew. I cannot stress this enough. And I mean it on a variety of levels. Don't plant a bazillion different things if you don't have the time for it or space to accommodate it (or desire to eat it)! Pick a few things you know you like to eat and start with that. If you happen to want a larger variety in crops than you can accommodate in your own garden or you feel you won't be able to use enough of one with your own family, consider partnering with some neighbors or friends. One family can grow the tomatoes, another the zucchini and another the eggplant. Also, you do not need to plant all of your seeds and seedlings in one day! And you shouldn't either--in fact, if you can, choose some crops that can be stagger planted throughout the season. Where we live, radishes and lettuce can be planted and harvested relatively quickly in the early part of the spring and beans, peas and carrots do quite well even late into the fall.
  • Choose some tried and true companions that you know will do well in your garden. You may need to do a bit of research if you're new to gardening in your area. You can inquire at your local nursery or ask a neighbor with a successful garden.
  • Choose some more adventurous options and wing it! I'm attempting mini pumpkins and gourds this year. I have no idea if it will work, but what fun it would be to have some gourds and pumpkins to decorate our table this Autumn if it does!
  • A seed is all you need. Seeds are incredible when you think about it. Everything a plant will ever need (aside from external environmental factors like soil, sun and water) is in that amazing little package. Choose at least one option to start from seed. Some good options include radish, bean, peas or sunflowers.
  • Instant gratification is also a good encouragement for the impatient gardener (hi, that's me!) so selecting some starter plants may be a good idea as well. I love choosing a few hardy flowers in the early spring (like pansies) to plant in our yard as soon as the threat of frost is behind us. I also love fresh herbs. Herb starter plants are a great investment when it comes to growing an edible garden. They can be grown quite easily with plentiful sun exposure (even indoors) and having fresh herbs at your fingertips will save you a bundle on those pricey and less flavorful bundles available in the produce section. You can take clippings of many and pass them along to friends who can then start them in jars of water until they take root. They can then be transplanted and grown! You can also freeze, dry and otherwise preserve fresh herbs when the season draws to a close. These are inherently more flavorful and aromatic than their dried or even fresh grocery store counterparts. Many herbs will die off after one season but come back the following spring so long as they are not frozen. Microgreens are also quite popular at farmer's markets and local produce shops. You can grow your own indoors, year round in as little as 10-14 days and they really are a tasty (and nutrient dense) way to spice up your next salad! Something about being able to see and/or taste the fruits of your labor right away (or soon thereafter) truly inspires a desire to keep gardening as the season continues...
Suggested Materials:

Now that you have an idea of what you might like to grow, here are some suggested materials:
  • seeds/starter plants of your choice
  • containers, planting pots--whatever you have on hand
  • gardening tools, watering can 
  • soil--you don't need anything particularly fancy here, although if you're growing an edible garden with children, you may prefer organic/untreated options
  • empty seed packs and any corresponding extra seeds
  • snack sized ziplock bags, sandwich sized ziplock bags
  • seed catalogs (these can be ordered free of charge from a variety of websites, including Gurney's and Burpee Seeds
  • a nature journal, blank notebook, or paper
  • glue stick, tape, scissors, school glue
  • yellow and red tempura paint
  • markers, crayons, pens, pencils
  • magnifying glass
  • paper towels or cotton balls
  • a bag of mixed dried beans (often called bean soup mix)
  • white paper plates
  • dried black beans, poppy seeds or sunflower seeds
Now it's time to get planting and playing!

By this time, most zones are safe for direct outdoor planting. You can also choose to start seeds and/or seedlings indoors. One thing to consider as you are seed shopping and selecting is how much space you have and how much you want to grow and use. If you, like me, are short on space and might not consume a forest of tomatoes on your own, you might want to select varieties with a smaller yield or consider ways to share the wealth!
Alternatively, extra seeds can be saved and stored for the following year (they may be less potent by then) or used in some of the play activities below...

Host a community seed/seeding swap: The nature-based playgroup I run had a butterfly garden seed swap early this spring. Families were encouraged to contribute a pack of flower seeds that attract butterflies and other pollinators to the garden such as marigolds, morning glory, zinnia or petunias. Each participant went home with their own butterfly garden seed pack to grow or give away. As the weather grew warmer, we rediscovered our tomato crop for the third year in a row! Last year, it turned into an unruly tomato forest, so this year, I carefully dug up and transplanted several plants and put them up for local adoption! Later in the season you might host a community harvest swap to celebrate and share everyone's most successful yields.

Keep a Nature/Gardening Journal: One of the very best things you can gift your child with at the beginning of the summer is blank notebook! No assignments, no agenda, it can be used however they wish. They might find it enjoyable to use it to draw/dictate or write about the experience and process of gardening. This can include lists of what you're growing, drawings of your landscape or plot plans, still life drawings of flowers, fruits and vegetables, nature themed poetry or whatever strikes the imagination.

Garden Wish Collage: What do you hope to grow this year? Grab your seed catalogs (as long as you're done looking through them), some empty seed packets or even pictures of seeds, plants and flowers from old magazines. Cut and paste pictures of seeds and plants you'd like to go on a large piece of paper or in your nature/gardening journal.

Seed Observation Station and Match-It Game: Your recycled seed packets will come to play in two ways here! Save and preserve any leftover seeds and corresponding packets in snack sized ziplock bags. For your observation station, you'll combine seeds and the packet in the same bag. You may wish to staple or tape the top for reinforcement. Using a magnifying glass, you can observe the unique shapes, sizes and colors of a variety of different seeds for flowers, herbs, fruits and vegetables. For the Match-It Game, you'll separate seeds and seed packets. Store and preserve seeds in a snack sized bag and keep the corresponding packets in a separate pile. The challenge now is to see if you and your children can accurately match the seed to its corresponding plant! Do small seeds always produce a small plant, fruit or vegetable? How about larger seeds? Can you recognize seeds from foods we eat (like beans or peas or pumpkin seeds)?

Do you eat seeds? It's quite fun to ask young children who eats seeds and listen as they all respond with birds and other animals like squirrels and chipmunks. Then I point out that we eat seeds as well! Snack on some popular (and less popular) seeds we eat--like pomegranate, strawberries, blueberries and raspberries, cucumbers, zucchini, nuts, beans, peas and corn, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, even roasted squash seeds.

Do All Seeds Need Soil to Grow? In this indoor science experiment, you'll need a handful of different dried beans and peas (you can get a great selection from a bean soup mix). For each type of dried bean, use one ziplock bag and a wet paper towel or about half a dozen wet cotton balls. In each bag, drop in one or two of each type of bean. Seal your bags tightly--they will act like tiny little greenhouses! Hang your bags in a sunny window and observe over the next week or so which beans sprout and which do not. You can even record predictions and observations in your nature/gardening journal if you wish.

Another variation on this idea is to try sprouting sweet potatoes or baking potatoes (especially good use for ones that got a head start in this process on their own), carrots or other root vegetables in a glass or jar of water. You can also cut and sprout many fresh herbs this way.

Outdoor Seed Scavenger Hunt: We all know what seeds in packets look like and even seeds in fruits and vegetables, but can you find seeds in nature? They are in some unlikely and incredible places and packages! Go on an outdoor seed scavenger hunt to find pine cones, acorns, pods, chestnuts, milkweed, cat tails, fluffy white dandilons and other interesting seeds and seed locations!

Make a Paper Plate Sunflower Craft:
One of my very favorite gardening themed books with early readers is The Tiny Seed by Eric Carle. This is a great companion craft! Older hands can assist with cutting into the edges of a white paper plate so that it resembles petals of a flower. You can use a paint brush or a sponge and yellow tempura paint (we used red paint as well and actually used real flowers as our "paint brush") to paint your plate. Once dry, you will glue your "seeds" to the center of the flower. You can use actual sunflower seeds or dried black beans or poppy seeds if you have those on hand instead. 

Recommended Reading:
The Tiny Seed by Eric Carle

A Seed is Sleepy by Diana Aston

The Carrot Seed by Ruth Krauss

The Dandelion Seed by Joseph Anthony

Miss Maple's Seeds by Eliza Wheeler

Growing Vegetable Soup and Planting a Rainbow by Lois Ehlert

We'll be back with our second part in this series next week: Plants and Flowers! Until then, happy planting, growing and PLAYING!

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