The School Garden

May 3rd, 2011 § 3 comments § permalink

Happy Bean

Early last spring, through a local educational grant, I helped students, teachers, parents and administrators establish a vegetable garden at our small grade school.  Permanent above- and below-ground fencing surrounds our 25’ x 40’ garden to guard it from hungry critters.

MulchingWe designed and installed an underground high-efficiency drip irrigation system to water our 9 rectangular wood-framed raised beds.  Following garden construction, we all helped weed the garden beds, plant seeds, transplant seedlings, maintain the beds and harvest the veggies.

Preparing bedsOur small gardening program provides benefits that reach well beyond the garden gate.  In addition to enhancing the classroom curriculum, the program inspires personal and social responsibility.  It nurtures community spirit, common purpose, and cultural appreciation by building bridges among students, school staff, and local organizations.

Many handsKids learn from maintaining the garden throughout the year: weeding, thinning, fertilizing, mulching, composting, monitoring pests and diseases, and harvesting.  Kids gain a sense of ownership and accomplishment and a willingness to try new foods.  As well, they obtain life skills.

Planting herbsThe kids experience a deeper understanding of natural systems and become better stewards of the Earth by designing, cultivating, and harvesting with their own hands.  Our small garden helps teach an environmental ethic, helps demystify the concept of food production, and helps get kids really dirty.

Garden handsThis week I am busy dirtying many small hands—preparing the beds and planting lettuce, radishes and sugar snap peas.

 

Egglings

April 11th, 2011 § 12 comments § permalink

Eggling zinniaWhoa, finally.  Spring has sprung. For short-summered gardeners like me, it is particularly important to get started early.  My gardening team and I start many tender annuals indoors.  We avoid purchasing seedling trays or pots and try to start most seeds in biodegradable handmade pots.  Cardboard tubes, newspapers, grapefruit halves are great options—we use eggshells.

To get crackin’, eat lots of eggs.  Prick a small drainage hole in the bottom of the shell with a pin or needle.  To remove the contents, create a small opening in the shell—about the size of a dime—with a sharp knife.  Reserve the egg contents for cooking my friend Jenny’s Back Pocket Quiche.  Carefully pinch the opening until 1/3 of the shell is removed.  Wash each eggshell.  Surprisingly, it does not take long for hungry, motivated gardeners to have a full carton of clean, empty shells.

Select some seeds.  Really, any annuals will do.  For a nice selection, see previous post on Spring Planning.  My gardening team is partial to fancy pinkish flowers and cherry tomatoes.

Egglings dozenWith small green fingers and thumbs, fill each eggshell with damp seed-starting mix to about ¼ to ½ in below the shell opening.  Place the soil-filled shells into an egg carton.  Using tiny finger, create a small indentation in the center of the soil. Follow the instructions on the seed package for proper planting depth.  The general rule is to plant three times deeper than the size of the seed.  Place a seed or two into the indentation and lightly cover the seed with soil.  Use a permanent marker to label each eggshell with seed type.  Moisten the soil again gently with a few drops of water.  Allow the water to saturate the soil before adding more water.  Be careful not to drown them!

Seed MorphologyThere are so many many types of seeds.  In a typical dormant seed, like a French bean or sunflower, two future cotyledons occupy most of the interior.  The outer covering is called the seed coat.  The seed coat is usually hard and protects the softer parts of the seed.  There is a tiny hole in the seed coat called the micropyle.  When the seed is ready to germinate, water is absorbed into the seed through the micropyle.  Rapid growth of the seed’s embryo ruptures the seed coat, allowing the radicle to emerge in search of nutrients.  The radicle becomes the root of the plant.  The hypocotyl, the space between the radicle and the colyledons, extends and emerges from the soil.  The hypocotyl is exposed to sunlight, straightens out and develops into a stem.  The cotyledons, two thick, leaf-like thingies, become new green leaves.  The tiny plumule rises up between the cotyledons and develops into the plant’s true leaves.

Seedling growthClearly, seed germination is highly dependent on water.  So, to help retain necessary moisture, cover the egg carton lightly with a large transparent plastic container. Monitor your seedlings daily for growth and water needs.  They should be kept evenly moist, but not saturated.  You should begin to see sprouts in 10 to 14 days, depending on seeds selected.  When the seedlings emerge, they will need space for growth, and sunlight for photosynthesis.  In general, sunlight on a warm windowsill is best.  Keep them in inside until they have 3 to 4 true leaves.

Eggling bunchBy the time playground weather comes around, your eggshells will house a flock of able-bodied, rosy-cheeked seedlings.  Before moving them out of the hen house, take a few weeks to “harden them off”—gradually introduce them to their new growing conditions. Move the “egglings” to a shady spot for increasing amounts of time, several days in a row.  Bring them back inside or cover them if temperature looks like it will drop.  Progressively increase the amount of time and sunlight they receive outside until they appear ready to venture out on their own.  This gives the seedlings a chance to acclimate to sunlight, drying winds and climate changes.  On a cloudy day, plant them directly in the ground, crushing the bottom part of the eggshell so the roots can emerge.  Water the transplants well, but gently.

Why use eggshells?  Eggshells provide good moisture retention for germination, less transplantation shock, a good source of beneficial calcium (especially important for fast-growing tender annuals), and the obvious environmental and monetary advantages.

Cheap cheap.

 

Planning for Spring

March 2nd, 2011 § 2 comments § permalink

Kids planting seedsIt’s time.  For a few frosty months there, I had completely neglected a huge part of me.  My clever friend Minty Pea Todd reminded me of this.  You see, here in the Hudson Valley, the last spring frost will be around April 20th.   This means big planning must start today.  Like, right this minute.  Now, there are more than a few of you out there who either remain uninterested in small silent green beings, or consider your backyards to be barren, sterile and unplantable.  Still, others (don’t hide) consider yourselves unplantworthy.  This post is for you.

Let me start by saying that I am no Master Gardener.  I could go on and on with current examples to illustrate my point—neglected soil-filled moldy pots on our back porch; shrunken, wrinkled leaves of secondhand orchids on the sill; a yellowed kitchen cactus struggling to flower year after year after year.  That said, I am fortunate to have a small raised-bed plot in our community garden.  Each spring, my tiny but powerful gardening team and I meet to determine the garden’s direction.  Our selection of five-star veggies is based on the following quantitative and qualitative characteristics:  Speedy Growth, Seed Wow Factor, Easy Peasy, and The Big Yum.

Over the past 8 years, we have mostly settled on the following: looseleaf lettuce/baby greens, tomatoes, sugar snap peas, cucumbers, radishes, summer yellow squash and zucchini, potatoes, Swiss chard, green bush beans, stubby carrots, gourds, and annual herbs and flowers (basil, parsley, cosmos, alyssum, cornflowers, cosmos, zinnia, marigolds, and sunflowers).

WeedingNow, let’s be clear.  You don’t need a farm or community garden to grow fresh vegetables.  You don’t really even need a garden.  You do need good soil, a sunny spot, a water source and, most likely, a fence.  If deer are known to nibble your Hostas, the entire woodland critter community will crush your dreams of home-grown veggies.

You may consider simply planting your vegetables in a few containers.  Almost all of the above would thrive in pots placed in a sunny place—lettuce (I plant many in hanging pots), bush tomatoes (especially cherries like Tumblers or Tiny Tim), bush cucumbers (especially Salad and Sweet Success), radishes (even indoors at south-facing window), potatoes (in bins or spud grow bags), Swiss chard, stubby carrots (in deep pots with light, well-drained soil), and flowers and herbs.  Granted, a mini vegetable garden or a container-filled porch may not be enough for subsistence farming, but it may be enough to grow a season of heavenly tomatoes, salad greens and radishes.

Before grabbing your spade (Holy Moly!  I can’t wait!), meet with your trusty gardening team and do some research.  Consider a few easy plants like those listed above first.  Then, find out your final frost date.  You can get fancy and go to the National Climatic Data Center, or you can find a simple chart at The Old Farmer’s Almanac site.

Bean PickingOnce you and your team have determined your focus, set out to find some seeds.  You may have a neighborly neighbor who has an abundance of seeds to gift you.  If not, the Organic Seed Alliance has a handy list of seed suppliers.  I head to Turtle Tree, a small, non-profit seed company that sells 100% open-pollinated non-GMO vegetable, herb and flower seeds.


Harvesting BeansRemember, you don’t have to know everything there is to know about gardening right this very minute.  Just become familiar with the one or two plants that you plan to grow this year.  Once you’re comfortable with those, go find a few more seeds.  Just know what you grow.

Harvesting family-grown vegetables can be empowering stuff.  Planning, constructing and maintaining a family garden involves research, requires decision-making skills and demands teamwork.  Preparing soil for planting is hard work.  Nurturing and caring for plants and waiting for them to mature (Can I pick it now?  How about NOW?  NOW?) requires responsibility and patience.  At this very moment, you have the opportunity to play a unique and vital role in a little person’s environmental awareness, to make your family healthier while reducing your ecological footprint, and to potentially empower your child to make a difference.

Happy GardenerAnyway, little people live close to the ground.  They should be getting dirty.

 

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