Monday, March 3, 2014

Age Appropriate Gardening Activities

Gardening with kids

    I want to thank my Facebook-friend Christine for inspiring this column. She posted a great list of Age-Appropriate Chores for Children, and the thing I
noticed was how few of them were gardening activities. Other than 'weed garden, rake leaves, mow lawns, trim hedges', there wasn't much to get kids outside
and active in the yard. And none of those sounded like much fun. So I thought I'd add to the list she found.
First, a couple of pet peeves of mine.
    One: if it's in the garden, please don't call it a chore.
    Two: those are all maintenance and cleanup tasks with little intrinsic reward. A clean, orderly yard is a grown-up goal (and rather over-rated, IMO). How
about 'plant some flowers for grandma' or 'put straw in the strawberry patch to keep the fruit away from the slugs'?
    The second spark for this topic was a picture I found. I've been sorting through some of my mom's snapshots, and, lo and behold, there I was at age 11,
standing on the garage roof with my 14-foot-tall sunflower plant, hoisting the 2-foot-diameter flowerhead, with a look of mild astonishment on my face.
That was probably the year my father got a real deal on a dumptruck load of manure, which prompted vigorous growth. But I did the planting and watering.
    My parents were seriously good gardeners. In retrospect, they were also very good at cultivating young gardeners. Spark an interest, let the youngster pursue it, and support it at appropriate levels.
    So here are some suggestions for the young would-be gardeners in your life. I have no background in childhood development. These are just based on my observations and experiences as a gardener and parent, and from interacting with kids at my shop and in garden projects over the years. Obviously, adult supervision is required for many of these things. You don't turn your 12-year-old loose with a string-line trimmer without safety and usage training. Or your 42-year-old, for that matter.
    Ages 2 - 4
    o Choose flower colors.
    o Collect and kill snails.
    o Harvest tomatoes.
    o Plant large seeds.
    o Water with a watering can.
    Plants of special interest: fast-growing seeds, big juicy fruits.
    The first garden 'chore' that I can remember was picking snails and putting them into milk cartons. My mother would dispatch them with salt. A few hours in
    the freezer will also do the trick, if you're squeamish. I got paid a penny for every two snails.
    Big seeds that are easy to handle and grow: nasturtiums, sunflowers; beans, peas (plant in fall), corn, squash.
Ages 5 - 8
    o Choose vegetable and herb plants.
    o Dead-head annual flowers.
    o Harvest beans and peas.
    o Harvest berries.
    o Hunt for caterpillars.
    o Make a flower arrangement.
    o Plant a color bowl.
    o Plant a terrarium or dish garden.
    o Plant flower bulbs.
    o Plant seeds in small pots.
    o Plant seedlings into the garden.
    o Pull annual weeds.
    o Rake leaves.
    o Remove spent rose blossoms.
    o Transplant young seedlings into larger pots.
    o Trim small shrubs.
    o Water with a hose and nozzle.
    Plants of special interest: annual flowers, vegetables and herbs, scented plants, flowers for butterflies and hummingbirds.
This is the golden age for gardening! Disillusionment from failure has not yet set in. When I was about six my mother let me select some flower seeds. I chose coleus for the gaudy colored leaves, and fibrous begonias. In hindsight, begonias were a pretty tricky choice: the seed is as fine as dust. But we got them started, grew them up, and planted them with care out in a side garden bed. And then I promptly lost interest in gardening.
Two or three years later, I came upon the little plants, still growing and blooming, lost among the weeds I was pulling. A couple of years is a lifetime at that age; it seemed like a tremendous thing to find. And it restored my interest in gardening.
At about 8, my daughter wanted to grow roses to sell bouquets. She chose the varieties, we planted them together. The interest passed, but the roses are still there as lovely reminders.
Fall and winter planting of flowerbulbs can be a simple project with younger gardeners. In California we are fortunate to be able to plant warm-climate narcissus that sprout and bloom right away, even indoors, so kids see quick results. After the bloom, just plant them out in the garden where they'll spread freely and bloom year after year.
    Easy annual flowers: alyssum, borage, cosmos, forget-me-nots, four-o-clocks, hollyhocks, nasturtiums, and zinnias.
  Ages 9 and up
    o Choose fruit trees and landscape plants
    o Choose plants for a theme garden.
    o Cut back herbaceous perennials.
    o Dig out perennial weeds.
    o Divide perennials.
    o Harvest melons.
    o Hoe weeds.
    o Make a bonsai.
    o Manage aphids.
    o Mow lawns.
    o Plant a tree.
    o Put in a drip watering system.
    o Repot an orchid or houseplant.
    o Start a compost pile.
    o Trim a shrub.
    o Turn soil and add compost.
    Plants of special interest: bonsai, cactus and succulents, carnivorous plants. Fruit trees, giant vegetables, herbs and scented plants.
Pre-adolescent gardeners can learn about quality and care of gardening tools. They can understand the lifecycles of important pests and beneficial wildlife
in the garden. And they are generally better able to synthesize and implement complex gardening projects than we give them credit for.
 Ages 12 and up
    o Choose trees.
    o Create a topiary.
    o Design and plant a small vegetable and herb garden.
    o Plant for beneficial insects and wildlife.
    o Prune fruit trees.
    o Prune roses.
    o Use a stringline trimmer.
    Plants of special interest: native plants, orchids, organic and sustainable gardens, special pollination adaptations, subtropical and tropical plants, unusual fruits.
    When I was about 13, my father and I built a simple windowbox. Cast-off orchids from my grandfather, dish gardens from the lady next door, and all manner of interesting tropical plants filled it quickly. It was a simple project, appropriate to my level at the time.

    Ages 15 and up
    o Build a raised planter.
    o Control pests.
    o Install, repair water systems.
    o Maintain a lawn mower.
    o Rototill a garden and amend soil with compost and fertilizer.
    o Stake a tree.
    Plants and practices of special interest: hydroponics, medicinal herbs, plants used in food and beverage production (olives, hops, grapes, tea), symbolic plants, unique growth habits, weird plants from strange places.
 At 15, my parents ceded a whole portion of our yard to me to do with as I liked. A special gardening allowance - not much, but enough to merit a monthly visit to a garden center - was established. My father and I built a simple greenhouse (mom wouldn't let me use hers), which filled up quickly. At 16, my son developed an interest in Norse traditions, so we planted a special group of trees with that theme: birches and yews. Seven years later, it's a lovely stand that has special meaning to him.

    Please, never refer to gardening as a matter of luck -- good, bad, or otherwise. All plants need four things to live: light, air, water, and nutrients. Some need protection from pests or weather. Learning to garden is simply learning how individual plants vary with regard to these basic needs, and providing them. It's really that simple.
    o Cactus like dry soil, ferns like moist soil.
    o Carnivorous plants can't tolerate water that contains salts.
    o Azaleas need a low soil pH, so they don't grow well in Davis.
    o Tropical plants will die outside in the winter if they aren't protected.
    o Snails will eat your hostas before they'll eat your lobelia.
    And so on. Good gardeners have accumulated a lot of information from their experiences. You can acquire that knowledge from books, mobile phone apps, the folks at the garden center, that lady down the block with the incredible yard, or your parents. Or trial and error (empirical research, we call that).

Buy a bag of manure, plant some sunflower seeds together, and see where it leads!

A blurry snapshot from 1968, saved by my mother. Standing on our garage roof next to my fourteen foot tall sunflower plant. The flower head measured more than two feet! 

Flower seeds that are easy to grow make gardening successful and fun for younger gardeners at very low cost. Borage is an herb plant with a pleasant cucumber smell. It's grown as much for the flowers as it is for the leaves; the pretty blue blossoms continue nearly year-around and draw honeybees. The plant reseeds happily throughout your garden beds.

Direct-seeded or transplanted into warm soil, cosmos is one of the easiest summer flowers to grow. Very suitable for young gardeners. Ferny foliage, bright flowers; the blooms start in mid-summer and continue until frost. Just wait until about May to start planting cosmos.

Save this project for next fall or winter. Members of the tazetta group of narcissus are easy to grow. Unlike other bulbs, they sprout right away when planted, even indoors in a sunny window. The powerfully fragrant flowers show up 8 to 10 weeks later. When they're done flowering, you can just plant them in any sunny place in your yard. They'll multiply freely. Shown here is the variety that is called Chinese Sacred Lily. 

Starting plants from seeds can be done with young gardeners with some supervision. Use larger seeds with the youngest kids. One note of caution: some of the soil amendments used for seed-starting can cause skin irritation. It's important to train gardeners of all ages to wear gloves when handling soils.

As gardeners grow in age and sophistication, they can plan and plant gardens toward specific purposes. Two popular themes are attracting butterflies and hummingbirds, and there are lots of very easy-to-grow plants for each. Shown here is a swallowtail butterfly alighting on a Butterfly bush (buddleia). New dwarf buddleias (including varieties that don't reseed) make this a simple choice for smaller yards, or even containers. 

Lots of kids get interested in carnivorous plants, but they do have special needs. They need pure water, you never fertilize them, and they require special soils. And you need to understand their lifecycles, including winter dormancy. There are easier carnivorous plants than the well-known venus flytrap. But, as with bonsai and orchids, a little homework and consultation with experts can lead to success.

That interesting school project your child pursues can lead to beautiful landscape changes. The birches and yews we planted several years ago in response to my son's studies of Norse traditions have now grown to create a lovely little sanctuary on one corner of the property. Beautiful fall color! You never know where your child's gardening interests may lead.  

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Putting Food By

Written for the Davis Enterprise  October 10 2013

Sorting through my mother's files recently, I came across a remarkable one in her household folders.

Starting in 1981, my mother recorded all the garden produce they had put up for the freezer. They had been gardening actively at this house since building it in 1953. I think the list began as a way of keeping inventory of what was in the large freezer, but my mother is a methodical and consistent archivist. So began an annual listing of what she and my father cut up, blanched, roasted, packed in syrup, and otherwise prepared for future meals.

We didn't live on a farm! This is a normal suburban yard in coastal Southern California. It wasn't so much the total volume that impressed me, it was the fact that they processed and froze something nearly every week, sometimes a couple of times a week, every year, from March through November. A couple of pints here, a few quarts there. And as my mother often proudly said, she ate "something from the garden every day of the year." For nearly sixty years.

It is a diverse list. The mild climate there doesn't happen to favor the traditional fruits, but it does provide exotic things like feijoa, nopales
, and loquats. In her tidy handwriting I also see olives and pickles, applesauce, and loads and loads of tomatoes, roasted Anaheim chili peppers for rellenos, beans, and squash.

I remember Brussels sprouts and chayote, prickly-pear fruit syrup, ridiculous quantities of zucchini, tomato vines that grew up onto the roof, and the year I grew a fourteen-foot tall sunflower plant. There were vigorous Olallie berries strategically placed for passers-by to help themselves. I remember my dad spending six Saturdays in a row trying to make the perfect berry pie. We kept telling him the recipe wasn't 'quite' right yet, so he'd try again the next weekend. Eventually he caught on to us, or ran out of berries. She grew horseradish (lesson: process it out on the patio, it's pungent!), and made the mistake of planting mint in the garden. In later years my father developed a passion for pepper plants and enjoyed growing as many types as he could.

They didn't process food because they had to. They did it because they liked growing their own food, and because it is what they, or at least my mother, had known growing up. A child of the later depression years, she came of age during World War II, and folks just did that sort of thing if they could. She told me of her childhood years in the Black Hills of South Dakota, finding chokecherries for jam and growing Victory Gardens. Mostly corn and cucumbers at that elevation and latitude.

Thinking back on it, very few of our neighbors had vegetable gardens. Fruit trees, sure. Maybe a couple of tomato plants. But few were as avid at growing food as my parents. And there has never been a time in my life, then or now, when I didn't have a vegetable garden at the place I lived, except for my brief stint in the dorms as a student. I've made my share of mistakes, mostly having to do with planting too much of a particular thing. But processing a big pot of tomatoes every few days is just part of the background in late summer and fall. So I guess I got that gene.

We are seeing a return to home growing of vegetables and fruits, not just as a trend but as a way of life. People want healthy, fresh food, and the best way to get that is to grow your own. And we're seeing a return to food preservation, which follows naturally from that. Our dry, sunny October weather leads to an abundance of early fall produce, and I talk to people who are a little overwhelmed by it all. So here are a couple of suggestions based on my experiences.

Keep it simple.

My favorite thing to do with a major harvest of tomatoes is just boil them to soften, puree them, strain them, simmer more to thicken by about half, and then freeze it. Process it now, season it later. What you want in December is fresh tomato flavor, and you can decide then if you're making pasta sauce or enchiladas. One exception: I do take the remainder of the basil in the garden and blend it into some tomato sauce before simmering it down. Basil also freezes whole. Just spread the leaves out on cookie sheets until frozen and then pack into freezer bags. The fresh flavor is there months later, but keep in mind the leaves will turn black.


I like to keep the yellow tomatoes separate and make a special puree just from them. Yellow tomatoes tend to be sweeter but milder in flavor. Their puree makes a great base for salsas because their tomato flavor doesn't overwhelm the peppers: you can just chop in some mild and/or hot peppers and onion, and salt to taste. One batch of the yellow tomatoes gets blended with equal parts tomatillos for salsa verde. Your family, particularly if they were raised on commercial condiments, may want more salt, more vinegar, and even some sugar in the final product (you can wean them off that later, or use a little fruit instead).

If you have the freezer space, small tomatoes such as Roma or Juliet can be frozen whole. Just spread them out on cookie sheets, freeze until solid, and then seal them in freezer bags. When you run the frozen tomato under tap water, the skin will peel right off.

I process (carefully! wear gloves) hot peppers much as I do tomatoes. In fact, I often combine some tomato puree with the peppers, boiling and blending into a puree. I often add some vinegar and salt and maybe a little fruit for sweetener, and then freeze the result. Note from mom: label these carefully! You don't want to put hot pepper sauce into your spaghetti by accident, and they look alike in the freezer.

Smaller and thinner-skinned hot peppers just get dried. I cut the plant at ground level when frost or rain threatens, then hang it upside down in the garage. You can do this indoors, but it smells funky for the first few days. Within a few weeks the peppers are dry enough to store. This is the simplest way to keep Thai, pequin, and cayenne peppers through the winter.

You certainly can process all of those tomatoes and sauces in canning jars and seal them that way. That's fun to do and saves on freezer space. My parents did that, and I have done it many times. An extra deep pressure cooker gives nearly 100% success at sealing jars. But my experience is that canning is something of a production, and I just find it's harder to get around to it. I think their approach of a little bit processed every few days is much less daunting to the average gardener with a busy schedule. Chop, simmer, strain, and freeze you can do in an evening while working on other things.

Mom's last entry was last October. Age and illness kept her from planting a vegetable garden this year for the first time in six decades. Good news, mom: you passed it on to at least one of your kids, and I have quite a record of accomplishment to live up to. Thank you.

An afternoon's harvest in early October. Our warm, dry weather before the rainy season extends our harvest of summer vegetables.
Thai pepper plant ready for harvest. Cut it off at ground level, hang it upside down in the garage. Foliage will wither away and pepper pods will dry out, ready for storage in a few weeks. They keep for months.
Cayenne peppers a few weeks after drying. You can store them in jars or just leave them in a basket on the counter. Caution: very hot!
Pineapple tomato is an heirloom variety with golden flesh suffused streaks of red. It makes a beautiful orange-gold puree with sweet flavor, great as a base for salsa.
Try something new? There are a lot of different colored tomato varieties on the market now; some hybrids, some open-pollinated. Your puree will be the color of the variety, so consider separating and processing the different varieties. Some are sweeter, some have stronger flavors.
Pork Chop is a new open-pollinated tomato that is light yellow. The flavor is sweet, and the production is phenomenal. I got more than 60 fruit, average 12 - 14 oz., from a single plant.

Red Boar is actually orange-pink with red stripes. It produced very well, has great tomato flavor, and made a bright orange-red sauce.
Wine Jug is a dark, almost purple-red tomato, very meaty with few seeds. This new open-pollinated variety looks like an interesting addition to a mixed tomato planting for colorful fruit, and it makes a very thick rich puree.

I've learned to cut back my basil plants in August when they flower to force new growth. That gives a flush of leaves that you can harvest in late September and October. Basil can be dried, frozen whole, or made into pesto and frozen.
It's a simple process when you're using the freezer. Cut the fruit and remove any bad parts. Simmer until soft, mash and blend. Simmer again for awhile. Strain to remove seeds and skin, simmer the remainder down to thicken it. Then freeze for use in winter and spring.