Growing Veggie Eaters!

Susan Littlefield - Horticulturist

When my then eight year old son was at the pediatrician’s for a checkup, the doctor asked me about his diet, wondering if he regularly ate a variety of different foods. He’s a pretty picky eater, I replied. She then turned to my son and inquired what kinds of foods he liked to eat. I know she was expecting to hear things like pizza and French fries. Instead, he thought for a few moments and then replied, “Well, I really like Leek and Gruyere quiche.” The doctor turned to me in amazement and said, “He doesn’t sound very picky to me!”

Well, actually he was. He wasn’t eager to try new foods. (And he did like pizza and French fries, BTW.) But he wasn’t “vegetable-phobic.” One of the reasons my son didn’t turn up his nose at many kinds of vegetables is that they weren’t unfamiliar foods to him. QuicheOur meals always included lots of different kinds of vegetables and fruits. When soup was served, it was homemade winter squash bisque or broccoli cheese chowder rather than anemic noodles and over-salted broth from a can. A layer of chopped spinach added color to mac and cheese. Pancakes had chopped apples or blueberries mixed into the batter. A bowl of chopped fruit turned into a delectable dessert with a sprinkling of toasted coconut. My strategy was to offer a wide array of produce as a matter of routine without making a fuss about trying or finishing anything.  

But equally important, he’d grown many kinds of vegetables himself in our home garden. The leeks in his favorite quiche didn’t strike him as strange or weird because he’d helped to plant and harvest them. Tomatoes, beans, and zucchini he’d helped nurture were always enticing. Even eggplant, peppers, and chard were worth a taste when he grew them himself.

Now this didn’t mean my son was crazy about every kind vegetable I served, or that a new combination or presentation didn’t meet with some skepticism. He’s never warmed up to lettuce-based salads – the texture of the raw greens just doesn’t appeal to him. Today as a young adult he still isn’t a very adventurous eater, but he includes a healthy variety of fruits and veggies in his diet. Gardening played a vital – and enjoyable – part in building his sound nutritional foundation, one that will support his good health far into the future.

Need guidance Growing Veggie Eaters? Browse through these great resources:

Teaching with Terrariums!

Sarah Pounders – Education Specialist

My daughter has been studying the water cycle at school, so I decided it would be the perfect time to plant a couple of terrariums for our house. What is a terrarium? A terrarium is a container garden that is enclosed within glass or plastic, so that you create its own mini environment. Light and heat exposure result in evaporation and when the vapor hits the sides of the container, it condenses and heads back into the potting soil mix. If you have right moisture balance, your plants do not need watering and will need little care until they grow too large for the space and will either need to be pruned or replaced.

We started our project with a trip to a local garden store in search of small plants that would fit into our chosen containers (a plastic teddy bear that once held animal crackers and an old rice container). This actually turned out to be the biggest challenge in the process. Most of the indoor plants we found were either too large or vigorous vines. Finally we spotted two small indoor plants that would work, a pink nerve plant and a small peace lily. Even though they were small, both needed a little pruning to fit into theIMG_3047-WEB containers. (*A tip from past disasters, avoid plants that appear to have any type of fungal or bacterial problems. The humid environment of a terrarium will foster the growth of any existing disease problems and the terrarium will be short-lived.)

Once home, we gathered the rest of the supplies (the cleaned containers, pea gravel, and potting soil mix) and headed out to our back porch. If you are still knee deep in snow, you can also do this as an indoor gardening activity. On the messiness scale of 1 to 10, it is probably only about  a 4, but you may want to lay down some newspaper underneath your work surface to help catch stray potting soil.

IMG_3053-WEBThe first step was to fill the bottom of the container with pea gravel. Some folks will then put a layer of filtering charcoal on top of the gravel. I usually don’t have it on hand and don’t worry about it. As long as you maintain proper moisture levels, you don’t need it. Next, we carefully moistened the soil. The potting soil mix should feel like a wet sponge – if you can squeeze water out of it, then it is too wet. Then we scooped the soil into the container (we lost my son at this point, he was quite upset about getting his rocks dirty, sigh) and added the plants. Planting took a bit of maneuvering since the openings were pretty small, but that made it a good activity for small hands. After we planted, we used a paper towel to remove soil that ended up stuck along the sides. Finally we put the top on and placed in a sunny window.

The first few weeks, we will watch it to make sure the moisture levels are correct. If the sides of the container are drenched when in full sun, it means we have too much water, which can be solved by leaving the lid off for a while. My daughter has also informed me we need to find a little plastic frog to live in our terrarium… that might end up being a bigger challenge than finding the plants.

Need guidance and inspiration? Check out Building a Terrarium.

Want ideas to use terrariums as a teaching tool?
Download: The Water Cycle: Exploring Terrariums Lesson!

 

Organizing Your Seed Starting

Susan Littlefield - Horticulturist

February is still the depths of winter here in northern Vermont, even if the gradually lengthening days hint at milder weather to come.  When I need an antidote to the cold and snow, I turn to seeds! Raising plants indoors from seed for transplanting later to my outdoor vegetable and flower gardens keeps the promise of spring alive through the bleak days of late winter – and gives me lots of healthy seedlings to fill my garden beds. While it's too early to start most seeds indoors in my climate, I get a head start – and lift my winter weary spirits – by organizing my seed packets so I can easily keep track of which seeds to start when. I have seeds I’ve purchased from mail-order catalogs, and I’m likely to add more selections that catch my eye at local garden stores. Plus I usually have extra seeds leftover from the previous gardening seasons. So it can be a challenge to organize this bounty!

Keeping track of recommended seed starting times is key when it comes to successful growing.  Figuring out what to plant when, both for seeds started early indoors and those planted directly in the garden, starts with the average date of the last spring frost. Then you can arrive at the number of weeks before or after this date to sow seeds of each particular kind of plant.

Blog_02082015-7976I’ve found that an inexpensive accordion file is a great tool for keeping track of seed sowing dates. I mark the tabs of the file’s pockets with the number of weeks before or after the frost date, as well as the frost date itself; e.g. 8-10 weeks before; 6-8 weeks before; 1 week after. I also add the corresponding actual dates for my area. Then I slip my seed packets into each appropriately labeled pocket.

Blog_02082015-7980For example, the last frost date for my garden is May 18th.  I’ve labeled the tab of one pocket “6-8 weeks before, March 24-April 6.” Tomato seeds should be started 6-8 weeks before the last frost date, so my tomato seed packets go into this pocket. When those dates come around, I simply reach into the pocket for my tomato seeds. Eggplants and peppers are slower growing; they go into the pocket labeled “8-10 weeks before, March 9-23.” A little time spent setting up my file system now keeps my seed starting on track all spring long!

Check out these articles for help organizing and starting your seeds:

 

Valentine’s Gifts for the Birds!

Sarah Pounders – Education Specialist

Last weekend my kids had the chance to make Valentine’s gifts for the birds with their Grammy. Inspired by a recipe from Birds and Blooms that uses basic kitchen staples for ingredients, they crafted heart-shaped birdseed ornaments to hang out in our yard. Not only did they have fun and get their hands messy, it also gave me an opportunity to share with them why birds are important in our garden (since my husband asked why I was writing a gardening blog about feeding birds).

Birds are more than just a pretty addition to look at and listen to in the garden. Birds have jobs too. Consumption of insects is one of the benefits that first pops into my mind. Although they may not discriminate, eating both beneficial and harmful insects, I for one am thankful for any creature that helps make a dent in the mosquito population in my yard or eats the wood-boring insects out of my trees.

They also are important for seed dispersal and play a role in the survival of native plant species. They consume the fruits and then drop the seeds in their own little pile of fertilizer in new locations. I am always happy to see a new beautyberry shrub popping up in our landscape thanks to the hard work of one of our feathered friends. Some birds even help with pollination and therefore play a key role in making the new plants in addition to offering their transportation services.

IMG_3027After we hung our new bird feeders (making sure they were high enough to keep out of neighbor’s cat’s reach), we sat back to watch for birds. So far, we have not had a lot of visitors to our feeders – but since we still have not had a freeze in our neck of the woods this year, the insects are plentiful (unfortunately), and the yaupon holly berries and the sweet gum seeds are still around, so we have a lot of competition. Regardless, it was a fun indoor activity that led us outside and provided the opening for the kids to engage in and gain an appreciation for nature.

Here are links to articles on Kidsgardening.org with additional bird feeder ideas and information to guide your winter bird observation activities: