Category Archives: Fun with Nature

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Projects: Native Beauty Creating a Wildflower Planting

Category : Fun with Nature

(Printable Native Beauty Creating a Wildflower Planting)

You’ve got to hand it to those hardy survivors that manage to thrive in sidewalk cracks, along roadsides, and in wind-blown meadows. They’ve managed to adapt to conditions that our garden plants wouldn’t even consider! And there’s so much they can teach us.

Consider enticing your school gardeners to establish a wildflower planting, which could range from a small patch outside school to an entire meadow or prairie restoration project. They might just create a vibrant, visual oasis, and a laboratory for learning, to boot.

Keen observers can witness firsthand the adaptations — for seed germination, pollination, and so on — that enable wild plants to survive in their environments. They can discover the insects, birds, and a host of other wildlife that depend on these natural communities for food and cover. And they can examine the complex web of relationships that sustain life. Questions that inspire investigations, research, and reflection will naturally emerge: How does life in our school garden compare with life in the wild? Which types of pollinators are drawn to which flowers? What allures them? How do wild plants protect the soil? Why is one person’s wildflower another person’s weed? Read on for how-to advice, curriculum ideas, and resource links.

Materials

  • rakes
  • wildflower seeds and/or plants (appropriate to your region and location)
  • sand
  • sprinkler
  • optional: rototiller, garden fork, black plastic, seed spreader, wildflower books (see resources)

Creating a Wildflower Planting

1. Assess your site. Have your student gardeners take an inventory of their proposed wildflower area. What plants are already there? Are there any native plants or wildflowers we’d like to leave? The class might also visit nearby lots, roadsides, and meadows and try to identify wild plants that occur locally. Observe the amount of sunlight that drenches your site at different times of day. An open area with a minimum of six hours of sun daily is ideal for most flowering wild plants. What is the character of the soil? (Well-drained? Dark and rich? Compact?) A well-drained soil is ideal. Since many wild plants are adapted to poor soils, you shouldn’t need to enrich yours unless it’s very dense (in which case you can add organic matter). Consider contacting a local Cooperative Extension office, soil conservation service, nursery, or garden center for help assessing your site.

2. Select seeds/plants. A wildflower planting usually features annuals (plants that flower and complete their life cycles in one year, often reseeding themselves), biennials (plants that bloom during the second and final year of their life cycle), and perennials (plants that bloom for several years). Although the latter types take longer to establish, they are also longer lasting. Natural wildflower meadows (and many mixes) typically include some native grasses, which support and protect tall flowers, fill in spaces that weeds might otherwise fill, and prevent erosion.

You can purchase a ready-made wildflower mix (a meadow in a can!) designed for general regions, but these mixes may contain seed of plants not well suited to your area. To enrich students’ learning, consider having them create their own seed and/or plant mix by first discovering which plants would grow best in your area. They might contact one of the organizations mentioned above, or visit the websites listed on the Resources page. Many seed companies will also advise you on selecting appropriate plants.

If you decide to plant a variety of single species that are native or at least suited to your region, have students identify and consider heights, colors, and bloom periods, and whether each plant is a perennial, self-seeding annual, or biennial. This should help them plan a plot that blooms through the season. They can also use it to create a map, to scale, of their vision.

If you have the ability to grow plants indoors under lights, think about raising some wildflower seedlings to transplant into the garden. (See list, below, for tips on some easy-to-grow plants.) To get your wildflower garden off to a quick start, and avoid having to grapple with too many weeds, you can also purchase native wildflower plants that have been grown locally. (After a couple of years, the plants will spread and disperse seeds.)

3. Prepare the site. Here are some cardinal rules for preparing a site for wildflowers:

  • Get rid of as many weeds as possible
  • Create a bed that allows the seeds to have good contact with the soil
  • Keep the soil moist while seeds are germinating and seedlings are young.

There are a number of ways to attack existing or slumbering weeds. You can start by using garden forks to lift out as many underground rhizomes and other weed parts as possible. By rototilling the soil lightly, you can create a nice bed without bringing too many weeds to the surface. If you then water the soil a week or two before you plant, you’ll be able to remove the weeds that do sprout. To prepare for planting, lightly rake and firm the soil. If you have a chance to prepare the site well in advance of sowing seeds, consider the following approaches. If you are planting where vegetation (e.g., grass and weeds) already exist, cover the area with cardboard and a thick leaf or straw layer, keeping it on until you’re about ready to plant. If you have sunny summers, consider mowing, tilling, and watering the soil, and then covering it with sheets of 2- or 4-mil clear or black plastic and sealing the edges. The intense heat can kill weeds and seeds in 2 to 6 weeks.

4. Plant. If your wildflower mix has abundant annual flowers, or if it makes sense given your school calendar, sow your wildflower seeds in the spring. This would also be the time to transplant any wildflowers you’ve started in the classroom or purchased. If your wildflower mix has a lot of native grasses and perennial flowers, consider planting in the late summer or early fall. Seeds of perennials, which often need a chilling period, will sprout when spring warmth and rains come. Fall planting also eliminates many of the sprouting weeds that can plague spring plantings.

Students can broadcast seeds by hand, although a spreader is handy for seeding large areas. To ensure that young hands spread the seeds relatively evenly, mix one part wildflower seeds with four parts of dry sand or vermiculite. Water seeds thoroughly if rain is not iminent. After seeding, rake the top inch of soil lightly so seeds are not buried too deeply.

5. Maintain your wild oasis. In the early stages, it’s particularly important to keep the soil moist and weed out undesirable intruders, which will rob your plants of nutrients and water. Unfortunately, it can be tough to tell unwanted from chosen plants. (Some school growers put in actual plants, rather than sowing seeds, for this reason.) Your keen observers, in time, should become familiar with the young wildflowers they’ve sown. The Resources page features websites and books that can help students identify plants.

If you have enough annuals, your patch or meadow should be vibrant the first year. Encourage your students not to be discouraged, however, if growth is slow. Many perennial wildflowers spend the first season growing roots and have very little top growth, and then bloom in the second year or beyond. You can always add extra annual and perennial plants to fill in gaps. Since your wildflower patch will evolve over time, students may want to document the process with illustrations or by taking photos or videos at regular intervals.

In the fall, ideally after a first frost, mow or otherwise cut back plant tops and leave their debris on the ground. The seeds they release may germinate come spring warmth and rains.

Wildflowers to Try Growing Indoors

Here are a few wildflowers that are relatively easy to start from seed indoors and transplant outdoors in the spring. Most should germinate in 2 or 3 weeks in a warm classroom. Although native to particular areas of the country, these plants can be grown successfully in most regions. (p=perennial; a=annual)

Tickseed (Coreopsis lanceolata) – perennial
Sow seeds on surface. (They need light.)

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) – perennial
Sow seeds 1/4″ to 1/2″ deep. Chill them in a refrigerator in moist peat moss for 3 to 4 weeks.

Indian blanket (Gaillardia pulchella) – annual
Sow seeds 1/8″ to 1/4″ deep.

Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) – perennial
Sow seeds on surface. (They need light.) Chill in a refrigerator in moist peat moss for 3 to 4 weeks.

Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) – perennial
Sow seeds 1/4″ deep. Put dry seeds in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for 4 weeks before sowing.


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Projects: Creating Herb Gardens

Category : Fun with Nature

(Printable Creating Herb Gardens)

 Inspiring Aromatic Adventures

Herbs arouse kids’ curiosity and interest because they thoroughly engage the senses. What better motivator for student investigations than plants that feel cool, smell great, and can turn mere tomatoes into pizza sauce? Their life stories, it turns out, are fascinating too. After all, these humble plants were early humans’ first medicines, food preservatives, and cosmetics. And that’s just the beginning.

The word “herb” conjures up visions of soothing teas or the green flecks in spaghetti sauce, but just what is an herb? Some people define it as any plant or plant part used as an ingredient for flavor, fragrance, or healing. Spices, it seems, could fit the same bill. Here’s the difference: Herbs are usually defined as plants of temperate climates whose leaves are harvested for use. Spices, on the other hand, tend to be of tropical origin; we use their roots (ginger), fruits (vanilla pods), flowers (cloves), seeds (pepper), or bark (cinnamon). They both differ from other plants in that they contain some active ingredient that is useful to us. But the real role of these adaptations is to help a plant survive in its environment — that is, to defend against being eaten!

These aromatic plants can be a fascinating focus for a growing classroom. They’re easy to raise and have a multitude of uses. Many also offer sustenance to pollinators. Consider using an herb garden to stimulate senses and investigations, bring literature to life, or inspire craft projects. It can also become a lens for studying people/plant connections in different historical eras or regions.

Materials

If you don’t have an herb plot in your schoolyard, consider raising them in outdoor containers or windowboxes, or even in the classroom under lights or on windowsills. Select from the following materials accordingly.

  • gardening tools (forks, shovels, rakes)
  • herb seeds, plants, or plant parts (see Herb Growing Chart, below)
  • large containers with drainage holes
  • seed-starting containers, soilless planting mix
  • fluorescent lights

Plan the Vision

Wherever you’re raising herbs — outdoors in the garden or containers, or in the classroom — you and your students should consider what role you want them to play. Do you imagine mingling the fragrant plants with vegetables and flowers or creating separate bed or container just for herbs? Do you envision planting a medley of herbs to stimulate visitors’ senses? Are you drawn to having a special theme for your herb planting? Here are a few thematic ideas to spark your thinking:

Herbal vinegars (or salad dressing) – Good plants for these products include tarragon, chives, basil, dill, rosemary, thyme, and lemon balm.

Colonial herbs – Students can have fun learning how herbs were used in “olden” times. For instance, rosemary was believed to calm naughty children and sage was used to color gray hair! Thyme, oregano, parsley, and savory might also be found in the Colonial garden.

Spaghetti herbs – Consider raising culinary herbs necessary for this children’s favorite: basil, oregano, parsley, garlic. (Fennel imparts a great flavor, too!)

Herbal teas – Students may want to dry, bag, and sell their own herb teas, or simply enjoy drinking them. Chamomile, lemon balm, peppermint, and spearmint are good (and safe) candidates.

Peter Rabbit herb garden – Inspired by this favorite story, your students might grow some of the herbs it mentions: mint, rosemary, sage, hyssop, camomile, tansy, lavender, lemon balm.

Fragrant herbs – Consider these particularly aromatic candidates: basils, rosemary, mints, lavender, thymes, lemon verbena, oregano, chamomile, savory.

Container herbs – If you plan to raise herbs in containers, you might try these easy-to-grow plants: thymes, mints, parsley, basils, sage, marjoram, oregano.

Prepare the soil

Most herb plants require similar growing conditions: a minimum of six hours of sunlight per day and moderately rich soil with good drainage. To improve the soil structure and drainage, your students should use garden forks or shovels to loosen the soil to a depth of 8 to 12 inches before planting. If you are planting in an area with nutrient-poor, dry, heavy, or poorly-drained soil, add some organic matter, such as compost, before planting. Rake the soil to form a fine, even bed, which is particularly important if you’re growing herbs from seed.

Plant seeds, plants, or parts

Herbs may be annuals, started from seed each year, as is basil; biennials, requiring two seasons of growth, as does parsley; or perennials, which grow back year after year, like thyme. Generally, you should plant annual and biennial herbs from seed directly in the garden or in containers indoors (to transplant), or buy seedlings. (Your students can save seed produced by their herb plants for next year’s crop.) You’ll want to buy or get donations of perennial herb plants or propagate them from cuttings or divisions. The Herb Growing Chart, below, highlights the best ways to start different herbs.

Starting from seed
– If you want to get a jump on the season, you can start herb seeds indoors under lights or on sunny windowsills and later transplant them to the garden. Use the same types of containers and soilless potting mix that you would use for other indoor seedlings. To encourage healthy seedlings, keep soil mix uniformly moist until seeds germinate, keep lights 3 to 6 inches above the plants, and water seedlings thoroughly when the mix is dry to the touch. Herb seeds tend to be small, so whether you’re starting them indoors or in the garden, you’ll plant them fairly shallowly (see seed packets for planting depths).

Before you move seedlings outdoors, “harden” them off to get them accustomed to harsher outdoor conditions. Do this by setting them outside for progressively longer periods each day, starting with a few hours and increasing to a full day over the course of a week or so.

Starting from plants or plant parts – You can purchase many herbs from nurseries as young plants, or dig up shoots or sections of mature perennial plants in the spring. Some herbs can also be started from stem cuttings. To do this, snip healthy stems 3 to 6 inches from the growing tip. Remove leaves from the lower half of the cutting, and plant the cutting in a soilless mix indoors or in moist sand in a shady outdoor area. Water it gently and cover the container with a plastic bag until new top growth appears. Keep cuttings out of direct sun so they don’t overheat in their plastic-bag “greenhouse.”

How you lay out your planting will depend on the plants you choose and on your theme. Herbs, like most plants, stay healthier if there’s good air circulation, so space them to allow for the mature size of each plant. (Catalogs, seed packets, and nursery containers give spacing requirements.)

Harvest!

You can harvest most herbs continually as soon as the plant has enough foliage to sustain growth. Harvest herbs grown for seeds, such as dill, caraway, and coriander, as the fruits change color from green to brown or gray but before they scatter to the ground. If students want to dry herbs to use or sell as cooking ingredients, they should spread them in a single layer on trays or screens, or hang them in bundles using rubber bands to hold the stems together. Place the herbs in a dark, well-ventilated place until they are completely dry. Store them in the dark in airtight containers.

Indoor Herb Growing Chart

Herb Days to germination How to start it
basil 5 – 10 seeds/plants
catnip 4 seeds/plants
caraway 14+ seeds
chives 7 seeds/divide plants
chamomile 7 seeds/plants
coriander 9 seeds
cress 7 seeds
dill 5 seeds
fennel 6 seeds
garlic plant cloves
lavender plants
lemon balm 7 seeds/cuttings/plants
mints plants/cuttings/runners
nasturtium 5 seeds
oregano 30+ cuttings/plants/seeds
parsley 20+ seeds (presoak)/plants
rosemary 20+ seeds/cuttings/plants
sage 28+ seeds/plants
summer savory 5 seeds/plants
tarragon plants
thyme 20+ plants/divide plants/seeds

 



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