Gardening with Young Children

cilldaffMany schools now have food gardens and gardening clubs that encourage students to learn about growing plants.

However, children can learn about gardening before they head out the door to kindergarten. If you are keen to start gardening at home, in a daycare, or in your community with very young children (as young as one-year old if you’re eager!) here are some tips for getting started.

Start with your end goal in mind

What are you aiming for in getting children into the garden? This will help inform the design of the garden and the choice of plants to grow. If you just want to spend time outside pottering in the fresh air, then you can choose something as simple as planting annual plants with bright colours that young children will be excited by. Even the smallest hand can make a whole in potting soil that a small annual can be popped into. The smallest, shadiest spot with one pot can become a great source of fun if you just want to keep small children busy (just have a brush nearby to sweep up all the soil that makes its way out of the pot!)

If your goal is to use the garden to introduce basic science or ecology, plan to incorporate plants that encourage pollinating insects into the garden, or install a compost bin or worm composting bin. Pollination, insect lifecycles, composting and worms are topics that can be enjoyed and understood at the most basic level by very small children.

If your main aim is to encourage fussy eaters to try more fruit or vegetables, choose easy crops that children find fun and enjoy eating straight from the garden.

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The parents in this family wanted to encourage their young children to eat a wider range of food. Learning about nature was also important, so food crops were interplanted with perennial plants that encouraged pollinating insects into the garden.

Set yourself up for success

To get young children engaged in the garden, you want to make sure that they can see progress and interact with whatever crops you decide to grow. To get the very best out of the experience, a bit of planning in the garden layout and design will make a big difference to the end results. Here’s some basics to consider before you get started.

  • Find the best spot for the plants you want to grow: if you want to plant food crops, most fruits and vegetables require at least 6 hour of sun each day. If all that is available is a shady spot, consider growing herbs or leaf crops (e.g. spinach) that don’t require lots of sun.
  • Consider using raised beds: raised beds are a good options in children’s gardens for several reasons. Firstly, you can add a really good quality soil instead of having to work with the existing soil at ground level. This is particularly important if you are growing vegetable crops, where the right balance of organic matter, nutrients and soil acidity really makes a difference to the quality and yield of the crops. Secondly, you can build the beds to be at the right height for the children using the garden. Think about whether children will be standing or on their knees (and if on their knees, choose a surface that will be soft enough to kneel on) and how far a small child can lean in. A comfortable dimension for adults using a raised bed is 3′ x 3′. Smaller beds may be required for children, or adult assistance will be required to reach the middle of the bed.
  • Use good quality soil: for fruit and vegetable drops, you will see the best results when you use a soil that drains well and contains ample organic matter to feed the crops. If using raised beds, consider filing them with a ‘veggie mix’ soil that has been blended specifically for growing food, and contains the right amount of organic matter and best acidity for food crops. If you are using existing ground level beds, add compost to the beds in the early spring before planting. If you want to grow organic vegetables, you can buy an organic veggie mix or compost. For crops grown in pots (especially herbs) its very important to have enough drainage, so that roots do not become too wet. Again, you can a potting mix specifically for food crops. Make sure the bottom of the pot has plenty of drainage by adding a layer of stones at the base.
  • Choose crops that are easy to grow and that children will enjoy: the good news is that the crops that are the easiest to grow can be the ones that children like best. It’s great to have a mixture of crops that can be eaten right off the vine and some that you can involve your children in cooking. Also aim to plant crops that give you the longest growing season possible, from early spring snap peas, to fall pumpkin and winter swiss chard.

Make it inviting to children

Make the space look fun and inviting, and young children will be more likely to want to spend time there.

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This garden bed was long and narrow. Use was made of the vertical space by growing easy crops up simple bamboo tripods (snap peas and beans).

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This simple vertical garden was made using a recycled pallet. It was filled with beautiful smelling herbs that could easily be smelled and picked by small hands, including chocolate mint, strawberry mint and pineapple sage.

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Pots were painted in bright colors. Stepping stones were painted with chalkboard paint so they could be decorated by the small gardeners in the family.

If you are interested in having us design and install a children’s garden at your home, school or daycare, please contact us. We would love to work with you, no matter what size your space or budget!

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Cleaning Up The Garden After Winter Damage

Our gardens have had a rough time this winter in Vancouver. Lower than normal temperatures and a succession of snow storms has given lots of plants a real battering. But before you rush to dig out plants and throw them in the compost bin, here’s a few tips on how to revive winter damaged plants.

  1. Do the scratch test

First of all, you need to know if your plant is dead or alive. The easiest way to do this is to scratch the bark with your thumbnail. If the stem is still green under the bark, the plant is still alive. If it is brown, it is most likely dead. You can also dig into the main trunk at the base of the trunk or roots of the plant. If the roots or main trunk are soft or rotting, the plant is most likely to be dead.

2. Be patient

If you are still not sure after doing to scratch test above, be patient and give the plant some time. Plants often look very rough (with scorched, browned or drooping leaves directly after harsh weather) but they will bounce back given the chance. Often the plant has dormant leave buds that will open when the temperature warms up and the hours of sunlight increase. So even if a plant has dropped a lot of leaves or just looks rough, give it a chance to bounce back before digging it out.

3. Prune out damaged branches

Once the winter weather has passed, get out and prune the damaged plant. Broken branches should be pruned back to just above an undamaged live bud (you will know a bud is alive by cutting into a branch/stem until the wood is green and not brown, just like the scratch test above). The best time to do this pruning is when the new growth starts to appear in spring (and when the last of the harsh weather has passed). Depending on the amount of damage, you may need to give the plant a really hard prune, removing one-third or even half of the damaged plant. The plant should always be pruned to below the point damaged or a large split on a branch.

Brown leaves may be caused by sun or wind damage. These leaves can be removed by hand or with pruners in mid spring (don’t remove them earlier as these older leaves may be protecting the new growth underneath; provide them with some protection until the temperatures have increased in spring).

Here’s a good video of a gardener pruning Boxwood after winter damage. 

4. Tie up trees/shrubs

Snow and ice can weigh down the branches of trees and shrubs , causing the plant to splay open. It is important to get out and tie or stake these branches before the plant comes out of dormancy. Once the sap starts flowing, you may cause more damage. As soon as the snow or ice has passed, get out and give the plant additional support with ties or stakes.

Here’s a short video of a cedar that is going to be tied after winter damage.

4. Replant exposed roots

Sometimes the weight of snow and ice on branches can cause a plant to topple over and leave some of its roots hanging out of the soil. If one third of the roots are still in the ground, replant the plant as soon as ground has thawed. Depending on the size of the plant, you may need to use three stakes to provide support. Remember that the roots are what anchors or hold a plant in the ground. If the roots on one or both sides of the plant are damaged, you will need to compensate by providing additional support on the side where the roots have been damaged. If less than a third of the roots on a large shrub or tree are still in the ground, it will need significant staking or it may be safer to remove it. If not sure of a tree’s safety, consult an arborist.

Sometimes small, shallow-rooted plants (typically small shrubs or perennials) can be pushed out of the ground by extended periods of frost. If this happens, dig a new hole and replant as soon as possible.

5. Give plants a helping hand

If a plant has had a rough time of it during the winter, give it the best chance to recuperate by applying a general purpose fertilizer when the ground has thawed. This will encourage strong regrowth on the plant.

 

Want to learn more?

Listen to Brian Minter talking about fixing winter damage to plants, on BC Almanac in February 2017.

Read some useful information on dealing with frost damage, from the Royal Horticultural Society

Watch this video of a gardener giving a frost damaged shrub a hard prune in spring. 

 

Want some help in your garden after the winter damage? Contact us at Growing in the Garden.

 

 

 

 

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Gardening with the Climate in Mind

In November of last year the 2015 Climate Change Conference resulted in an agreement by the 195 member countries to reduce their carbon output “as soon as possible” and to do their best to keep global warming “to well below 2 degrees C”. Read more here.

All the talk of the Climate Change Conference in the media has motivated me to tackle the issue in this blog. What role do gardeners play in climate change?

It’s all about the Carbon

Well OK, its not technically just about carbon, but this is a gardening blog not a science blog, so in the interest of keeping it simple, I’ll focus on how gardeners can help reduce the amount of Carbon Dioxide (one of the three most lethal greenhouse gases) emitted into the atmosphere and how gardeners can help reduce the amount of Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere by absorbing carbon.

Carbon Sinks and Carbon Sources

A garden can be either a carbon source or a carbon sink. A carbon source is one that emits more carbon dioxide than it absorbs. Conversely, a carbon sink absorbs more carbon dioxide than it emits. The ultimate goal would be to have a garden dramatically reduce or even eliminate its carbon emission, and ultimately to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Reducing Carbon Emissions in your Garden

Here are some simple practices that the home gardener can adopt in order to reduce their carbon footprint.

Reduce the Use of Power Tools – power tools that run on gas or electricity use carbon. Think about reducing the size of your lawn so that you can use a reel mower. Consider having informal hedges that can be maintained without the use of gas-powered hedge trimmers.

Reduce or get rid of your lawn – lawns require water and fertilizer to look like that beautiful lush lawn we see in our neighbourhood. Consider using decking or patios for outdoor living spaces. Think about using  alternative ground covers if you want to retain some green space around your property that doesn’t require mowing, watering or fertilizer. If you want to keep your lawn, leave the grass clipping on the lawn. They will be a natural source of nitrogen which grass needs to stay green and healthy.

Use compost instead of synthetic fertilizers – home made compost, using food and garden scraps, can be used to feed plants effectively.

Reduce or eliminate water use in your garden – choose drought tolerant plants that require little or no water when established (read this article on drought tolerant plants for Vancouver). Add a mulch layer to your soil to increase the soil’s capacity to retain moisture and reduce evaporation (read this article on mulching). Install a rain barrel to capture rainwater during the rainy season that can then be used to water plants during the summer months. Choose the most efficient irrigation methods (e.g. drip irrigation versus pop-up sprinkler) in areas that will require water.

Turning Your Garden into a Carbon  Sink

A garden that acts as a carbon sink basically absorbs carbon dioxide that is in the atmosphere. The term given to carbon absorption by soil and plants is ‘carbon sequestration’.

Carbon Sequestration in Soil – the carbon in soil  is held in humus (the organic matter in soil). Humus is quite resistant to releasing its stored carbon into the atmosphere. By building up the humus content of your soil, your garden beds can be used to store carbon that might otherwise find its way into the atmosphere – in other words, your garden becomes a carbon sink. In order to build up the humus in your soil, you need to add compost. That’s a whole blog of its own, which I’ll write about soon. Another way of ensuring that carbon is not lost from soil is to leave the soil alone: rototilling and  heavy digging accelerate the loss of stored carbon into the atmosphere.

Here’s a few practical tips on what the home gardener can do to store carbon in soil:

  • use organic soil amenders instead of synthetic fertilizers.
  • spread a yearly mulch on top of your garden beds, using an organic mulch.
  • allow leaves and other plant residues to decompose on the spot (read this article on Chop and Drop’ gardening).
  • grow nitrogen-fixing plants.

Carbon Sequestration in Plants – put simply, plants take carbon from the atmosphere and use it to produce their own food. This is part of a process know as photosynthesis. Some ways for home gardeners to increase this type of carbon sequestration in their garden include: planting trees and shrubs (woody plants sequester more carbon than perennials); growing tough, adaptable, native plants; avoiding disease-resistant plants; planting a diverse mix of trees, shrubs, and perennials (biodiverse gardens are more resilient).

So there are lots of ways that home gardeners can reduce their garden’s carbon footprint.

Want to learn more?

Want some help designing or installing a climate-friendly garden? Contact us at Growing in the Garden.

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Fall clean-up – to chop or not to chop

The Winter Cut

When fall arrives, many home gardeners and landscapers rush to get the garden ready for winter. Among the many jobs that need to be done to ‘put the garden to bed for winter’  is the cutting back of herbaceous perennial plants (plants that are non-woody, and that die-back in the fall, reappearing the following spring).This cutting back is most often done to maintain a clean and neat appearance in the garden. But if you can bear a slightly less pristine wintertime garden, it may be worth putting the shears down until spring.

Not to Chop – The Upside

There are several benefits to delaying the cutting back of perennials until early spring.

Food and Shelter for Wildlife     Birds enjoy harvesting ripe seeds from perennials and annuals. Perennials with seedheads that might otherwise have been removed, become a great food source for birds when food is scarce in winter.Worms tend to enjoy hanging out in decaying plant material that has been left in a garden bed; another valuable food source for birds in winter.

In the picture below (at City Farmer, The Vancouver Compost Demonstration Garden in Kitsilano) the flowerheads of Rudbeckia (Black-eyed Susan) are being enjoyed by an American Sparrow.

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In addition to providing food, decaying stems and leaves can provide valuable winter shelter for a range of creatures.

Winter Interest in the Garden    Winter interest in the garden can easily be overlooked when creating garden beds for spring or summer colour. But when all the flowers have faded and the display of fall leaves has passed, perennials can provide architectural interest throughout the winter months.

Return Energy to Plant Roots    Plant roots send energy  (food) to the flowers, fruit and leaves of the plant throughout the spring and summer growing season. As summer ends, that energy is returned to the roots to keep the plant healthy over winter and ready to reemerge in the spring. If stems are cut back too early, the plant does not have a chance to return that energy to the roots.

When to Chop

There are many perennials that start to break down as the rain starts and temperatures cool, quickly going from upright to a messy,slumping heap. It’s a good idea to cut down these perennials. Hostas, for instance,  will quickly start to break down and lie on top of the crown of the plant over winter. This wet, slimy layer can encourage crown rot ( a fungal disease in soil,spread most easily in wet conditions). The leaves and stems of plants that become wet and slimy can be cut back as they start to break down, and added to the compost bin as a nitrogen source. If a tender new crown is emerging it can be protected with a blanket of fallen leaves.

‘Chop and Drop’ Method and Self-Composting – The Medium Ground

One important method used in permaculture is chop and drop mulching. In this method, plants are chopped and left on the soil right where the plant is growing. In permaculure, these plants tend to be ‘cover crops’ which have been grown specifically for the nutrients they add back to the soil. Here’s an interesting article on the basics of the Chop and Drop method.

In her fantastic Handbook of Northwest Gardening, Ann Lovejoy describes how she lets perennials self-compost in her Seattle garden.

“Instead of spending a lot of time in fall tidying up the beds and borders, I just remove anything that looks unhealthy or that might smother a neighbour. Any plant that has enough natural architecture to stand up for itself gets to spend as much of the winter upright as possible. 

When plants start to slump or decay, I clean up their act…I simply clip what’s left into small pieces. I use my pruning shears to cut stalks and stems into tidbits…..The bits begin to compost.

The scuffling birds mix and remix the raw compost for me, so it recycles into real compost pretty fast. By spring, the clipped bits have become a nutritious breakfast for thousands of tiny soil organisms that in turn feed my plants.” 

 

So this fall, aim to cut back your perennials a bit more judiciously than you may have done in the past,  and your garden, and surrounding wildlife, will reap the rewards.

Want to read more? Here’s an interesting article by Alys Flowers in the UK’s guardian newspaper.

Need help with your fall clean-up? Or do you want us to design a wildlife garden?  Contact us at Growing in the Garden.

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Drought tolerant plants for Vancouver

This past summer was a real tester for a plant’s ability to withstand drought conditions. With no significant rainfall since spring, and water restrictions in full force for most of the summer, it’s interesting to see which plants were able to cope, and which weren’t. I captured some shots of how plants did throughout the summer. But before looking at those, what is it that allows some plants to thrive in drought conditions and causes others to suffer?

Drought-Tolerant Plant Characteristics

Plants from naturally dry climates have adapted to survive in those conditions. Many have adapted foliage (leaf) and/or root survival techniques.  These plants are called xerophytes. Here’s a few plant characteristics that are indicators of drought tolerance:

Small foliage: generally, the smaller a plant’s leaf the more likely it is to be able to cope with drought. Plants lose water through the surface of their leaves, in a process called transpiration. By adapting its leaves to be small or narrow, a plant is reducing the amount of water lost through transpiration. One such plant is Rosemary; this Mediterranean herb has small, needle-like leaves. As with many Mediterranean plants, Rosemary copes well in drought conditions.

Grey foliage: many plants with this characteristic have a covering of hairs that help to lower the temperature within the leaf, reduce moisture loss, and limit the drying effects of wind. Lamb’s ear, with its soft, furry looking leaves, copes well with drought conditions.

Waxy or leathery coating: to reduce moisture loss and limit the effects of wind. Blueish foliage often gets its tone from a waxy coating.

Fleshy leaves: succulents, such as Sedums, store water in their leaves.

Long, deep tap roots: plants that have developed this characteristic are able to search for water at lower, cooler levels.

Plants that coped well in Vancouver in Summer 2015

Here’s a list of plants that were coping well at the end of July 2015, after several months of drought conditions. Of course, I don’t know how much or little each of these plants have been watered, but generally I have found that wherever I see these plants throughout the city, they are looking good.

Upright Stonecrop (Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’)

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This clump forming perennial is a great choice for a drought tolerant garden. It holds water in its leaves and stems. When other plants listed as drought-tolerant are starting to suffer, this sedum will still look healthy and happy. Pink blooms on flat flower heads at the end of summer.

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Groundcover Stonecrop (Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’, and various varieties) 

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Like Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ above, this ground cover sedum holds water in its tiny, waxy leaves. Angelina works well in rock gardens or planted as edging near paths. New growth is lime green, turning golden in summer, then bronze in winter.

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Sedum rupestre

Lamb’s Ear (Stachys byzantina) 

Soft, wooly grey leaves that are followed by spikes of pale pink flowers in summer. Works well in a gravel bed or perennial border. Bees loves this plant. Also a good choice in a children’s garden, where kids will love to stroke the beautifully soft leaves.

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English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)

This lavender’s grey, needle-like leaves make it a good choice for water conservation. Works well in mixed perennial beds, herb gardens or as a low hedge or path border. Loved by bees.

Rosemary (Rosmarinus)

The needle-like leaves of this herb cope well with drought conditions. Rosemary can be used in a herb garden, or as an informal hedge – it can easily reach 3 – 4 feet within several seasons. Many varieties have blue flowers along the stem which are loved by bees.

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Spurge (Euphorbia characias subsp. ‘Wulfenii’)

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Euphorbia comes in a wide range of colurs, from variegated green and white, to deep purple. Wulfenii has grey-green leaves and cupped flowers held in green bracts. If the stem is cut or broken it produces a milky sap which can be irritable to skin or eyes, so not aplant for a garden with children or pets.

Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)

Adds colour to the garden in late summer. Pink daises with high, brown-orange domes.

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Catmint (Nepeta)

Easy to care for perennial. Blue-purple flowers, on upright stems, that will bloom more than once per season if cut-back after initial flowering. This plant is covered in bees when in bloom.

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Plants for Spring Interest

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Spring has Arrived in Vancouver – it’s time to apply a spring mulch

Spring has arrived early this year in Vancouver. The perennials are starting to peek above the soil, buds are getting ready to burst, and yes, weeds are already upon us. These signs tell us that the growing season has begun, and with that, it’s a great time to apply a spring mulch to garden beds.

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What is Mulching?

When we talk about mulching a garden bed, it basically means applying a layer of some sort of organic (living) or inorganic material to the soil on our garden beds. There are several reasons why it’s important to apply mulch to garden beds:

  • To retain moisture: as the temperature heats up in the coming months, moisture in the soil will evaporate. To keep that moisture close to the plant roots, we can add a layer of mulch that will reduce evaporation.
  • To maintain/modify temperature: mulch can be used to keep roots cool in summer and protected from low temperatures in winter
  • To suppress weeds: to decrease germination, and make them easier to pull out if they do take hold
  • To add nutrients to the soil
  • To improve the soil tilth or workability

Choosing a Mulch

There are lots of options available for choosing a mulch. As with a lot of tasks in the garden, I think it’s important to ask yourself what your goal or purpose is – why do you want to mulch your garden beds? Do you want to feed your yearly crop of organic vegetables? Do you want to spend less time on your knees pulling weeds? Or do you want to have a beautiful show of blooms on your flowering shrubs and perennials? When you know what you are trying to achieve, you can go about choosing a mulching material. For instance, if you are choosing a mulch for your small organic vegetable bed, your choice will be quite different than if mulching large garden beds in order to suppress weeds.

Here in Vancouver, some of the organic materials that are easily available include composted bark mulch, mushroom compost, homemade garden compost, leaves, composted manure, arborist’s chips, newspaper, and worm compost.

Some Examples

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In the garden bed above, wood chips have been used as a mulch. In this bed, the main purpose of the mulch is probably weed suppression. It’s important to know that as wood chips break down they rob some soil nitrogen, and therefore compete with plants for nutrients. However, in this bed, low cost and weed suppression have most likely been the most important factors in choosing a mulch.

 

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In the bed on the left, leaves from the trees above have been left on the bed as a mulch. Fine textured leaves are fine to use as a mulch. Larger leaves or leathery leaves should be shredded when dry before putting on beds. When used as a mulch leaves can return valuable nutrients to the soil.

Contact us at Growing in the Garden if you would like us to apply your spring or fall mulch.

 

 

 

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