7 Ways to Garden with Your Toddler

It takes everything in me to wait until nap time to pull a few weeds or pick the tomatoes… But, monkey see, monkey do… only my little monkey isn’t quite so discriminating about his choices. He zeroes in on a weed (aka lettuce plant) and yanks then shreds. All tomatoes are balls and all zucchini are pickles. None survive but nonetheless, I’m determined to grow food. Not even the quick hands or stomping feet of a toddler can keep me down! I’ve revamped my yard, taking a little time to get myself ready for my toddler’s curiosity and energy to be helpful to his growth and my garden’s rather than utter destruction. Here are some ideas that have really helped me.

Build a Toddler Garden

You can give your kiddo a section of the garden to plant, tend and harvest. This may mean that rows are squiggle lines and plants die from having the leaves ripped off, but at least your child is interacting with plants and showing an interest in the garden without destroying your plot of organic salad greens and heirloom tomatoes.

Mini-Sized Garden Tools

Everearth-Kids-Garden-ToolsIf you haven’t already gotten a toddler sized rake, shovel, watering can and bucket DO IT NOW. I cannot stress enough how much of a game changer this is. Filling the bucket with compost, mulch or leaves (from the trees that have fallen hopefully) will take 10 minutes and dumping it in teaspoon sized piles on the plants another ten. The watering can will carefully trickle water over the plants rather than the hose on full blast uprooting even the hardiest bushes. And honestly, I use the little rake myself to get in between my plants to fish out stray mulch or leaves – it’s the perfect size.

Teach your child how to care for the plants

20180917_093508[1]Being able to grow your own food is an important life skill and showing your children while they’re young and interested contributes to lifelong habits. My little guy can plant bean seeds and cover them, water and pick them. He also knows a handful of edible plants that he can eat without asking – mostly herbs and perennial tropical vegetables. If you show your child the plant parts and explain why the plant is in the ground, why we water it and you watch it grow together, that’s magic. Your kid will remember that experience and tell every stranger in the grocery store.

Food forest

I admit, the first time my toddler took every IMG_7812tomatillo off every plant, I was really discouraged. I didn’t plant anything else that season and I actually ended up pulling out my plants. The edibles that have survived toddlerhood in my yard have been the fruit trees and shrubs with edible leaves like herbs, cranberry hibiscus and katuk. The more sensitive annual vegetables require more attention from me and less from him. If you are in this boat, maybe consider planting different crops. Mango, avocado and mulberry trees take so much less work than a tomato plant and will provide fruit for years as well as cooling shade and  they’ll sequester carbon.

Digging. Lots of digging

20181010_113050What’s better than a kid with a bucket and a small shovel? Add a pile of mulch, soil, or compost. That loose material will need to be loaded up and hauled to the garden or to a tree. Bonus points if the bucket fits in a dump truck. It’ll keep your child busy while developing those spatial awareness and focusing skills.

Fairy or Dinosaur Garden

Give your child a space to decorate with fun20181010_113209 whimsical fairies or rough n tough dinosaurs. Don’t assume that your boy wants dinosaurs or girl wants fairies – my lil guy likes dinosaurs but he would love the little flowers and houses of a fairy garden too. Mix it up, the theme can change or have no theme at all. You could also use trolls, gnomes, dragons or cars, whatever character your child loves. I like to use a few little toy figurines that have been lost from their set. They might not last long, between getting buried in the pot or misplaced. Often, I see fake plants used in fairy gardens, but you could use herbs, edible flowers, and lettuces to expose your child to real gardening. Let him move the decorations and characters around and interact with the garden. This is my little guy’s morning project – dinosaurs, rocks, pinecones and a few flowers that may have gotten trampled. It kept him busy for a while and he got to enjoy pretend play time while outdoors.

Clear garden boundaries

As you design and organize your garden space, set clear visual boundaries up so your child knows where the off-limit spaces are. A short fence, plant markers, or border of mulch, pavers, plants or flowers will define your garden area, so saying “don’t go in the garden” will have meaning. Raised beds are already defined and clearly different to your child so you might consider installing one or more. It results in less soil disturbance than planting annuals in the ground, therefore less sequestered carbon is released into the atmosphere and fewer soil microorganisms are displaced.

But why?

Besides for YOU getting a chance to actually work in the garden, being outdoors in the soil is so good for your toddler’s brain and body. Being outdoors increases spatial awareness, a concept that is under-developed in many children because of too many technology-centered days. This affects everything from hand-eye coordination to future athleticism. Allow your child to explore the garden space and build structures will help those spatial skills develop. Talk to your child about the structures using ordinal words such as under, between, above, below with descriptions will further that understanding. 

Kids that are exposed to growing food are more likely to sample the fresh produce, and will be more interested in eating fruits and vegetables. They also have a greater food literacy, or understanding of where food comes from, what conditions help them to grow and its impact on our bodies, which leads to healthier food choices and a wider palate. 

Photo Sources

https://everythingbackyard.net/kids-gardening-tools-activities/

http://ready-to-grow.com/edible-garden-news/grow-your-own-fruit-and-low-maintenance-veggiesherbs-with-a-food-forest/

 

 

 

Gardening to Save a Dollar

Most people start a garden with this vision of saving quite a lot of money at the grocery store. “Yes, the garden is an expense, but think of all the money we’ll save later,” I hear folks say all the time.

Been there. As a farm girl from up north, I knew it could be done. So, when we bought our forever home several years ago, we decided to grow a substantial amount of food on our large suburban lot to offset our grocery bill. We went and did what so many gung-ho gardeners do. We went to Lowes and bought a few of each – berry bushes, fruit trees, seed packets, and seedlings- and got busy planting. There were some successes, some failures. The biggest pieces of advice I can offer beginners is to:

  • Research before you purchase everything – soil, plants, seeds, trees. Especially trees. Fruit trees are an investment.
  • Become acquainted with more experienced local gardeners in your area.
  • Go to locally owned garden centers as opposed to big box stores, especially for summer gardening. Check out our Garden Shop if you’re around Pinellas County, Florida.
  • If you can afford it, schedule a consultation with an expert. We offer reasonably priced consultations to help you with ideas to make your gardens not only productive but beautiful. It’ll save you time and money in the long run, helping you to spend money in targeted ways.
  • Start composting. Good soil is important. It’s the foundation of your garden and directly related to the health of your plants. Get the expensive soil and the cheap plant. Your homemade compost will be like gold when you see the cost of the good stuff!

In gardening there are no failures, only experiments. ~ Janet Kilburn Phillips

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Fruit Trees

I will say that we still have all of the fruit trees that we started with minus two, which were taken out by a fallen tree during Hurricane Irma. We now have a total of 20 fruit trees on our one-quarter acre lot. That sounds like a lot but it isn’t too jungle-like. They are carefully selected for our climate and planted in the appropriate space for water and sunlight requirements. Most are already established and almost effortless to maintain. Compost applied as a top dressing and some mulch once a year and they just give and give. There’s enough to eat fresh, preserve, and share with friends.

They may be a bit of an investment at first, but dollar for dollar, fruit trees will save you the most money on groceries over time. If you coordinate with friends and neighbors, you can each have a few trees of different types and swap fruit. It was important to me to look at the time of year each tree produced and try to vary the seasons so I could always have something fresh and tasty to pick.

Want some help selecting fruit trees that will give you the most bang for your buck? Check out our High Yielding Fruit Trees course online. Use coupon code FALLGARDEN2020 for 50% off.

Herbs

If you cook with herbs, there is no reason for you to be buying the common ones. They are easy to grow and look attractive in a mixed pot on the patio or added to the vegetable garden. Basil, mint, chives, sage, rosemary, dill, oregano, and parsley can be grown year round. Cilantro prefers the cooler months; there is a more heat-tolerant herb called culantro with a similar flavor that likes the heat. Cut or dried herbs or so expensive at the store and are so much better freshly picked. If you have a giant plant outside, you are more likely to use them often and liberally, adding flavor and nutrients to your meals almost effortlessly. You can dry excess herbs and make your own spice mixes or herbed salts for holiday gifts. I recommend a large pot of herbs for beginning or busy gardeners who love to cook.

Vegetable Plants

This mustard and kale was growing in a local community garden. It doesn’t need loving and water every day. And it’s beautiful!

If you are interested in planting annual vegetables, be sure to follow a planting guide for Central Florida. Many seed packets have a map and chart on the back to tell you when to plant that particular crop, but we are grouped with northern Georgia which actually gets snow and is a completely different climate zone. 

In general, to save the most money, fall gardening is the easiest here for beginners. In my opinion growing leafy greens will make the biggest dent in your budget. Kale, chard, lettuce, and collards are expensive to buy organic and grow so easily. Plant in October for the best results and you’ll see a fresh salad as early as Thanksgiving and possibly sooner. Check out our course, Planning Your Fall Florida Garden for more details and some cool downloadable guides. Use that same coupon code FALLGARDEN2020 for 50% off.

There’s a few ways to begin your first vegetable garden. Earthboxes are easy to maintain and will last for many years. I have 4 Earthbox brand containers and 2 similar planters (brand unknown). They’ve lasted for nearly 20 years, and they are easily portable if you are a renter. Raised beds are also a great option for beginners. You can buy a kit, DIY something or even re-purpose a kiddie pool. Just be sure to drill some holes for drainage in the sides (very close to the bottom).

If you need to save some space, there are a number of vertical garden options. Our favorite is the GreenStalk Vertical Garden. It’s super easy to use and is more affordable than most of the fancy vertical garden towers you can buy.

Perennial Vegetables

The next best thing for saving substantial money on your grocery bill besides fruit trees is another group of “plant it once and have it forever crops” called perennial vegetables. Here in Florida, we live in the subtropics. We can take advantage of crops from around the world from Central America, the Caribbean, Asia, Africa and India. The wide variety of heat loving and healthy greens are particularly exciting and can be added to your cooking just like spinach or kale. Longevity, Malabar, Egyptian and Okinawan spinach are just a few examples of easy to grow greens that you could try. Adding perennial greens to your yard will beautify the space and provide years of food while maintaining the carbon that is sunk in the soil (and is released when we dig into the soil). 

Oh No – Not Spanish Needle!

I want to share a little about my favorite weed. Not THAT weed! Spanish needle, bidens alba. It goes by many names – beggar tick, shepard’s needle, and others. They get their name from the small black hitch hiking seeds that cling to your clothes and shoes, and even pet fur, when you brush up against them. The seeds need to be pulled off individually. They aren’t sharp, just annoying.

I have defended these plants to many suspicious neighbors, converting some and getting some “crazy hippie” stares from others. Many people consider this plant to be the worst of all weeds and I do not disagree that those poky little seeds get stuck everywhere and are a pain to remove. BUT, considering all of the wonderful and beneficial aspects to this wildflower – yes I called it a wildflower – I’ll put up with the little sticky seeds. (Actually, I usually “prune” them off so keep my front yard looking tidy.)

Observe a bidens alba for a few minutes. You’ll probably see a bee or two and maybe a butterfly enjoying these perfect little blooms. It’s the preferred nectar host for the Florida Duskywing skipper and many species of native bees and is the larval host plant for the Dainty Sulphur Butterfly. It’s actually the third most important nectar source for native bees in Florida and one of the few plants that bloom in January. Leave the bidens, especially in the winter months!

Even more impressive than the obvious benefit to the insect community was finding out that this plant is actually medicinal and edible. And quite tasty! The flowers are a fun addition to a salad and the tender young leaves can be tossed in too. You can use the leaves in tea. I find it’s quite yummy when you add citrus peel or lemongrass. 

Photo Sources:

Longevity Spinach

One of my favorite and easiest plants to grow is longevity spinach (Gynura procumbens). It is a perennial in the Tampa Bay area unless there is a freeze, then it may die back to the roots and return in the spring. In areas with colder temperatures, it can be grown as an annual or brought inside during the winter. It does grow year round, but growth will slow during the cooler months.

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This plant has a light green leaf, a thick but tender stem and a sprawling habit, reaching about one foot in height, but can reach three or four feet in width unless cut. The stems will grow along the ground and produce roots.  If you plant it near a shrub, it will use it as support and grow up into it. It produces orange flowers in the spring.

If you aren’t sure how to successfully make cuttings and propagate plants, consider taking my online course Plant Propagation for Beginners. Use coupon code FALLGARDEN2020 for 50% off.

I usually break or cut a stem off the plant, harvest the leaves for dinner and put the stem back in the ground to root and make another plant but the stem can also be cut and used like celery in soups or stews. It can be eaten raw or cooked. I like to chop the leaves and add it to pasta dishes or anywhere you would use spinach, or use it raw in salad or on a sandwich instead of lettuce.

If you’re local to Pinellas County, Florida, check out our Garden Shop in St. Petersburg, where we sell longevity spinach.

Butterfly in the Sky… Please Visit My Yard

Convincing butterflies to visit your yard and stay a while can be a challenge. You might see them flitting through the trees, soaring up and down, occasionally stopping for a bit of nectar before cruising on to…? Where are they going? They have to hang out somewhere, right?

To understand how to make a haven for butterflies in your yard, you first have to understand what they are looking for. Butterflies symbolize transformation. They have four phases in their life cycle and different needs in each phase. Providing for its needs during each of these phases will change your yard from a drive-by snack stand to an all-inclusive resort. Why leave, when everything they need is right here?

Where Do the Babies Come From?

Butterflies lay tiny eggs on or near their larval host plant. Once the egg hatches, a tiny and very hungry caterpillar will emerge, ready to feast on its preferred host plant. Most larval host plants are native to their region. Some caterpillars are very picky and will only eat one type of plant, and others are less discriminating. Be sure to provide several larval host plants of each kind to make sure you have enough food for several caterpillars, unless they are large plants. For example, a Dutchman’s pipevine or passionvine might grow huge. One mature plant is probably sufficient.

Unfortunately, many big box stores spray their plants with chemicals called systemic insecticides to prevent insects from eating them prior to sale. This kills the caterpillars too. Always ask if the plant has been treated and look for a tag that labels what it has been sprayed with. When in doubt, don’t buy it.

Shelter

The babies will be happy on their larval host plant until they are ready to form a chrysalis. They will need a sheltered space to build their new little home. The adults will need to seek shelter at night and during rainy weather, and hiding places from predators. The really tidy, well manicured lawns aren’t really conducive to attracting butterflies. They like a bit of overgrowth, places to get out of the elements.

Nectar Plants

The babies have their leafy diet, but the adults have a sweeter palate. They prefer nectar from flowers. Plant several different colors and shapes of flowers to appeal to different types of butterflies. They have varying proboscis (tube-like tongue) lengths and feeding habits. Some butterflies like long skinny tubular flowers while others prefer wide open petals. When designing your yard, plant several of the same type of flowers together to make a larger buffet for butterflies to enjoy, and the flowers will be more noticeable. Plant vegetation in varying heights as well. This will create varying micro-climates and increase that provide shelter. Native plants will attract more butterflies than nonnatives. Try to find plants that will bloom at different times so that something is always blooming in your yard.

Hint: Florida folks – Bidens alba, known as Spanish needle and beggar tick, blooms all year in the warmer areas and is a favorite of many pollinators.

Water Sources

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Butterflies need to drink just like us, but they can’t just drink from anywhere or they risk drowning. They prefer the edges of a pond or a shallow tray with water and rocks in it. They use the water to drink, get minerals and to cool off. They don’t get all of the nutrients they need from nectar, so they are able to extract it from the water they drink!

You can make a simple puddler like the one above with a plant tray or pie pan, rocks, sand and/or compost, and some water. Place it near your flowers, put a little water in each day, especially when it’s dry, and you’ll soon have butterflies and bees stopping by to have more of their basic needs met.

Lawn Chemicals

We are surrounded by chemicals. Many homes and agricultural areas spray for insects; many stores treat plants with systemic pesticides, such as neonicotinids, which stay on the plant for the duration of its life. Caterpillars that eat the plant will die, but the plant will remain healthy and bug-free its entire life. There has been a dramatic decline in butterfly and bee populations for the last several years, and environmental poisons carry a large part of the blame. Help the butterfly populations by buying plants that are not treated with neonicotinid chemicals, avoid widespread application of pesticides in your yard (even organic pesticides kill insects), and provide the beautiful plants needed for all stages of the butterfly’s life.

Certify Your Butterfly Garden

If you meet all of the criteria above, you can certify your butterfly garden with the North American Butterfly Association. You’ll enter the types of plants you have in your yard and pay a small fee. Getting the sign is optional but helps your neighbors learn about butterflies, and recognize your commitment to environmental health. We recommend proudly displaying signs like this, especially if your butterfly garden is a little messy.

Our Favorite Butterfly Plants

Native Florida milkweed – larval host plant for monarch and queen butterflies

Native Florida cassia – larval host plants for a few sulphur butterflies

Firebush – favorite nectar plant for the zebra longwing and hummingbirds

Corkystem passionvine – larval host plant for the zebra longwing, gulf fritillary, and julia butterflies

Native Florida porterweed (a groundcover) – favorite nectar plant for many butterflies

Dune sunflower – (a groundcover) – favorite nectar plant for many butterflies

Sources

http://floridagardener.com/butterflies/butterflyplants.htm

https://www.gardenguides.com/631-butterflies-need-besides-nectar.html

statebystategardening.com/state.php/tn/blog_03/bees_butterflies_and_pesticides/