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Gardening with Kids

by Denise Healy

It´s hard to believe that summer vacation is almost over and school will be starting soon. In these last remaining days of summer, if the kids are getting squirrelly, try some of these fun summer projects that are not only fun, but educational.

Collecting and saving seeds is a great way to show your children first hand the life cycle of plants. Pointing out the various parts of a flower, it´s usually easy to spot the former flower that has now become a seed factory. Saving seeds is economical, too. Storing them correctly will yield a bounty of free plants for next year´s planting. According to the website http://kidsgardening.org here are the basics for finding, gathering and saving seeds.

The seeds of annual plants are best to collect because they complete their life cycle, from seed to seed, in one year. However, saving and replanting seeds from flowers that are biennials (plants that complete their life cycle in two years) or perennials (plants that flower multiple years) can be done as well. (Seeds from hybrids often create plants very different than the parent plant and so are a bit of a risk.)

It´s simple to harvest seeds from beans, peas, lettuce, peppers, pumpkins, or squash. Pumpkins and squash are easily cross-pollinated by insects, which may result in weirdo offspring, but that can be part of the fun! Annual flowers such as calendula, sweet peas, cosmos, marigolds, sunflowers, four-o-clocks, larkspur, zinnias, columbine, and hollyhocks are good choices. To harvest seeds, collect seeds from plants that seem especially healthy and not stressed from drought, disease, or other factors. Generally, let seeds dry on the plant as long as possible before harvesting them.

Typically, seeds are either embedded in pulp or borne fairly dry in pods or capsules. Try to harvest seeds on a sunny day, once the dew has evaporated, then remove all pulp and fiber from their surfaces. With crops like lettuce or certain flowers that release their seeds gradually as they ripen, you may want to shake the plant every few days over a paper bag to collect the ripe seed. Columbine is a fun seed to collect, as the seed is settled in the small tubes of the pod and turning them upside down as they are shaken will yield small black seeds.

Some seeds (tomatoes, for instance) are encased in a gelatinous sack that contains chemicals that inhibit seed germination, thus preventing seeds from sprouting inside the wet fruit. In nature, as the fruit rots, a natural fermentation destroys this gel. Most seed savers recommend a simple process to clean tomato or eggplant seeds: scoop out the seeds and gel, then leave them in a jar for several days in warm temperatures, stirring them occasionally. The good seed should sink to the bottom, and then can be washed and dried.

Acorn seeds can be evaluated based upon their buoyancy, too. Placed in water, the good ones will sink while the rotten or bug eaten ones will float. Moist seeds don´t keep well, so be sure to dry seeds you collect in a well-ventilated place on newspaper, paper towels, or screens for about a week. Store seeds in glass jars in a refrigerator, freezer, or other cool, dry location. Or consider creating your own packages for the seeds you´ve harvested, placing them in small brown envelopes that are attractively cataloged, then give them as gifts, sell them or keep them for your own future use.

Collecting seeds will yield future pay offs, but how about starting an herb garden in the kitchen window? These aromatic plants are easy and fun to grow and will add “spice” to your winter cooking.

Here´s how to do it: Purchase small herb plants at the local grocery or nursery. Plant them together in an attractive pot. I like using long rectangular ceramic pots; the plants are easier to identify and cut for cooking. Use a potting soil that is a moisture control formula. Set the plants in a sunny window, with at least 6 hours of sun each day. Herbs can be harvested whenever there is a need for a cutting. But allow enough foliage to remain on the plant to sustain healthy growing conditions. Herbs can be added to vinegar or olive oil, which can be the foundation for wonderfully aromatic salad dressings. Here are some good herb combinations to put together. For an Italian garden, try basil, oregano and parsley. Aromatic herbs include basil, rosemary, mint, lemon verbena or chamomile. Thyme, sage, marjoram and mints such as spearmint and peppermint are good choices also. For the best flavor, it´s best to keep your plants a little hungry, meaning don´t over fertilize them. In the spring, these plants can be planted out doors. Perhaps this will be the start of a beautiful herb cutting garden for next year!

Making something from the bounty of your harvests is always a great way to bring the summer to a close. Rose petal jelly is an unusual and delightful project that will yield beautiful, sparkling, gem colored glasses of delicious sweetness, sure to please everybody. Here is a recipe for Rose Petal Jelly:

2-3 c rose petals ( from unsprayed, organic roses)

1 1/2 c white grape juice

1/2 c water

3 1/2 c sugar

1 pkg liquid fruit pectin

Trim away white part of rose petals, wash petals thoroughly, and drain. Combine rose petals and grape juice in a sauce pan. Bring to a rolling boil, stirring constantly. Then steep about 30 min. Strain liquid to remove petals. Pour strained liquid back into sauce pan. Add fruit pectin to liquid; cook stirring constantly, until mixture returns to a rolling boil. Continue boiling 2 min, stirring frequently. Remove from heat, and skim off foam with a metal spoon. Quickly pour jelly into hot sterilized jars leaving 1/4 inch head space; cover with metal lids and screw tight. Process in a boiling water bath for 5 minutes. Makes 3 pints. The more colorful the petals are the more colorful the jelly will be.

Here are some other fun things the family can do:

Making leaf shadings on plain brown wrapping paper: Place leaves randomly under paper. Using crayons or pencils, gently rub them onto the surface of a large piece of paper with the leaves underneath. The result will be soft tracings of the patterns on the leaves onto the paper. The paper can be used later to wrap presents. Use raffia or color coordinated ribbon to complete the look.

Begin a nature journal of birds and other creatures that visit your yard and neighborhood.

Go berry picking, Make a fruit pie from the berries.

Take a taste tour of our local farms.

Go on a nature hike with a naturalist book to point out native trees, shrubs, wild flowers, and animals.

And one last thing. This is a fun and unusual project that may take a few tries, but is definitely worth the effort. Do you remember growing avocado seeds as a kid? Well, try growing a pineapple! Go to www.rickswoodshopcreations.com to get all the details about growing and harvesting your own pineapple.

Happy summer!

Denise Healy graduated from the Master Gardener training program in December, 2007. She gardens with her three home-schooled children.