Learning Ahead: Spring Landscape & Vernal Pools

Exploring Spring’s Landscape through Vernal Pools & Literature

Similar to fall, the spring season is a time of transition as habitats and animals begin to respond to the change in weather and climate. Phenology-based activities coincide with the natural changing of our seasons (our ultimate accessible community-based educational resource) and are great catalysts for learning through community engagement. Maple syrup season, filled with delicious community activities and opportunities, is our first crop of the year, followed by another  seasonal event as winter transitions into spring…Vernal Pools!
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Entomology: Lessons from the Garden

Multivotines vs. Univoltines: Adapting to Climate Change

I have just returned from a horticultural conference in Boston. One of the more interesting workshops was given by Michael Raupp, Ph.D, Professor at University of Maryland on climate change and plant pests. Thankfully, at least in this area, we are no longer talking about, “is the climate changing?” But what are the implications of climate change, and how does it affect families in western Massachusetts?

For insects, climate change is much more serious than just a bad hair day. There are many environmental factors that influence insects, but the primary one is temperature. As the environment gets warmer, some are winners and others are losers. Within the realm of insect pests – a major concern for farmers and gardeners of any scale – there are clear winners and losers due to the ways in which each species reproduces. The winner in the climate change war are multivotine insects, species who are able to reproduce multiple generations each year. On the losing side are univoltines , whose reproductive cycle makes it impossible to produce more than a single generation in a year.

Multivoltines have historically been hard to control as their ability to adapt to environmental conditions and pesticides is legendary – pesky aphids are a prime example of such a species. Because they have so many generations per year, adaptation of the species happens very quickly – hence an insect with the ability to persist, even as the conditions in its environment change. Univoltines such as the gypsy moth, on the other hand, reproduce slowly and, therefore, evolve slowly as well – making populations more susceptible to climate change-related damage.

Ladybug&Aphids_on_Milkweed_9587a

While it’s impossible to see aphid and gypsy moth populations for yourself during the winter, it’s still possible to learn about this phenomenon as a family while the ground is covered with snow. Instead of aphids and moths, think about dandelions and apple trees. During the summer, dandelions pop up everywhere and go to seed fairly quickly. The seeds, blown by the wind, grow more and more generations of dandelions before the warm weather ends. Apple trees, on the other hand, take years and years to begin producing apples. Instead of reproducing quickly, multiple generations of apple trees can take a century or more to exist. Which of these species do you think might be more easily affected by a climate in which the temperature continues to rise? The one that takes longer to reproduce, of course. And which one is generally considered to be more desirable and valuable? The slow, slow apple, of course.

Apple Blossoms in May

Challenge kids to think of other examples of species that fit this speed and adaptability vs. value to humans dichotomy – there are lots of possible choices to examine… Read the rest of this entry »

3 Easy Ways to Preserve the Fall Harvest

Putting Up the Harvest

Pickling is a great activity to get your kids involved in preserving the harvest while teaching them about the art and science of fermenting foods.

When you think of preserving food do you have an image of an old Amish woman wearing a bonnet stooped over a stove somewhere in the Midwest? Me neither, but if I did this would be a very limited way of looking at a millenniums old tradition. The reality is you need nether the bonnet or a root cellar to have loads of local fruits and vegetables to eat most, if not, all the winter long.

For my family’s consumption I preserve food in many different ways: drying, pickling, root cellaring, fermenting, moonshining, freezing, etc.… But some ways are certainly MUCH easier then other. And these I will share.

Cold room in house — most people have one of these, maybe a basement, mudroom, etc.… Many of our local fruits and vegetables keep for months just in cardboard boxes at temps around 40-50 degrees. No packing in sand, no controlling the humidity, nothing. Apples, pears, winter squash, cabbage, onions, garlic are the ones I keeping in my basement & unheated sunroom. Get your kids involved too, asking questions like, “why do root vegetables need a certain type of environment to make it through the winter.”  This can lead to fun discoveries in biology and the natural process of decomposition. Read on…

5 Plants for a Beautiful Late Fall Garden

5 Plants to a Great Late Fall Landscape

Most homeowners can create beautiful gardens or home landscapes in the summer months. The grass is green, bushes are in flower, bulbs bloom and trees are leaved out. But most families live in their house twelve months a year, so why not landscape your home gardens so they also looks good in November, December and January, while supporting winter wildlife?

In early November I took these photos of my favorite fall plants from my own home landscape. While they may not have quite the “WOW!” factor that a spring blooming dogwood may have, they look pretty darn good for the “off season.” Maybe sit down with your family this fall and think about ways to attract more wildlife to your home gardens with plants that look interesting in the winter, producing seeds for birds and flowers for bees and butterflies.

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In a home landscape I recommend trees, shrubs, ground covers, flowers and ornamental grasses… Read the rest of this entry »

3 Sustainable Plant Choices for the Family Garden

Sustainable Plant Choices: Beautiful, Edible & Pollinators

There are many plants, edibles and ornamentals, that are beautiful to look at, tasty to eat, and beneficial for pollinating insects. The perfect trifecta for your gardens. When I design a garden I always think, “how can I maximize its positive environmental impacts?” I have 1000’s of possible plants to use swirling through my head during the landscape design process. But more times then not I come back to using the same five or so trees, five or so shrubs, and ten or so perennial species. Why? Because they have the “big 3” attributes I mentioned above…

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What Does a New Garden Need Most?

Proper Watering!

If your flower gardens, trees or perennial vegetables are “established” (been in the ground longer then a year) you can spread out the watering regiment to 2-4 weeks depending on how hot it is.

Now that your landscape or garden design project is complete, or you have finally got all your veggies in the ground, its success or failure is now dependent on whether or not you meet your plants’ water needs. Research has shown that a plant’s growth rate is affected for years by the way they were treated after transplanting. Failure to adequately water will have short- and long-term repercussions on your landscape. This task is a good one for kids if you can guide them to follow these steps:

  • When: April – October: Mornings are best, but anytime of day is okay. November – March: No need to water.
  • How Much: 1.5″ of rainfall per week or if done manually with a hose: 5 minute per tree, 1 minute per shrub and 10 seconds per perennial.
  • How Often: 1 time per week in normal temperatures. 2 times in hot weather. The soil in the root zone should not become dried out. Do this for at least the first growing season and preferably the second. Obviously if your vegetables are annuals then this does not apply.
  • How to Apply: Using a hose, apply water over the root area, not the leaves.

Skip using a water sprinkler to water your gardens. Fifty percent of the water is lost through evaporation and the other 50% can lead to excessively high moisture levels on the foliage, resulting in water-born fungi. Sprinklers were meant for lawns, and for cooling off the kids! Two essential gadgets can help families with their watering goals:

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5 Easy Composting Tips for Your Family Garden

Environmentally sound garden practices for the family garden

Most people know about composting, but as a busy parent this can feel like a lot of work.  Try these five tips on how to add organic matter to your family garden and discover an easier way to “compost.”

One of the major keys to a successful garden is the incorporation of organic matter into the soil every year. I remember taking a soil class at UMass 15 or so years back and hearing my professor say, “the answer to almost any question I ask this semester will likely be to add organic matter to the soil. If the problem is nutrition, drainage, pH, disease & insect problems, etc… the solution often can be solved with the addition of organic matter.”

Soil needs organic matter for a host of reasons, including moisture retention, aeration, microbial life, a slow release fertilizer… but maybe you’re wondering how to increase the organic matter in your soil…  Most people know about composting (see my post, The Dirt on Dirt) but as a busy parent this can be too much work for too little return. Here are five tips on how to add organic matter to your soil that my family often does, many of which you might not find in the pages of Better Homes and Garden:

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Growing Raspberries this Summer in Your Family Garden

5 Simple Steps for Pruning Raspberries

Stop by one of the many plant sales happening over the next few weekends around Western MA and pick up raspberries dug fresh out of someone’s garden to take home and grown in your own!

Picking ripe raspberries straight off of their canes and popping them into your mouth is a summer delight that kids can carry with them into adulthood as fond memories from their childhood! But perhaps no other small fruit commonly found in Western MA  gardens mystify their owners as do raspberries. And there is no shortage of information out there on how to prune these thorny canes!

As a professional and homeowner I can tell you I am often perplexed on how to prune them after reading one of the numerous tomes written on the subject. To make it easier for families to grow the berries in their home gardens for their children to enjoy, I’ve demystified their care here with 5 simple steps.  These steps assume that you have “summer bearing raspberries ” as opposed to “fall bearing raspberries.” Even if this is not the case, this system of care will work fine:

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Fresh Berries from the Garden!

Pruning Blueberry Bushes

Here you can see a blueberry bush that has not been pruned for 5 years! It has dozens of branches that are too old to produce much in the way of quality fruit. The interior is cluttered with deadwood and the canopy is filled with branches rubbing against one another.

April is a great month to get the family outdoors and getting their landscape ready for the spring. Families can rake the leaves missed in October, pick up fallen branches, cut perennials back… But the pruning of shrubs is not quite as obvious of a spring chore. While many varieties of shrubs can be pruned at this time of the year, our native blueberries will thrive with regular pruning. Pruning is one of those subjects that often can cause a state of paralysis to even the most seasoned gardener. But when it comes to blueberries, fear not. It is so simple that even your child can do it (providing you tell her that her goat can stay near by)…

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5 Late Winter Family Gardening Tips

5 Gardening Tips for Late Winter

Starting seeds in early March is an excellent way to get the whole family excited about the arrival of spring.

Spring is just around the corner and planning your garden with your kids while there’s still snow on the ground can be both fun and educational.  There’s no shortage of garden prep that you can be doing right now. Here are five things you can do to plan and prepare for your gardens this summer:

SEED CATALOGS: Gather your kids around and peruse thorough seed catalogs. Not only do some make for good reading (Fedco Seeds is my favorite), but it will give you the opportunity to learn a bit more about the culture of growing specific favorite plants.  Let your kids pick out veggies and flowers they’d like to grow in the garden and get them involved in this late winter tradition.

START SEEDS: This is a great thing to do with kids!  You have not capitulated on getting them that Golden Retriever they have been asking for, but what about giving them that…eggplant they have been asking for?! Ok, they never asked for it, but think what fun for the whole family it would be to start veggie seeds indoors while there’s still snow on the ground? This morning my 5yo daughter Priya was scooping the soil into planting cell for our garden veggies, while my 8yo son Forrest labeled all the plant tags and I sowed the seeds.  It’s a great family activity!

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