Your garden can grow more than food or pretty flowers; it can grow your child’s brain. Gardening builds science knowledge- botany, biology, climatology, entomology, meteorology and more!
Let’s start with what to plant. I’m partial to growing food. Is there a better payoff for all my hard work? That said, flowers serve a purpose beyond beauty. Flowers like marigolds and lavender help keep four-legged critters like rabbits and deer away from your soon-to-be food. Lavender also helps attract butterflies and bees, which are necessary pollinators. Other nectar-rich flowers, such as day lilies, asters and geraniums, also attract the insects that are key to the success of your garden.
Climate is the average weather in a given place over many years. Your junior climatologists can research weather patterns for your region, but you’ll find that the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map has done the work for you. Your zone indicates the average minimum winter temperature, which helps you know when to plant or when the danger of frost has likely passed. Your zone also helps determine what plants are best for your climate. This is especially key for perennials, plants that live through the winter like asparagus or rhubarb. But that’s not the only factor to consider.
Get your children involved with the science of meteorology by having them track the weather. Help them learn to decipher the meaning of clouds from the puffy white cumulus that dot the sky on a pleasant day to the bulging mammatus on a stormy one.
Kids can also keep tabs on the weather with a homemade rain gauge that will help them determine when to water your plants. Build math skills by charting the daily rainfall. If you’ve got budding meteorologists on your hands, track the temperature too and graph the information out at the end of each month.
Here’s the Dirt on Soil
Dirt is what we encourage our kids to wash off of their hands before meals. Soil is rich in minerals and nutrients and helps plants take root. Soil is complex and full of life. You may be able to spy some of these creepers and crawlers with your own eyes, like pill bugs (roll-ups or roly-polies) and earthworms. However, some are too tiny to spot unaided. These microorganisms affect the structure and arability of the soil. Worms may seem gross and slimy, but they play a key role in our food chain, turning over the soil, loosening it up as they eat leaves, stems and other rotting matter. Worms enrich the soil as they leave behind recycled nutrients in their castings (also known as worm poop). Okay, maybe that still sound gross, but they’re great for your garden!
It’s All in the Mix
Different plants thrive under different conditions. You can do simple tests to learn more about your soil.
Root vegetables like carrots and potatoes prefer loose, sandy soil that’s lightly packed and drains well. Clay soil is dense and holds water. Therefore, clay soil is generally not good for growing vegetables. It’s easy to assess your soil. Simply grab a handful of the stuff and squeeze it in your hand. Loosen your grip and look at the results in your palm.
Does the resulting clump stick together tightly? Your soil is heavy on clay. If it crumbles, it’s heavy on sand. If it holds its shape but easily breaks up and can move through your fingers, it’s loamy, an ideal combination of sand and clay that allows for some water retention, but also drainage.
The pH, or how acidic or basic your soil is, will also affect the success of your garden. The ideal pH for most vegetables is 6.0 – 6.5, slightly acidic. To test the pH of your soil, scoop up about ½ cup of soil and deposit it in a clear plastic cup. Cover the soil with vinegar and look for a fizzy reaction. If you find one, your soil is basic or alkaline. To learn if your soil is acidic, place ½ cup in a different clear plastic cup and add water to cover it. Swish the mixture around and this time add ½ cup of baking soda. If you see a fizzy reaction, your soil is acidic. A soil test kit from a hardware store or your local cooperative extension will help you make a more accurate pH determination.
Protecting Your Plants
Now it’s time to protect your plants using science. Entomology, the study of insects, comes into play here. All butterflies are not created equal and cabbage moths, for instance, like to feed on peas and thick-stemmed brassicas (cabbage, cauliflower, and broccoli) to the point of destroying the plants. Last summer, my boys earned extra chore money or computer time by picking off the baby caterpillars resulting from egg-laying moths. At three minutes per caterpillar, they did a bit of math to calculate their bonuses as well.
Your garden will grow along with your children’s knowledge of science and you’ll have the most fruitful summer ever!