When I was a little girl, my grandparents had a huge garden. Row after row of peas, string beans, turnips, lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, pattypan squash - there was even a huge potato field, a strawberry patch and grape vines. If it would grow in Pennsylvania, my grandparents grew it - and I helped. We picked stones in the spring time and tilled the soil. I had my very own me-sized hoe and rake set, for planting and weeding. I helped with watering the plants and boy oh boy was I great at sampling the produce.
It's probably this history that made me think I'd have to have acres and acres of land if I ever wanted to grow useful crops of my own. On top of that, as much as I would like to have a garden like Granny and Pa's, I simply don't have the time to manage one.
Fortunately, you don't need five acres of land to grow something useful, and it can be a project you and your children take on together. Container gardening can teach children about plants and how our food is grown, while the children also learn responsibility through caring for and maintaining the plants.
JV Family photo by KIM HAYES
Keith Phelps designed this fairy garden in shades of pink and green at the Mifflin County Garden Club’s spring tea. Parents can build container gardens with various themes with their children as a family project.
JV Family photo by KIM HAYES
This herb container holds 18 plants and can provide fresh herbs in the kitchen all season long. Try planting an herb garden in window boxes, pots or even a wooden shipping pallet.
On May 4, I had the opportunity to attend the Mifflin County Garden Club's spring high tea. The speaker, Keith Phelps, put together several displays, but two in particular - an herb garden and a fairy garden - got my attention as being family-friendly.
The basics were the same for both. Line the container with coffee filters, placing two or three filters over each drainage hole in the container. Do not use stones or other objects to take up space in the container; the plants will need the space so their roots can expand. Use a good soil designed for containers rather than gardens. Because children may play in the fairy garden, Phelps suggested using a chemical-free organic soil in it. Fill two-thirds of the container with soil. Loosen the root ball of the plants, dip the roots in water and place the plants in the container. Fill in the spaces with more soil, making sure there is space between the plants and the side of the container. After the spaces are filled in, water the container until you see water coming out the bottom of it. To maintain the plants, repeat this process when the surface of the soil is dry to the touch.
Now for the specifics.
First lets talk about plants. You can buy them already grown in three- or four-inch pots, but if you really want to get your kids involved, get some seeds, seed-starting mix soil and plastic cups in late March or early April. Poke a hole in the bottom of each cup, fill it with the soil and plant the seeds according to the package instructions.
Set the cups on a cookie sheet lined with aluminum foil, plastic wrap or wax paper. If it's an old cookie sheet you don't care about, you don't even have to line it. It's up to you.
Add water to the cups until it runs out the bottom of the cups. Place the cups in a warm area and mist with water daily until the seedlings emerge. Then move them to a sunny spot. Use room-temperature water to hydrate the seedlings until the true leaves develop, adding just enough water to wet the top layer of soil.
Care for the plants indoors until a few days before you are ready to transfer them to your container. Take them outside so they can get accustomed to the climate change before you disturb the roots to transplant them. It is best to transplant them on an overcast day to prevent sun damage and drying of the plant roots.
Phelps used an 18-hole planter that seemed destined to grow herbs. You could also use window boxes, pots or, my personal favorite, a discarded wooden pallet. If you decide to use a pallet, make sure it is an untreated or heat-treated pallet rather than one that was treated with pesticides, since your family will be eating the herbs grown in the pallet. Hammer in any loose boards and sand any rough or sharp edges.
You'll want to cover the back of the pallet and three sides with landscape fabric. Cut two identical pieces of fabric and use a staple gun to affix them to the pallet. Use as many staples as needed to secure the fabric so it will hold the soil. Make sure to leave one side of the pallet uncovered; that will be the top of your garden, and you'll be planting herbs in those spaces.
Once you're done stapling, turn the pallet over. You're going to add the soil next, so you'll want to make sure you're near the pallet's intended final location. Once it's full of soil and plants, it will be heavy, so you don't want to be dragging it all over the yard.
Plan the placement of your herbs carefully before you begin. Vertical-growing herbs like chives may be best suited for the top openings, while mounding plants like basil might work better on the front of the garden. In this respect, it's all about how you want it to look. Do you want to be able to see the pallet structure itself? Use more upright and mounding herbs than trailing plants.
Push soil into what will be the bottom of the pallet until it reaches the first opening. Set your plants in the opening and repeat the process, working one row at a time toward what will be the top of the planter. When you have one empty row left, put your plants in the top opening of the planter and fill in between them with soil by pushing the dirt into the empty slot and in between the root balls of the plants. Then fill in the last row of plants. Next, fill in any gaps you may have with more soil, until the pallet is full. Water the herbs according to the instructions above.
Let the pallet rest on the ground for two to three weeks so the roots have time to take hold and secure themselves in place. Then lean the pallet against a wall or other sturdy vertical surface. Continue watering for the remainder of the season. When cooking with herbs, you and your children can snip them from your very own upright herb garden.
Now, I'm calling it a fairy garden, because that's what Phelps constructed at the garden club's event. Keep in mind, you could make this garden into anything of interest to your child. If you have a child who likes dinosaurs, you could make a raptor jungle. You could make a gnome home or a troll haven. It's all up to you.
First, decide whether the fairy garden is strictly for warm-weather use or if you will be bringing it inside once colder temperatures hit. If you'll be bringing it inside, the container should be small enough to fit on a cookie sheet. Phelps suggested filling the cookie sheet with gravel for effect, so the garden looks like it is surrounded by stones.
Then begin collecting items for the garden. You'll need a few plants, and depending on your theme, maybe a few items from a craft store. Phelps used a pink dollhouse chair, a tiny trellis, a piece of slate and a resin turtle and frog. He also used aquarium rocks for color. You can also take your children on a nature walk and let their imaginations find pieces for the garden. A flat stone or piece of shale could be a patio, a piece of bark could be a bench. Small stones could be boulders. You just never know what they might spot.
Choose plants that fit with your color scheme and will not outgrow the container. Phelps used lime thyme, pink baby doll and a polka-dot plant, which must be trimmed but worked well with the pink theme of the fairy garden.
After you've collected your materials, prepare your container as above: coffee filters over the drainage holes, two-thirds full of soil. Place the plants first, leaving space for the other decorations, and fill in the spaces around the plants with soil. Then get busy actually designing your garden. Use the items you've collected to make a suitable oasis for the fairies who might visit or the dinosaurs who live there. Let your children play with it and loose their imaginations on it. And don't forget to water it - unless your next theme is "desert."
Kim Hayes is the health and business editor at The Sentinel. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.