Thursday, April 29, 2010

Early Growth in the Garden

On April 7th we planted seeds in our garden. I blogged about it here.

After 8 days, we already had sprouts:Pea Pod, 8 days

Mesclun mix, 8 days.

Three weeks after planting, the plants can now be identified by their appearance. Those pea greens are almost ready for eating! If you haven't tried pea greens before, watch for them in your local farmer's market. They're popular early in the season when other crops aren't ready yet. I like to toss some in my salad. They're also good topped with grilled salmon. We probably won't pick ours as pea greens (unless the plants need thinning) because we REALLY love pea pods. If we pick the greens, there won't be any pods.
Pea pods, 3 weeks

Mesclun mix, 3 weeks.

Last year I bought a 6 pack of pak choi from our local garden center for the first time. I've always loved pac choi but hadn't grown it before then. Some of it went to seed and now we have a bunch of volunteer plants. I plan to let them grow a bit more and then harvest some tiny ones to eat and let the others fully mature. (They're much too crowded right now).
If you've never tried pac choi, I highy recommend it. It's a vegetable that's popular in Asian cooking. My favorite way to eat it is in stir fry. The key is to not overcook it- just a few minutes in a hot wok or saute pan is enough. Pac choi is readily available in most farmer's markets and grocery stores. In the grocery store, look in the produce section near the cabbages. They look kind of like small romaine heads with smoother, more rounded leaves that are less densely packed than romaine leaves.

For a side dish, try this:
  1. Cut off the very bottom and wash the leaves in plenty of cold water- soil can get trapped in the base of the plant.
    If they're large, you can cut them crosswise into large pieces an inch or more wide. I frequently leave them whole.
  2. Heat a wok or saute pan over medium to high heat. Add a bit of olive oil or canola oil (Maybe a tablespoon). When the oil shimmers, add the pak choi.
  3. Saute it quickly over high heat until the leaves become bright green (This happens quickly, so watch closely). If the pan seems too dry, add a couple of tablespoons of water.
  4. Drizzle the leaves with oyster sauce and serve. (Find Oyster Sauce in the international or Asian food aisle in your grocery store near the soy sauces and teriyaki sauces. If it's not available there, you may need to go to an Asian market. For my local readers, we go to Kam Man in Quincy, MA.

For an even healthier option, you can steam the pac choi for a few minutes and then drizzle it with oyster sauce.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge

This weekend, Rick and I explored the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge in Chatham, MA (Cape Cod).

I love exploring beaches and can frequently be seen with my head down, searching the sand for shells, rocks, skate egg cases, or anything else that catches my eye. On Saturday, I was rewarded with a live specimen. I scooped up this fiddler crab as it scuttled past us.

Check out those eye stalks and oversized claw!

I know everyone reading this doesn't have access to the ocean. So... what does this have to do with you? Everything. Get outside right where you live and see what you can see. Get to know what makes your hometown, or city block, or village special. Look closely. What examples of nature can you find at your doorstep? Are there any interesting cultural offerings?

On our way home, we stopped at one of our favorite restaurants- Stir Crazy in Pocassett, MA (Cambodian Cuisine). If you're able to take a vacation or a day trip, do the same thing wherever you end up. Get to know what makes that place special.

Loose Parts Play, Part 2

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the value of open-ended birthday parties and playdates. In that post, I promised to offer practical suggestions for parents who'd like to try planning one.

Here's my top 10 list for planning a "loose parts" party or playdate.

  1. Keep the guest list short. Many experts recommend matching the child's age to the number of children invited. (For example, a child turning 4 invites 4 friends).
  2. Encourage your child to invite friends with similar interests.
  3. Set a clear end-time for the party or playdate and keep it short. If the kids are playing well, you can always extend it or make plans for another playdate. If your kids have typically participated in highly organized forms of play such as video games or organized sports, they'll need a little practice with open-ended play. Better to have a short successful playdate with the kids asking for more time than a bunch of kids standing around bored.
  4. Plan around meals and naps (if the kids are young) to keep it simpler. For example, meet from 10 to 11:30 for little kids or 1 to 2:30 for older ones.
  5. Provide open space for playing. Possible locations: your back yard (if you have one), a local park, a state park, your child's schoolyard, or a public beach.
  6. Plan for the weather. Advise parents in advance that the party will be outside so they can dress their children appropriately and bring a change of clothes, if needed. Depending upon where you live and the time of year, this may include: applying sunscreen or bug spray, wearing hats, mittens, sunglasses and proper footwear (e.g. sneakers or other sturdy footwear, not flip flops), or dressing warmly.
  7. Don't automatically move the party inside if it rains or snows. Summer rains are warm and fun for kids. Kids love playing in the snow.
  8. Resist the urge to plan games or other organized activities. Rather, provide a bunch of "loose parts" and let them go. (In more natural areas that are not manicured, nature provides all the loose parts they'll need). Examples of loose parts for natural play (taken from Louv): trees, bushes, flowers, sticks, long grasses, rocks, sand, a pond with creatures in it.
  9. Provide lots of drinking water and healthy snacks such as cut up fruit, whole grain crackers and cheese, veggies and dip (hummus is big with my kids and their friends). Avoid high sugar drinks and snacks.
  10. Have a contingency plan in case the weather is too awful. Many state parks have gazebos or other structures where you can take shelter in inclement weather. Some require reservations, so call ahead. For more suggestions regarding what to do in case of inclement weather, come back next week for "Loose Parts Play, part 3."

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Happy Earth Day

In honor of Earth Day, here are a few photos to inspire you. All of them were taken in my yard just a few minutes ago.
White Cinderella Crab Apple Tree about to bloom


Kwanzan Cherry Tree blossom being visited by one of our honey bees.

A mix of flowers under our maple tree.

Bleeding Hearts dug from my mothers' garden and planted here.

I encourage you to get outside today, even if only for ten minutes to enjoy what nature has to offer. No matter what your job is, you deserve an actual lunch break- take part of it outside. If you live or work in the suburbs or country, lucky you! Get outside. But, even if you live in the city, nature abounds. Go out and find it. Maybe it's pigeons on a wire, a tree just starting to leaf out, or an ant hill in the cracks of the sidewalk. Look closely today and find what nature has to offer you.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Gardening Without a Yard

Yesterday, I blogged about our first planting session of this year's growing season. Gardening with children is a wonderful way to get them (and you) outside. Along the way, they'll learn about life cycles of plants, connections between plants and animals (such as the insects that pollinate the plants), and the food chain. For all of you homeschoolers and classroom teachers who need to meet state standards, there are many science standards to be learned through gardening. So put away those worksheets and start digging! Plus, another great benefit is that kids who grow their own food tend to want to eat it. What a great way to get your children or students to eat more vegetables.

To get started, look around your apartment building or school building and think creatively about possible gardening space. Be certain to ask permission from your landlord/Principal before proceeding.

Some examples:

  1. I have one sister who lives in an apartment in Cambridge, MA. She has a small section of yard that was filled with random debris when she and her husband moved in. They cleaned the area out, brought in some compost, and started planting.

  2. My other sister lives in San Francisco, CA. Along the side of the entry to her apartment, there's a narrow patch of land (maybe 3 feet wide) that was filled with weeds and other scrubby plants. After securing permission from her building management company, she cleared the weeds and planted a vegetable garden.

  3. When I lived in an apartment in Newport, RI, I had no land available at all. But, I had access to a flat rooftop, so I planted herbs and lettuces in pots on the roof. I also had window boxes outside my windows. At the time, I filled them with flowers. Now, I'd mix lettuce and herbs in with the flowers instead.

  4. Along the lines of my pots on the roof- perhaps you could plant in large pots or planters somewhere outside your building.

  5. As a grade four teacher, I worked alongside my students to plant a small garden right outside our classroom windows. We planted all early vegetables such as those mentioned in my last post. Then, we'd enjoy a salad together before school let out for the summer (sometimes, when school got out very early in June, we'd fill out the salad by purchasing some extra greens. We always had enough radishes and small carrots by then).

  6. Find someone like me who is willing to share their yard, rooftop, or community plot (see below) with you. Mikias and Jemberu don't have a garden at home but I'm happy to include them in my garden.

Ok, let's say, none of these options are viable for you. Now what?

  1. If you're really motivated, you might look for a vacant lot in your neighborhood and organize a community garden. But that requires LOTS of work to even get started. (Be sure to research the legal and health steps you 'll need to take before venturing into this. Oftentimes, city soil is contaminated, and topsoil needs to be removed before growing food, so be careful. On the other hand, many cities can provide excellent composted soil from city compost facilities once the contaminated soil is removed).

  2. Look for public garden plots that you can rent for a modest fee. You plant and work your plot and take home the food you grow. To find one, try googling "garden plots" plus the name of your city and state.

If you've read this far, but none of the above ideas appeal or can work for you and you still want to try your hand at gardening, try growing herbs and lettuces in your apartment or classroom. All you'll need is a sunny south-facing window and some pots filled with potting soil. These are available at your local garden center, which is also a great place to get advice about the plants, pots and soil that are best for your needs. Some of my favorite herbs to grow inside are basil, thyme, and rosemary.

For more information about vegetable gardening or gardening with children, try these resources:

  1. The Vegetable Gardener's Bible by Edward C. Smith. This is my go-to book, even after all these years. It's great for the novice and experienced gardener alike. Smith recommends planting in raised beds. I use this system now, but it is not necessary to have a garden. Don't wait until you have the perfect raised beds to get started.
  2. Roots, Shoots, Buckets, and Boots: Gardening Together with Children by Sharon Lovejoy. Directions are included for planting theme gardens such as a pizza patch (grow the fixin's to make your own pizza) a sunflower house, and container gardening.

  3. Wildlife Gardening: How to Bring Birds and Bugs to Your Backyard by Martin Cox. This new DK book has wonderful photographs, background science information, and three different kinds of suggested activities: "Grow it," "Make it," and "Watch it." Directions included range from planting a tree ("Grow it") to making frog and toad homes or moth catchers ("Make it").

A few great read-alouds for younger children:

  1. Planting a Rainbow by Lois Ehlert (Also available in Spanish)

  2. Eating the Alphabet: Fruits and Vegetables from A-Z by Lois Ehlert (Also in Spanish)

  3. Growing Vegetable Soup by Lois Ehlert (Available in Spanish)

  4. How Groundhog's Garden Grew by Lynne Cherry

  5. A Seed is Sleepy by Diana Hutts Aston and Sylvia Long

  6. The Reason for a Flower by Ruth Heller. Rhymes and bold, colorful illustrations explain pollination in flowers. Be careful of one innacuracy in the book- scientists no longer classify fungi (mushroms) as plants as is indicated at the end of the book (They're now in their own category so that there are plants, animals, fungi, and two others called monera and protista). As a teacher I always made this a point of discussion in my class and pulled more recent books and resources to share more current information.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Planting Time

During my son's birthday party, his friend, "J" came up to me in the kitchen and said, "Michelle, can I have some seeds?" I was confused by his question. Did he want sunflower seeds to eat? (My kids will request sunflower seeds in this way but I didn't think "J" would).

Then I noticed the trowel in his hand. I said, "Oh, do you want to plant some seeds?"


I explained that I couldn't get the seeds out right then because I was in the middle of preparing food for the party. I asked if he'd like to come back on another day and do some planting. He eagerly responded "yes," and I promised to make the arrangements.

Last Wednesday, I followed through on my promise. The weather was amazing- sunny and 90 degrees. We started by choosing what to plant.

Not surprisingly, the kids wanted to plant pumpkins, so I explained that we have to wait until it's consistently warmer, even during the evenings. For all of my friends in the northeast who may think summer is here because of the amazing weather we've been having...don't be fooled into planting your whole garden. There's still a risk of frost. For now, you can plant things like pea pods, spinach, kale, swiss chard and other greens. Wait until around Memorial Day for those heat loving plants like tomatoes, basil, squash, peppers, eggplant, and watermelons.

In preparation for the boy's arrival, I had used a pitch fork to turn over the soil in the section we would plant. Then, I had the kids help me rake the area smooth and remove any visible rocks.

Next, I showed them a little trick for planting pea pod seeds. We laid the seeds out in a zig zag pattern on top of the soil, close to the wire that will support the plants when they grow. By doing this, we could see where the seeds were and move them around as needed. Once the seeds were set, we poked them into the soil using our fingers. By going as far in as their second knuckles, the seeds are at just the right depth.

We planted the pea pods in the middle of our three foot wide raised beds, near the wire frame. On the north side of the supports, we planted spinach and on the south side of the supports, we planted mesclun mix. Spinach and mesclun seeds are much smaller and harder for little hands to control. If you plant with young children, it's better to stick with large seeds like peas (and later watermelons, pumpkins, sunflowers, and beans) that they'll be able to handle. I know our spinach and mesclun seeds didn't all end up in rows along the outer edge, but I don't mind a little chaos in my garden. It's more natural that way, anyway.

Once the seeds were all planted, we watered them gently.
And, we got a little silly! Why not... this is supposed to be fun, right?

Those of you who live in the city or don't have yards may wonder how you can have a garden. Come back tomorrow for my suggestions.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Loose Parts Play

"Nature is imperfectly perfect, filled with loose parts and possibilities, with mud and dust, nettles and sky, transcendent hands-on moments and skinned knees."
~Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods, 2005

We celebrated my son's 8th birthday last week. He had invited a few close friends and their siblings to bring their bicycles and play outside.
The invitation read: "Please bring your bicycle and helmet and dress appropriately. Unless the weather is terrible, we’ll be outside the whole time. (Lunch in the porch). We’ll serve a light lunch of tortilla pizzas, salad, and fruit, with cake and ice cream for dessert, of course!"

Lucky for us, the weather was beautiful- sunny and about 70 degrees just two days into April. Even last year, however, when there was a light drizzle, the kids played outside for short periods of time. Later, they came inside for an extended Legos session when they got too cold.

I know many parents worry about having no plan for their children's parties- no games or activities organized by the adults. What will they do with all of those kids? The funny thing is, when given the opportunity, kids will make their own fun. And that's exactly what happened here last Friday. They rode their bikes up and down our dirt driveway, making sure to go straight through the mudpuddles left by the previous days' flooding. They invented games with one girl as the mother, and two other kids as her children. They collected random sticks, containers, dog leashes, and cardboard boxes to construct an elaborate scenario I don't pretend to comprehend. They played for hours, only coming inside to use the facilites or wash up before eating. When the planned end-time for the party arrrived, I invited the moms present to let their children play longer if they wanted. Everyone was having so much fun.

While rereading Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv, I was thinking about the party. Louv writes about the value of extended, uninterrupted outside play and exploration. As part of his argument for more free play in nature, he shares the loose-parts theory proposed by Simon Nicholson. Nicholson describes his theory like this: "In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it." (Nicholson quoted in Louv, 2005) Nicholson further explains a "loose-parts" toy as open-ended, meaning that "children may use it in many ways and combine it with other loose parts through imagination and creativity." (Louv, 2005)

There are many reasons a family might choose to have a birthday party in a public facility such as an arcade, bowling alley, or indoor playground: no yard, too much mess post party, not enough time to plan/organize the party, too many kids to fit in the house, or the birthday falls during the winter months (or monsoon, or tornado season...) These are certainly all obstacles to planning such a party. I'd suggest, however, that many of those obstacles can be overcome with a little creative thinking. I'd further suggest that the whole process will be far more enjoyable for you and your child.

I know my family is lucky to live in the country and have a yard and porch. Many of you reading this may not have such resources. I haven't forgotten you. My years of experience both in an elementary classroom and as an educational consultant prepared me to consider all different kinds of familes in all different kinds of situations with very different kinds of needs. My educational background also provided me with tools to imagine different ways of doing things.

Over the next few weeks, I'll share my suggestions for planning a more open-ended birthday party or playdate. If you have specific questions, please comment and I'll try to address them in a future post. And, if you have suggestions, please share them, as well.

In the meantime, if you want to learn more about why nature experiences are so important to childrens' development, I highly recommend reading Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv. You can also visit, The Children and Nature Network.

For practical examples of what to do with kids in nature, try these books:
  1. Sharing Nature With Children by Joseph Cornell (The first nature resource I used as a Naturalist at Cape Outdoor Discovery.)

  2. The Green Hour by Todd Christopher 

  3. Nature's Playground by Fiona Danks and Jo Schofield (for my readers in the UK... there's both a UK version and a US version).

  4. The Sense of Wonder by Rachel Carson (for inspiration)
Finally, try the Nature Rocks website for specific ideas for getting out in nature.

Monday, April 5, 2010

No Eggs Found

My son and I made the trek out to the vernal pool this weekend. We brought our wagon, complete with snacks, drinking water, and rubber boots. We also brought two large jugs to carry home a small mass of eggs and lots of water and leaf litter. We planned to bring the egg mass home, set it up in a tank with vernal pool water and leaf litter from the vernal pool, watch the tadpoles develop and hatch, and then return them to the vernal pool.

When we reached the site, I oriented mysef by finding the large tree I had sat under two weeks before. We made our way through the tangle of low shrubs and prickly briars until we reached the water. We waded in carefully, working to move the briars, look for eggs, and maintain our balance all at the same time.

I was amazed. We found...nothing. Not one mass. The light was just right- we could see through the water to the bottom. Still we found nothing. Then I paused and really looked closely. I realized I was standing at least 10 feet from the place where I had been sitting the last time.

I said, "Oh my gosh. I can't even get to where I was the last time. The water is too deep. And the frogs were further out from there. There's no way we can get to where the eggs will be!"
We made a few more attempts, but soon it was clear that we couldn't possibly get out to the area where the gelatinous masses would be found.
So what happened? We had massive rainfall in our area one week ago. Roads are still flooded out, schools were closed, and a little peninsula of land that is home to nearly 1,000 residents became an island. We fared pretty well at our house. Our basement had water in it but not nearly as much as many other people nearby.

So, why can't we find those little gelatinous masses? Wood Frogs usually attach their spawn to a submerged branch. Those branches will hold the eggs steady right where they were layed. Now that the area is so flooded, we can't possibly get close enough to get them.

I guess we'll just have to go back and look for polliwogs (tadpoles) once they hatch. Those little guys zip all around in the water! We'll keep you posted.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

We Are More Alike...

I've been trying to write a post describing the similarities between two experiences I had recently: seeing Dr. Maya Angelou speak and attending Passover Seder at our friends Stanley and Ilene's house. Hard as I tried, however, I couldn't find the right words to express my feelings. Frustrating, to say the least, for this writer. So, I've decided instead to simply tell about my experiences.

Being in Maya Angelou's presence for a second time, hearing her sing and speak about her life, was both humbling and uplifting. Dr. Angelou represents a strength, a courage, and an open-ness that I aspire to. She has experienced immeasurable suffering in her lifetime in the form of abuse, abandonment, and racism. Yet, she rises up, a graceful, strong woman who speaks only in positive phrases, not negative. She brings people together.

She told us, "You may encounter many defeats, but do not be defeated." No-one can turn a phrase like Dr. Angelou. And, no matter what she says, it sounds like music. She also said, "Human beings are more alike than we are unalike." This simple statement beautifully summarizes my feelings. All of us, African-Americans and Caucasian-Americans, Asians and Australians, Jews and non-Jews, want the same basic things in life.

This year's Passover Seder was not our first. Stanley and Ilene first invited us many years ago and we've been invited every year since. Some may wonder why my family celebrates Passover if we are not Jews. The answer is simple: because our dear friends invited us and we were honored to be included in such an important celebration. Secondary to this fact, we also want our children to know and appreciate people from a variety of different backgrounds with a variety of different beliefs. Even though Passover Seder lasts for several hours, and would keep our young children up hours past bedtime on a school night, sharing this experience with our friends was too important to miss.

I was honored to be in Maya Angelou's presence. I was honored to celebrate Passover. I am honored to be a small part of these events.

The next time you have a chance to meet someone different from you, take a chance and say hello. When a person of another faith invites you to a religious celebration, accept the invitation and go with an open heart. Go find the things that make you more alike than unalike.

No Frog Eggs Found...Yet

Three days after our first wood frog adventure, my family visited a different vernal pool roughly 1/2 mile behind our house "as the crow flies." We were greeted with the same boistrous clucks and calls. Last Sunday, one week later, I returned to that same vernal pool. All was quiet. The only sound was the wind rustling sassafras leaves nearby. I looked for frog eggs (scientists call them frog spawn) but found none. The overcast light of the day reflected off the water creating a glare that obscured my view of the bottom. We need sunbeams to shine through the water and illuminate the eggs. It's been raining here in Southeastern Massachusetts for days, so we haven't returned, yet. This weekend is supposed to be warm and sunny, though, so we'll check back then and report our findings.

On Sunday, I did make this discovery, just a few feet from where I had sat the week before. I was so focused on the wood frogs that I had missed it. With the quiet of this past weekend, I took time to look around more.

Does anyone want to venture a guess regarding what this might be?

Here's a close-up :