Fun And Learning In The Fall Garden

Fun and Learning in the Fall Garden

Spring and summer may get all the glory in your garden, but there are plenty of plants that tolerate or even prefer cooler weather. If you’re looking for one more reason to stay outdoors late into the fall, planting a fall garden might just be the thing. Grab the kids, your garden tools, and start planning your fall garden now.

What to plant

There are plenty of late-blooming flowers you can plant at the end of summer or beginning of fall. Pansies can thrive in the still-warm fall soil; then they’ll come to life again in the spring. And if you’re willing to wait until spring to reap the fruits of your labor, you can have your kids plant spring bulbs like tulips and daffodils.

Pumpkin Harvest for Fun and Learning in the Fall Garden

Some vegetables, like tomatoes and squash that are planted in the spring, will still be thriving into the early to middle part of fall. If you planted pumpkins in the spring, your kids will get a kick out of picking their own right out of your backyard. But there are also several plants that thrive in cooler temperatures and grow relatively quickly.

Broccoli, carrots, lettuce, spinach, and kale are all cool weather fans. Cabbages and brussel sprouts can be fun to grow and compare, especially as your children watch the cabbages dwarf the sprouts in size. Add color to your harvest with some tasty beets and one of the colored cauliflower varieties. The kids will have fun choosing what to plant and you’ll enjoy tasty fresh vegetables right into winter.

When to plant

Some things you’ll plant in the fall (like bulbs) won’t make an appearance until spring. If you want some instant color, you can plant fall perennials but be warned that most of them won’t survive the winter if they’re planted in the fall. They won’t have enough time to strengthen their roots to survive the cold.

As for veggies, a few, like kale, onions, and garlic, positively thrive in cooler temperatures. For the rest, you’ll need to know when your first frost occurs and count backward by the amount of time each plant takes to harvest. Add in an extra two weeks to your calculations to allow for the shorter days–less sunshine means slower-growing plants.

Have the kids help you make labels for everything you plant so you can keep track of what you’ve planted. You can also put the estimated harvest dates on your labels to see how close your estimate actually is once your veggies are ready to be picked.

Planning for spring

While you’re in your fall garden, you can prepare for spring by starting up a compost pile or bin. All you need is an unused corner of your yard or a bin designed for composting and some grass clippings, vegetable scraps, and yard waste. While compost won’t break down as quickly during the winter, starting in the summer or late fall will give you a start on the composting process.

Fall leaves add an excellent ‘brown layer’ for your compost but don’t forget to explain to the kids that everyday items such as used tea bags and vegetable peels can be ‘recycled’ into nutritious compost for your future gardens. As an added bonus, you’ll be providing a great place for bugs and worms to live all year round.

Prep your yard for winter

Get the kids involved in winterizing your landscape. Show them how to spread mulch around shrubs and trees in preparation for the colder months. Talk about the difference between plants that only bloom in the spring and summer and those trees and shrubs that stay green all year long.

Plan ahead for spring with seedballs

After you’ve planted your fall plants, why not use up your leftover seeds in a fun project for spring? All you need is organic compost, red clay, and leftover seeds—flower seeds work great, but feel free to experiment with vegetable seeds, too.

Just put 3 pinches of red clay, 2 pinches of compost, and one pinch of seeds in your palm. Moisten with water (a spray bottle works well) and shape into a ball. Let the balls dry and harden, then toss them out into your garden. The seeds will remain protected until growing conditions are just right, and then they’ll sprout like magic when spring comes back around.

Fun & Learning in the Fall Garden!

Plant a Native Garden with Your Kids

Planting a Native Garden, secular homeschooling

By Kathy Oaks author of Homeschoolers Are Not Hermits.

When we go to the gardening store or look at the seed and plant catalogs that arrive every spring, it can be hard to tell which plants are native, much less why we might want to garden with native plants in the first place. There are so many pretty flowers to make our lives brighter! But there are plenty of good reasons to make the effort to landscape with native plants, even if we have to look harder to find them.

First of all, many non-native plants can become seriously invasive, taking over not only your garden but also parks and woodlands nearby. Think of kudzu and dandelions, which are pests of varying seriousness. I can buy three types of dandelion seed from one of my catalogs; they were introduced in the first place by people who valued them as food. There are many more invasive plants, and most of them started in someone’s garden, although some have been introduced inadvertently. Invasive plants take over the habitats of native plants, forcing them out. But why should we value native plants in the first place?

Native plants are part of our local biomes.

When they are disrupted, the entire food web can be disrupted. There has been a lot of attention paid to bees and butterflies recently, but it goes much further than needing flowers for pollen and nectar. At the beginning of the life cycle, insects need native plants to lay their eggs on so that the eggs will survive long enough to hatch, and so that there is a food source for the larvae after hatching. Insects are now having to lay eggs on plants that are less than optimal, or even toxic to their offspring. (As a side note, any plants that don’t specifically say they are not sprayed with the insect-toxic neonicotinoids most likely are. They don’t wash off, they are incorporated into the plant, so even plants that are supposed to be good for butterflies or bees may be killing them.)

Cup plants with bees
Cup plants with bees

Bugs aren’t everyone’s favorite critters, but they are vital to the ecosystem.

Ladybug larvae will eat all those aphids that attack our plants, and there are many more that do similar jobs. Those that aren’t keeping the insect population balanced are helping the birds and more. Baby birds need lots of protein to grow, and that protein comes in the form of larvae in the spring. If the insects die off, so do the songbirds. If the songbirds die or go elsewhere for food, other animals like owls and snakes will have less food. They will have less food still when the moles and shrews and bats and other small furry animals starve with no insects to eat. The health of an ecosystem can often be seen in the health of its top predators. I am encouraged whenever I see marsh hawks and bald eagles in our neighborhood, even though we live in a large metro area. It means there are enough gardens and parks with native plants to keep our biome going.

So what can we do?

Yes, plant a native garden, and do it with your kids. Food webs and biomes and botany and the life cycles of plants and animals aren’t things that are happening somewhere in the woods and in books. They are relevant, and happening in your own backyard. My mom is a biology professor, and when she learned we were moving to Minnesota she immediately bought me “Landscaping with Native Plants in Minnesota.” We have watched Monarch butterfly caterpillars chowing down on our swamp milkweed plants, and counted bees for The Great Sunflower Project. We were ecstatic to see hawks nest in our oak tree for a few years, and we’ve seen shrews and an opossum and even a woodchuck in our urban yard, not to mention all the rabbits.

I can’t tell you specifically what to plant because your biome may be different from ours, and your tastes in plants and the space you have available to you will differ as well. We have a large yard and friends and relatives who love to give us native plants; not everyone has that. Some native plants look pretty boring but there are plenty to choose from that have beautiful flowers or unusual shapes and forms to make your landscaping interesting, even if you only have a balcony container garden. Native violets, echinaceas, black-eyed Susans, and columbines are just a few of the attractive flowers to choose from. I suggest reading “Bringing Nature Home” by Douglas Tallamy for the biology and lists of plants.

Native columbine
Native columbine

Here is what we do.

We plant food for us that is mostly non-invasive, and keep anything that might spread contained. We have a vegetable garden and fruit trees and shrubs. Instead of blueberries, we have native Juneberry bushes, which are related to blueberries and easier to grow.
We have a small raised bed just for the boys to plant their own garden.
We plant food to share with the birds: extra Juneberries and cherries.
We plant shrubs and trees beneficial to insects: Juneberries, oaks, cherries and plums.
We plant native wildflowers that haven’t been sprayed: swamp milkweed, cup plants, etc.

What else can you do to show your kids how biomes live in your own backyard?

Plant sunflowers and count bees through
Leave some of your yard un-raked through the winter as insect habitat; look under leaves for wooly bear caterpillars and more.
Leave dried flower stalks up through the winter so the birds and mice can eat the seeds.
Build a home for native bees.
Build a bat house; bats will eat all those mosquitoes in the summer.
Find your local native plant resources through
Leave out natural nesting materials for your birds.
Check your library for age-appropriate books to read together about the nature in your area. We liked “One Small Square: Backyard” by Donald M. Silver and Patricia Wynne.

Most of all, be interested! Let your kids see you learning with them and finding out what creatures live near us, hidden but important.

Wooly bear caterpillar
Wooly bear caterpillar
Unraked garden
Unraked garden