Garden Days: Growing our Maths Skills

Inspecting his new building project after completion, a week later my son still grins when he goes into the greenhouse.

Recently we started to build the greenhouse that has been sitting in a box for literally months. It provided a plethora of opportunities for my four year old to practice Maths and fine motor skills. Afterwards, I couldn’t help feeling that it was a rich home learning opportunity that I could have easily missed. There was number recognition,  shape recognition, counting, pattern recognition and lots and lots of deep breaths as I reminded myself to be patient.  I am also hoping it helped reinforce the value of using instructions to guide a project!

The site for the greenhouse. Moving the old shed exposed the running bamboo enough to finally pull it out. Fingers crossed we got all the roots.

Before we started building we had to prepare the site. Our most recent hailstorm punched holes in the roof of an old garden shed that had seen better days, so it was time to get rid of it. It means my greenhouse will have a concrete floor which has advantages and disadvantages. It also happens to be in a spot which has extra shade in Summer. It was incredibly satisfying to finally rip up the running bamboo that had grown into the old shed.

Fine motor skills – using an allen key was very exciting for a four year old who wants to do real work.

My partner and I got the base laid out before inviting the children to get involved. My daughter declined for the most part, she had other important business that day involving the cubby house. My son got straight into using his tiny fingers to manipulate the small bolts. Soon he was using the allen key too and the oodles of patience I was practising was rewarded with enthusiastic smiles from my boy. Fine motor skills – check!

My daughter’s participation was inconsistent, but she was there to help with number recognition when needed.

All the parts were numbered as they often are in flatpacks. This was a great opportunity for my son to practice number recognition. When we got to the higher numbers we had good talks about what two numbers together meant and he paid attention to this valuable knowledge presented in a real world context. My daughter helped with this too and it’s amazing how a six year old can simplify things for a four year old when the adults are struggling. Number recognition – check!

When it got windy my son helpfully found a rock to keep the instructions open at the right page! Fingers crossed that this is reinforcing the concept of using instructions as a guide!

We talked about shapes a lot! We didn’t just name them, we also talked about how the shapes went together and predicted how the pattern of the building might progress. Later I saw him trying to apply some of the concepts with his building blocks. Shape recognition – check! Pattern recognition – check!

There were plenty of distractions along the way! We had to stop and examine bugs frequently.

It took a full day, but my greenhouse was built and awaiting use! Yes, the job took longer and I made a few extra mistakes along the way. It’s hard to teach a little boy and follow badly written instructions at the same time!

The greenhouse waiting for many propagation adventures!

In the end, we got it done and my boy feels a genuine sense of accomplishment every time he sees the greenhouse. I don’t think he realises how much he (and I!) learned along the way.

Once the greenhouse was built, the box became a boat – of course!

Garden Days: edible flower garden

Our edible flower garden has been a little trampled on by animals, but in a couple of weeks I am confident the flowers will be standing tall between harvests!

Last year I grew an edible flower garden and my daughter started harvesting and making salads for the family dinner table and, even more surprisingly, my son ate them! As a general rule, my daughter only eats raw fruit and vegetables and my son mostly prefers cooked vegetables. They both love edible flowers and were excited when I came home from the nursery with a heap of flowers once the weather cooled. They are an easy salad vegetable to grow and they’re full of antioxidants.

Pots of colour waiting to be transplanted.

Transplanting was initially delayed by my indecision about the best location for the flowers, then inspiration struck! What about the sandpit that the children never use?! It’s perfect for a raised garden bed. Without further delay, it became a whole family affair. My partner moved it to a sunny location and filled it with some potting soil kindly given to us when a local nursery closed down last year. I mixed in some Dynamic Lifter and the children helped plant the seedlings.

The sheriff helped out with the planting!

First, the Snapdragons, which we probably won’t eat because they aren’t very palatable. They are there for height in the centre, biodiversity and simple childhood joy! I have fond memories of playing with Snapdragons as a child and following tradition my children enjoyed “testing” the snapping power of each flower as we planted.

The joy of Snapdragons has been passed from one generation to the next in my family!

Next the showy pink Dianthus with their edible petals. We didn’t try these ones last year so we are interested to see how they taste. We won’t try any though until they’ve had a fortnight in the ground with regular watering to dilute the pesticides that were likely used in their cultivation.

The showy Dianthus with edible petals.

Pansies! Yum! With their delightful colours and strangely minty flavour,  these are a favourite in our garden. With our increasingly warm subtropical climate we can only grow them in the six coolest months of the year, but they’re worth the work of an annual. My daughter is itching to harvest them.

Yellow Pansies – every colour tastes slightly different so it’s good to plant a rainbow!

Now my personal favourite,  Viola. Just a little smaller and a little more delicate than a Pansy and I think, a little more minty. Really Pansies are just a variety of Viola, but there’s a subtle difference that I enjoy.

Delightful and delicate,  Violas are my personal favourite edible flower.

Finally,  the gorgeous Cornflower seedlings, yet to flower but worth the wait. Last year’s Cornflowers were stunning but I planted them too late to enjoy a full season. I have learned from that! Their edible petals look wonderful in a green salad.

Last year’s Cornflowers were stunning!

We watered everything in with some seaweed solution to help settle the seedlings in and stimulate growth.

The children love watering. If I let them they would keep going until the beds were flooded.

The final step was adding too many garden ornaments plus some rocks and broken terracotta pots.  This is to stop my dog and my chicken from digging up the new garden. The broken terracotta pots also offer lizards shelter from predators and a place to catch the sun while they keep the pest population under control.

The broken terracotta pot pieces offer lizards shelter from predators and a place to catch the sun while they keep the pest population under control.

Now it’s time for patience. Waiting to harvest is full of anticipation, but last year’s results reassure me that this crop will live up to expectations! Fingers crossed!

Last year’s harvest resulted in meals like this. The entire salad component was homegrown! Hoping to repeat this in 2020.

Garden Days: Wiggly Woo Farm

All my children wanted to do was hold worms!

I was stunned by my children’s excitement when I told them we were going to get the worm farm going again.  They are exposed to garden activities on a regular basis so they don’t always appreciate them, but the worm farm… whoa! Stop the press! This is a great idea!

My worm farm – bought years ago and not used for a while because the heat one Summer killed the population.

Worm farms truly give bang for their buck in my humble opinion. You put in some kitchen scraps and make sure it stays damp. You get liquid fertiliser regularly and castings every few months depending on the number of worms. Well worth the effort, especially since all that fertiliser is safe for Australian natives which can be a bit picky!

Checking on worms is so much fun!

Here’s how I set it up using my existing worm farm structure which I bought from Mitre 10. You can easily create one from repurposing junk but my partner wanted something “tidy” so this was my compromise since most of my gardening activities are decidedly untidy.

My 6 year old daughter loves holding all sorts of creepy crawlies! Worms were not going to be an exception.

My worm farm has three levels. The bottom level is for catching the liquid fertiliser. The other two levels can be rotated when you want to collect the castings.

I left the second and third levels empty. The top level is the working level right now. I added old egg shells that I have kept for a while, making sure that some were crushed into a fine grit. Apparently worms love egg shells. I added an old coconut fibre liner from a hanging plant as well as the old Hessian covering from the dog bed. I then poured a bucket of water over it all to partly fill the lower layer. That way, even if we have a hot day the farm will stay humid. I try not to completely empty the worm farm because the closed farm benefits from humidity.

The next step was to add the worms which I bought from a hardware store. They recommend at least 1000 but I was happy to get 500 in a “booster” box. In the past they have multiplied quickly. I just have to limit feeding them so the scraps don’t rot. I also added some wet newspaper to help keep it moist and add a food source that won’t rot.

My 4 year old wasn’t sure at first, but quickly followed his sister’s example.

For now I am limiting their diet to carrot peelings and lettuce leaves. Until the numbers increase there’s no point putting more in.

The worms are simply fascinating!

Almost a week later, the worms are thriving in a shady spot and feeding the worms with carrot peelings is a reward for the children! I can’t wait to start harvesting the wonderful fertiliser for my garden!

Garden Days: activities for families with young children

My daughter, five years old, showing off her harvest last year! She turned these healthy greens into a salad for the whole family.

While most of the world winds down gardening in Autumn, preparing for the Winter freeze, in subtropical Australia autumn can be as exciting as Spring. The cooler weather also creates plenty of opportunities to get the children into the garden without fear of sunburn. Of course this Autumn is like no other Autumn, tinged with anxiety and apprehension as we deal with a pandemic that will likely change society forever. Many people are dealing with financial fears in the face of social isolation that might be required for months.

Colleagues and friends have also expressed concerns about spending that time “alone”. I have always enjoyed my alone time and as a working mother I rarely get true alone time or quality time alone with my children so that aspect of this crisis doesn’t worry me. Other aspects do, but this isn’t the right forum for me to share those views, so the alone time concern…

My work won’t be closing at this stage, but I have two weeks holiday soon and we will be locked down at that time. So, what do I plan to do?

Herbs and edible flowers waiting for me to have time to plant!

FIRST PRIORITY: Re-establish My worm farm. They struggle here in summer, but this weather is perfect and they will provide free liquid fertiliser.

I find worms multiply quickly with some good food like carrot peels and bits of lettuce, so I always start with a booster box and they tend to multiply quickly.

SECOND PRIORITY: Establish a proper herb garden. Herbs are great plants for children. Most of them engage the senses through touch and smell AND most are edible if you have a child that likes to put everything in their mouth. They generally grow quickly too. Our subtropical climate is too harsh for many plants over summer but most thrive in the cooler weather that has just started. I have some herbs already and this is the perfect time to add to the collection by propagating some seedlings or planting some bought from a local nursery. I am choosing some easy herbs that have also been used historically as anti-virals. Basil, Sage, Fennel, Dandelion, Oregano, Tumeric are my starters. As soon as they’re big enough we’ll cook with them or drink them as teas.

Some herbs I ordered from the Mudbrick Herb Cottage, a wonderful family business that operates exclusively online at the moment.

THIRD PRIORITY: Build a greenhouse. I have a flatpacked one just waiting to be constructed. It’s much easier to propagate in a controlled environment. It’s just a big jigsaw puzzle really and children get great satisfaction from building projects in my experience.

FOURTH PRIORITY: Propagate! From cuttings and from seed. I have some bush tucker plant seeds waiting in tidy little packets. My children love watching seedlings grow and I think they will find the cuttings fascinating .

These are Warrigal Greens, good Aussie Bush Tucker, waiting to be harvested.

I also plan to involve them in harvesting edible weeds and cooking with them. We’ll also experiment with some bush tucker recipes. I will be blogging as I go and adding more ideas for entertaining children in the garden. Watch this space!

My son, three years old, checking out his weevil farm! Bugs are so much fun!

The Pioneer who Stole my Heart

When we started to remove the invasive weed species from our block and made efforts to improve the soil we noticed a number of plants popping up that I thought might be weeds. As I researched and identified them I frequently came across the term “pioneer species” in relation to the vigourous growers.

Just look at those leaves! This tree is so popular with insects that the leaves are constantly under attack.

It turns out that these “pioneer species” move into disturbed areas and grow quickly, creating shelter and improving the soil for more delicate species. These are the tough and resilient plants that arrive first when bushland is allowed to re-establish. I was happy enough with the acacias, but there was this other plant that appeared everywhere,  always had scraggly leaves and survived everything.  The saplings shot up quickly and shaded my citrus. What were these weedy, untidy specimens?! And then I researched and oh, what a wonderfully interesting gem of a tree! Now, I delight in the more mature specimens,  I tell all my visitors about them and I plan to plant some next to all my outdoor taps…

The bird/possum feeder where I put my old fruit hangs from the branches of this Soap Tree. The Rainbow and Scaly-breasted Lorikeets spend a lot of time in its canopy which hangs over one of the bird baths.

So what is this tree with which I am so enamoured? It has various common names such as Soap Tree, Red Ash, Leatherjacket and Cooper’s Wood. The scientific name is Alphitonia excelsa and it’s distributed from the South Coast of New South Wales to the Kimberlies in Western Australia.  Its range is mostly along the coast but it’s also found in Brigalow forests inland.

The flowers of the Soap Tree are often called “insignificant” in botanical descriptions,  but the insects do not agree.

So why the delight? Well, when there’s a breeze the leaves are blown around to reveal the pearly white undersides and the rippling green and pearl is relaxing in a delightfully hypnotic way. Need some mindfulness? Stare at a Soap Tree on a breezy day! Once they get established and the trunk develops it’s like something out of a fairy story. I took a photo but they’re much better in person. They have a lovely shape and canopy and create lovely dappled shade without killing the grass. But it doesn’t stop with their physical characteristics, they are also a delight in conversation.

The trunk of the Soap Tree becomes more magical as it expands in girth and character simultaneously. Just look at the contrasting light and dark and the numerous knots! Enchanting!

I have had so many conversations in relation to this tree! Did you know that the leaves will create a lather if crushed in water? You can use this lather to wash with. Indigenous Australians used to lather them up in creeks and billabongs which would deoxygenate the water “stunning” fish. The fish would then float to the surface for harvest. The wood used to be used for wine barrels,  hence the common name of Cooper’s Wood. It has been used medicinally to relieve headaches and sore eyes. A few months ago I took some to my daughter’s school and she and her six year old friends had a ball lathering their hands with the leaves on a hot day.

Lathering up little hands with Soap Tree leaves on a hot day at school is lots of fun!

It is host to many beneficial insect species, including butterflies and bees. This, of course, results in the scraggly look I mentioned earlier,  but from a distance one barely notices the holes in the profusion of leaves.

A Green-banded Blue Butterfly which is hosted by the Soap Tree during the egg and caterpillar stages.

Alphitonia excelsa is a wonderful tree and a lovely addition to any garden that has enough room for it’s 18 metre tall trunk and its semi-deciduous nature. It’s beloved by bees, butterflies and birds. One of my favourites in so many ways!

“Build it and they will come”

This morning as I sat on my back patio looking around at the back garden drinking a coffee, a butterfly almost landed on my head. How delightful that sensation was once I had got over the initial shock response! I watched it fly away and cross the path of two other butterflies in the process. As I reflected on the growing number of insects I have been seeing in my garden lately I was reminded of a conversation that I had with my sister yesterday. Somehow the conversation got around to the praying mantis egg case that I had discovered before and after hatching. She commented on how lucky I am to have that happen in my very own garden and told me that her husband’s brother had just bought a praying mantis egg case because he couldn’t seem to attract them to his garden. She asked me what I was doing that I thought might be helping them thrive in my garden. The truth is that I am not really sure. I think that a garden is such a complex system with such an abundance of variables that it’s hard to isolate one or two things that make a difference, but here are the things I think are making a difference.

  • I garden organically with no insect control whatsoever, not even white oil. The only way that insects die in my garden by human hands is by being accidentally squashed, squished, crushed or eaten (note: accidentally!). Otherwise I leave it to other predators in the food chain and I think the birds are quite happy about that! Not to mention the praying mantises and lacewings.
  • I try to put the beneficial insects and suffering plants in the same vicinity. For example, the Lacewings seem to like laying eggs on my clothesline pegs so I simply take them off the line and peg them to a plant with scale or aphids. Lacewing nymphs will eat each other in the absence of a ready food source so I figure that I am not only controlling aphids and scale I am also maximising the population of their main predator. I am not worried about being taken over by lacewings either, because the birds seem to appreciate them as a snack. Recently I “saved” two Tuckeroo saplings with this method. It was fascinating watching the transformation as the Lacewings took over the aphid and scale populations and the saplings grew new healthy growth. Both trees are thriving now!
  • I make an effort to maximise biodiversity in my garden. An obvious way to do this is to plant a variety of species and I do that with an effort to preference endemic and native species. I also remove or control invasive species to stop them smothering other plants, particularly the endemic plants in our natural bush gully.
  • I let some of my annual herbs and leafy vegetables flower. Basil and lettuce in particular seem to attract so many beneficial insect species!
  • I leave piles of “garden debris” for nesting purposes. My garden isn’t tidy, because gardening for me is more about the wild delights of nature. Apart from that I’m busy and I’d rather have a messy, wild garden full of biodiversity than a tidy collection of low maintenance species. I don’t have a problem with the latter… if it floats your boat go for it!

This issue of insects is an important one. A quick google search reveals an alarming number of studies showing a decline in insect populations around the world. Without insects, other species in both plant and animal kingdoms won’t last long. I would love to see a revolution in the way that we think about them so that we can celebrate their place in the system and all the benefits we reap due to their “little” lives.
Gardening, for me, is therapy and that therapy is far more effective when it’s full of a delightfully wild variety of things that grow, glow, climb, bloom, crawl, sing and fly, but more than that it’s about the surprises, the astonishment and all the amazing learning about this wonderful thing called life!
Wishing you an abundance of insect life in your garden,

PS Have you seen my video showing all my newly hatched praying mantis babies. If you’d like to see it Click here