For those of us who love to garden with our kids, winter can be a long, gray period of waiting for the soil to warm up. Most of us put thoughts of gardening aside, with the occasional sigh of anticipation when a new seed catalog comes in the mail. Following are a just a couple of the many projects you can do with your kids to extend your and your kids’ connection to the garden year-round.
Forcing is the process of causing branches or bulbs to bloom at a time that is not natural to them. Maybe you and your kids forced some amaryllis or paperwhite bulbs over the holidays. You can speed up the process of new life in the garden by cutting some branches of flowering shrubs or trees to coax into bloom inside.
Any woody, deciduous (not evergreen) shrub or tree that flowers in early spring can be forced. Pussy willows, forsythia, and dogwood are wonderful candidates for early forcing. Later in the spring you can try fruit blossoms like apple, cherry, pear, crabapple, or plum. The trees need at least 6-8 weeks after leaf drop to form new flower buds. The closer it is to normal flowering time, the quicker and more uniform the blossoms will be. Expect 1-4 weeks before blossoms open.
Prune the branches you want, and be sure to get them into fresh, warm water in under 20 minutes. After that time, cells will start to close and won’t absorb water as readily. Don’t smash the ends with a hammer, rather make a nice clean cut. Put floral preservative into the water, or use one of these homemade recipes: 1 pint of lemon-lime soda to 3 pints of water, plus ¼ tsp of bleach, adding an extra ¼ every 4 days. OR, 2 Tbl lemon juice, 1 Tbl sugar, and ½ tsp bleach to a quart of water. Change the water and preservative at least weekly.
Keep the branches in a cool, moist environment as the buds are developing. A garage, basement, or porch is a good place to keep them, and you may want to put a large plastic bag over the branches to keep moisture in. At least once a week, it’s a good idea to give them a nice shower with a misting bottle to keep humidity up.
When you see the buds start to swell and little pieces of the bud casing start to come off, it’s time to arrange and display your branches. The cooler, moister, and darker you can keep them, the longer your blossoms will last. I like to force pear blossoms for Easter and hang little wooden Easter ornaments on the branches for a dramatic Easter tree.
It is soothing to gardener and non-gardener alike, to behold that miracle of spring indoors when it is still cold and gray outside.
Fun with Garden Catalogs
Many gardening families will be inundated with gardening catalogs right about now. They can be a balm to the gardener’s soul, paging through the glossy photos of sunny promise. They are also a wonderful tool for getting the youngsters stoked about gardening in the spring.
Look through the catalogs together and discuss what you’d like to grow this year and why. The pictures may inspire memories of last year’s garden, positive and not-so-positive (i.e. “Remember our ‘giant pumpkins’ that turned out smaller than the regular ones?”)
When you’re all through with your catalogs, turn them over to your little ones for them to have their way with. You can make gorgeous collages with the vibrant images of flowers, fruits, and vegetables. Themes might include: “My favorite vegetables,” “My favorite color,” “Weird-looking plants,” “Plants I’d like to grow,” or “Plants I’ve grown.” You can find veggies, fruits and flowers that are all orange, all red, or all purple, or that have similar shapes.
The older child may even want to plot out her garden for the coming year using actual pictures of the plants she is planning to use. The youngest child may simply may want to practice his scissor and glue skills. What a great way to recycle and end up with a colorful, optimistic reminder of the season of bounty yet to come!
Happy “gardening.” Spring will come; it always does!