The Garden is a great place for people of all ages to learn to about plants and the natural world. These posts relate to programs offered for children and youth, but also offer educational information for the adults in their lives as well.
This year, the Living Wall in the Grunsfeld Children’s Growing Garden needed to be replanted. The metal cells that hold the plants to the wall were removed and taken to the Garden’s greenhouse nursery to grow new plants before placement outside for the summer.
This left us with four empty walls at the entrance to the Growing Garden. So we decided to get creative. We made an “alternative” living wall.
Our carpenters covered foam boards with brown burlap and installed these panels on the living wall frame where the plant cells had been removed. Students from the Garden’s Nature Preschool planted seeds and transplanted seedlings into small pots. We placed the plants into colored burlap planters and pinned them to the foam walls, and voila! We have a vertical garden again.
You can do this at home. Making planting pockets is simple and fun.
Plant seeds or transplant small plants and let them sprout. We used biodegradable Fertilpots, but you could also start seeds in egg cartons, newspaper pots, or plastic pots.
2. Cut the burlap into squares that are twice as long and wide as the pots.
3. Fold the square in half diagonally and sew a seam along the side. You can use a heavy duty needle with a sewing machine or do this by hand with a darning needle. It might be possible to use a hot glue gun to make the seam, but I did not try this.
4. Turn the triangle inside out to form the pocket. Slip the planted pot into the pocket and get ready to hang it on a wall.
5. To hang on the wall, pinch the extra fabric so the burlap fits snugly around the pot. Fold down the point in front or cut it off—your choice. Push a long pin through the pot and the fabric and pin the pocket to the wall. (I had pins used by our horticulturists to propagate cuttings; you could use T-pins or other pins with large heads.) You could also lace a ribbon around the top of the pocket and cinch the fabric, then hang the planter by the ribbon.
Students in our Nature Preschool enjoyed helping to grow the plants and pin them to the Living Wall. Each child wanted to place his or her planter next to a friend’s planter so they could grow close together.
Just for fun, we experimented with some other kinds of planters, including plastic bottles and shoes.
The preschoolers are fascinated by the soda bottle planter. They like to look in the round opening on the side. The toddler shoe makes everyone smile. We may add more surprising planters over the next few weeks, just to keep it interesting.
If you decide to try something like this at home, be advised that the small pots need to be watered frequently (ours need watering daily) because they tend to dry out faster than larger containers. It’s a good project for young children because they will get to do a lot of watering without harming the plants.
Our “alternative living wall” is only temporary. Stop by the Grunsfeld Children’s Growing Garden between now and June 12 to see how it’s growing. After that, the real living wall will be installed for the rest of the year.
Thanksgiving is here again, and we at the Chicago Botanic Garden are thankful for all the pollinators who make our food possible, every day, around the world. Bats, bees, butterflies, birds, and more pollinate plants that create one-third of the food we eat.
As you enjoy a meal with friends and family, take a moment to say thanks for the little things that make such a big difference—pollinators!
Instructions: Click on the image above to download our placemat to enjoy with your feast.
The ideal printing size is tabloid (11 x 17 inches). Letter size paper (8.5 x 11 inches) will also work if you choose “fit to page” when printing.
Draw and color the foods you are eating on our placemat. Check the answer key to see who pollinated them. Then, fill the Thanksgiving plate by drawing and coloring the foods—fruits, vegetables, and spices—that were brought to you by pollinators.
Why cooking classes? I’ll tell you. I recently watched my 14-year-old “honor roll student” completely botch the job of making herself soup for lunch. I’m not talking about homemade soup; this was a can of tomato soup. Yes, a can of soup.
She was stymied when she couldn’t find the directions on the label—you know, where it says, “Mix soup + one can water.” She fumbled with the can opener. She picked out the wrong size pot. I suggested that she use a whisk to break up the lumps, and her face tensed in an expression of utter despair (oh, teen drama!) until I pointed to the container of utensils within reach next to the stove. By this time, the unincorporated tomato puree was boiling over in a watery grave because she had the heat set too high.
This is largely my fault for not involving her in the kitchen more. It has been challenging to muster the patience to teach my kids domestic skills that seem easier to do myself. I started thinking about all the things my daughter has missed by not having any good cooking lessons: understanding cooking terms, skills with tools and materials, mastery of any food preparation processes, and confidence in the kitchen, not to mention being able to make a hot meal for herself. A quick search on the web confirmed my fears. Over the last decade, lots of people have written about why we need to teach kids how to cook. Allow me to summarize the list of benefits:
Health: Studies show that when kids learn to prepare food, they are more likely to try new foods, and also to be open to making healthier food choices.
Math: We use all kinds of math in the kitchen: counting items, estimating volumes, measuring weight and volume, and keeping track of time.
Reading: Following a recipe requires reading and understanding cooking vocabulary.
Safety: Learning about safe kitchen practices could prevent a miserable experience with cuts, burns, or microbes and food poisoning.
Self-Esteem: Mastering skills such as mixing, chopping, and kneading requires practice, and so it builds self-confidence. When we learn to perfect particular dishes, we feel a sense of ownership and accomplishment.
Science: Cooking has many science applications: combining different ingredients involves working with chemical reactions; cutting up ingredients reveals the physical structures of plants, animals, and fungus.
Social Studies: Cooking is linked to culture and tradition, and so there is a connection to history and social studies.
Social Skills: Communication skills are essential when learning to cook. If there is one thing food TV shows have shown us, it’s that people love to talk about food as much as they enjoy eating it, and food gives shy kids something interesting to talk about.
Clearly, I have failed my daughter, but I suspect I’m not the only parent in this sinking gravy boat.
And so, to address this deficiency in our children’s lives, my colleagues and I decided to bring back the fun and educational experience of a middle school cooking classes in our new ITW Kitchen at the Learning Center on the Regenstein Learning Campus. In addition to all of the aforementioned benefits, we wanted all of our Chicago Botanic Garden cooking classes to teach kids where food comes from as we demonstrate cooking vegetables and fruits that are grown at the Garden.
If cooking classes are so great, why were home economics classes cut from elementary schools? I believe this happened when our country’s leaders decided that students needed to devote more time and attention to pure reading and math. This was done with the best of intentions. However, cooking gives kids a practical reason to learn those academic disciplines. It makes all subjects more meaningful and worth learning, so maybe it’s time to say, “No Child Left Out of the Kitchen.”
Have I convinced you? Then consider enrolling your youngster, or even yourself, in a cooking program. The Garden is the perfect place. And remember, if you leave the teaching to us, then you won’t have to clean up afterward.
Healthy Cooking for Kids: Baking is a four-session class for Grades 5–8; the first in this series of cooking classes.
Sundays, January 22 – February 12, 2017
1 – 4 p.m.
ITW Kitchen, Learning Center
An experienced kids’ culinary instructor will offer young teens some basic food-preparation techniques, as they follow recipes using healthy ingredients from a garden. By the end of this multi-week course, students will be able to bake savory scones, whole grain muffins, and other treats.
Weekend Family Classes are 90-minute programs with monthly mouthwatering themes, ideal for families with children ages 4-10 to make a dish together.
A few years ago, my Daisy and Brownie Girl Scout troop was working on their Household Elf badge. We needed a fun way to teach about conserving water at home—not a lecture—because let’s face it, after a full day of school, 6- to 9-year-old girls would will not sit still and listen to another lesson. I decided to make a board game for them. The main message of this game was a really important one: in Chicago, all of our water for drinking, cleaning, and recreation comes from Lake Michigan. If we waste water, then we waste the lake. It is that simple.
The girls responded very well to the activity. I am sharing it on the Garden’s blog for others to use, because at the Chicago Botanic Garden, we would also like people to understand the importance of conserving water from our lakes and other sources. Obviously this game was created for Chicago residents, but the same principles apply everywhere, in every community. The game could be adapted for another location by replacing the image of the Lake Michigan with an image to represent the local water source. (For most cities, that is groundwater.)
Download the game board
I discovered, to my surprise, that many of my Brownie Scouts were not familiar with board games. Most millennials have lots of experience pushing virtual buttons on a screen and competing against friends in cyberspace, but tossing a die and moving a token around a board with actual friends? Not so much. Anyone replicating this activity may find they need to explain how a game like this works. Also, it was also important to require that the players actually read the board squares in order to understand why they are taking two or three or ten beads as they move around the board. Having a discussion at the end of the game proved essential to getting the message across.
After playing the game with my Scouts, I shared it with a group of middle school girls who were studying conservation in an after-school program. Believe it or not, it worked well with the older students, too. In fact, they loved it—mostly because they got to make a bracelet. But hey, whatever works, right?!
To use this activity with your group, make one complete game set for every three to five students.
A game set includes:
1 game board, printed on 11″ x 17″ paper
1 six-sided die
Place marker tokens; one per person (these can be any small object, or borrow them from another board game set)
About 100 pony beads (I like to use transparent blue plastic beads because they look like water)
1 small cup per person, plus one cup to serve as the bead reservoir
Elastic thread cut into 8-inch pieces; one per person (this is to make bracelets)
The object of this game is to move around the board and be the person who uses the least water. Remind players that every time we use water, we take a little more out out of Lake Michigan.
Put about 100 beads in a cup and place it in the middle of the lake. The beads represent water from Lake Michigan. Players will keep track of how much water they use by collecting the beads in their cups as they move around the board.
Players place their markers on “Start.” Each player rolls the die; the player with the highest roll goes first. If there is a tie, roll again to break the tie. The player sitting on the left of the first person goes second and players take turns going around the board in a clockwise direction. (I had to explain this to the girls in my troop.)
The first player rolls the die and moves that number of spaces on the board in the direction of the arrows. The player lands on a square, reads what it says and follows the directions, collecting the beads from the reservoir and putting them into her own cup. Each player takes a turn and until everyone has moved around the board once and ended at the lake. It is not necessary to roll a perfect number to reach the end.
When everyone is swimming in the lake at the end, tally up the number of beads each player has collected. The player with the fewest beads wins, because she used less water than the other players.
Return beads to the reservoir and play again once or twice to give others a chance to win.
What is this game telling us?
Ask the players to think about water use. The questions below can stimulate discussion. This can be brief, but it is important to reinforce the message that all of our water comes from Lake Michigan and we need to be responsible with water use.
What activities in the game used a lot of water and made someone lose the game?
What are some ways people waste water?
What practices use less water?
What would happen if everyone was careless and used all the water from the lake?
What can you do at home to reduce the amount of water you take out of Lake Michigan?
Make a water bead bracelet
For a fun wrap up, each player can make a bracelet using the beads and elastic string. Wear the bracelet to remember to try and use less water at home. The bracelet makes a nice reward for learning outside the classroom.
One last important note
When teaching young children about water conservation, avoid the temptation to bring up stories of environmental problems that are beyond their ability to solve right now in their lives, like unpleasant images of industrial pollution, drought, and famine. Child development experts will tell you that when we burden children with messages about how they need to help save the planet, we actually do more harm than good by making them feel overwhelmed, hopeless, and less inclined to adapt sustainable habits. Focus on things they can do, like turning off the water when they brush their teeth. It is enough that they learn not to use more water than they need at home so that they can share it with all of the creatures they love. This is a message we can respond to positively at any age.
Leaves are green. There are very few exceptions in healthy living plants, and most of the exceptions are partially green with red, yellow, orange, or white patterns; or they look white, but upon closer inspection they are actually whitish, bluish-green, and not pure white. The pigments that give all leaves their color are essential for the plant’s ability to harness energy from the sun and make sugars in the process we know as photosynthesis.
But every once in a while, a completely white seedling sprouts from a seed. This happened with some basil I grew a few years ago.
My albino basil survived only a few days. Without any chlorophyll—the green pigment necessary for photosynthesis—this seedling was doomed. That is the case with all albino plants. The gene mutation that gives rise to albino plants is fatal to the plant, because without the ability to make sugars, the plant runs out of energy to live.
So when I was perusing the online Burpee seed catalog and came across “variegated cat grass” I was curious. VERY curious, and perhaps you are, too.
I had several questions:
The term “variegated” implies that the leaves would be striped or multicolored, but in the picture it appears that there are all white leaves. What will this grass actually look like?
How long will it take to sprout?
How easy it to grow?
Is there enough green on those leaves for the grass to survive or will it die off like my basil?
If it does survive, how long can I keep it growing?
And most importantly:
Would this make an awesome science activity for students in the classroom and at home to investigate the importance of chlorophyll in plants?
There was only one way to find the answers. I ordered the seeds and grew some variegated cat grass in our nature lab at the new Learning Center. You can do this in your classroom to find answers to my questions and your own.
Before I give you directions for growing cat grass, you may be wondering:
What IS cat grass?
The cat grass you may have seen sold in pet stores is usually a type of wheat, or Triticum. Our “variegated cat grass” is a type of barley (Hordeum vulgare variegata). Both are cereal grains that have been cultivated as food for hundreds of years. Both are sold commercially as cat grass because some cats like to chew on the leaves. Not being a cat owner, I don’t know if cats actually like this stuff, but apparently it sells.
Variegated barley was the result of science experiments on genetic mutations in barley seeds in the 1920s. The hybrid barley seeds have been packaged and sold by different seed companies because…well, they’re attractive and intriguing—they caught my attention.
How to plant cat grass, barley, wheat, or any grass seeds
A container that will hold soil at a depth of at least 2 inches; drainage holes are best, but not necessary
Variegated cat grass seeds (sold as “cat grass, variegated” and available at Burpee and other seed suppliers)
A warm, sunny location for your plants
Fill the container with moist potting soil. Spread seeds on the surface of the soil. Cover seeds with a thin layer of moist soil and tamp the soil down so that most of the seeds are covered. It’s all right if you can see some of the seeds through the thin layer of soil. Place in a warm, bright location. The seeds will sprout in a few days, but may take a week depending on the room temperature.
If students plant their own individual pots, have them place 20 – 30 seeds in each 3-inch container. The seeds I bought came 300 to a pack, so that means you need at least two (maybe three) packs to have enough for everyone in the class.
You can also use the whole pack in a 8- to 10-inch container, or even spread more seeds in a foil baking pan filled with soil to grow a carpet of grass. The more densely you plant the seeds, the closer the plants will grow together and it will look and feel more like a healthy lawn. A sparser planting makes it easier to observe individual plants. It’s up to you how you want to do it, really.
Keep the grass in a warm, sunny location. Water when dry, but do not allow it to dry out. When the grass leaves are more than 3 inches tall, use a sharp pair of scissors to trim them to a uniform height just as you would mow a lawn. This will prevent the grass from going to seed and keep it alive longer. You can plant new seeds in the same planter to revitalize in two to three weeks when it starts looking a little tired.
Now the REAL science part:
Whether you make a single classroom planter or have each student plant her own pot, observe your variegated cat grass for the next four to six weeks, or even longer. Keep it watered and trimmed. Measure its growth. Take photos or sketch it to record how it grows and changes. Ask your own questions and try to find answers, and ultimately reach a conclusion about what happens to white plants. If you and your class are really interested, plant some more cat grass and change the procedure to test your own ideas. It’s that easy to do plant science in your classroom.
Want more albino plant science? Read on.
More activities for inquiring minds
You can experiment with other genetically modified albino seeds available through science supply companies.
Carolina Biological Supply Company sells hybrid corn that will grow white leaves and stems. I have planted these seeds and they work pretty well, but require a bright window or light and a warm environment to sprout successfully. A classroom kit contains soil, planting trays, and 500 seeds for a classroom investigation, and costs about $100. You can order just the seeds in packs of 100 genetic corn seeds that are all albino (90 percent of the seedlings will grow to be albino) for $18.50, or a green/albino mix—which means about 75 percent of seedlings will be green and 25 percent white, for $10.50. The latter enables you to compare the mutation to the normal strain.
Nasco sells seeds and kits to investigate albino plants. Their “Observing the Growth of Mutant Corn Seeds” kit serves up to 40 students and costs $62.50. Nasco also has albino tobacco seeds with 3:1 green to white ratio, 1,200 seeds for $12.05. Tobacco seeds are smaller, and therefore more difficult for little fingers to handle than corn or barley. I have never tried growing them, but that might be my next science project this fall.
The answer to my question? Yes! This is an awesome science activity for students because it’s easy and demonstrates something really important—in fact, something essential to our existence!
You don’t need to purchase the fancy kits to investigate why plants are green. You can get a lot of good science learning out of a pack of variegated cat grass. All you really need to do is look around you and notice the colors in nature. Do you see white leaves anywhere? If you do, then there is probably a science investigation waiting for you.