Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Apartment Gardening: Homeschool Biology 101 - Seeds


It all started with a sale: the local supermarket was selling garden beds at a rock-bottom price. We'd been talking about making our own vegetable garden for over a year, and even living in an apartment wasn't going to stop us forever. Hope springs eternal and all that . . .


We've Got Some Space

The thing is, there's an abandoned small area of common space in our apartment block - for years it was a lovely desert of rocks and weeds. No one cared for the space, so we asked and suddenly had a small, extremely narrow bit of rocks, clay soil and weird plastic sheeting. We were two brown-thumb gardeners and a toddler with a lot of enthusiasm. With a little help from some of the other residents and our extended family, we planted unkillable plants - mostly geraniums, agapanthus and a few stray plants that self-seeded.

It's been happy doing its own thing now for a couple of years and has become extremely lush, but it's a little . . . inedible. We wanted to expand, grow some plants that we could eat, and add a bit of practical biology to our homeschool. We wanted our city-kids to understand how food grows, what it looks like and how to take care of 'baby plants'. It was a plan, of sorts.

Over the years, we've had some weird things just grow - peppermint, lavender and an enormous nectarine tree, courtesy of someone's left-over lunch hurled over our fence, as well as some very lovely unidentified trees, and a lumpy succulent that C picked up from the clippings at one of the local parks when he was a toddler. Every now and then we've also been given plants - chives, strawberries, even a few rose bushes.

But the soil is still mostly, er, rocks. And every time we dig a hole, we're sure to find half-smashed bricks and broken glass. Not the best soil for growing vegetables.

We Have a Frame . . .

And then we had that sale. Suddenly, we were the the proud owners of a few pieces of metal garden-bed frame. But what to do now?

Well that's when the lessons started. How much soil would we need? Where to put the frame . . . and what to plant? C helped me with the maths, and we realised we were going to need a lot of soil . . . and that was going to take a few trips when you do it on foot. It was going to take a few days to buy enough soil and carry it home.

As well, we quickly learned, even once the garden bed was full of soil, we couldn't plant for at least a week. All hope seemed lost for a quick garden bed . . . until we realised we needed to grow some seeds into seedlings first - we had another plan!

Seedlings and Trays

The first thing was to create some seed trays. I found some old long-life milk containers in the recycling bin, and the kids had fun cutting them in half, and spilling rice milk onto the kitchen floor. After a quick wash, (children and cartons) the containers were ready for soil. We had a few patches of good soil with lots of organic matter in the garden, which would do for a first experiment. Though not ideal, we scooped the dirt into little containers - C enjoyed marshaling the whole exercise to make sure all our containers were filled, though he left the stone-removal to me!

Then it was time to make some seedling signs. We had cucumbers, strawberries and nectarine seeds (from our last nectarine harvest). A few paddle-pop sticks, some small cards, scissors, sticky tape and some textas later, and we had a set of hand-made signs. C used words, and J drew some adorable pictures, most of which had some passing resemblance to our seed collection - I think she is hopeful that putting up a blueberry sign will grow blueberries.

Then it was time to plant the seeds. I pushed little holes in the dirt, and the kids took turns planting the seeds. J preferred planting the cucumbers, because the seeds were nice and big.

After that, J filled her toy tea pot and the seed containers were well soaked, possibly somewhat flooded. Then it was onto our lovely North-facing window-sill for a few sunny weeks.

Youtube to the Rescue

After all the excitement, the kids wanted to learn about how the seeds would grow into cucumbers, strawberries and nectarines. So it was Youtube to the rescue. We also managed some basic biology, talking about how to spot dicotyledons.  J particularly enjoyed the almost stop-motion animation of the cucumber video, but still felt the need to double check whether her own cucumber plants were growing. I think this project might be a really good way for her to learn more about time . . . and patience.

Our Youtube video watching did come up with a surprise - we'd planted our nectarines the wrong way! C found this particularly stressful - but the solution was to hit our seeds with a hammer to get them out of their shells. With a few OT calming techniques, he was ready to watch Mummy bash seeds with a (very clean, he insisted it needed to be washed) hammer. We now had 4 seeds from 5 shells (alas, one was empty).

Youtube videos seemed somewhat divided on propagation techniques, so we decided on:

  • One seed in a proper seed mix, with a plastic lid
  • Two seeds in a milk container with microwaved and chilled garden soil (to kill bugs, and sadly a worm)
  • And one seed wrapped in a damp piece of absorbent paper in a sealed zip-lock bag, placed in the sun.
The kids enjoyed planting the nectarine seeds and making more signs for each of our experiments and hopefully, in a few weeks, we'll have some plants to go in our new garden bed. Once we manage to acquire some proper soil!


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