Celebrating Earth Day 2020

April 22 marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. The first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970 in schools and communities around the United States as a way to call attention to environmental issues. According to the Earth Day Network, the occasion is now celebrated in over 190 counties.

With most of our country sheltering-in-place, we have an opportunity to really embrace Earth Day at home with our families. Hopefully, you have taken time over the last days to really slow down and appreciate nature around you. Let’s celebrate that with a special Earth Day! Plant a garden or create nature poetry. It can be a great day while safely staying within recommended shelter-in-place guidelines.   Following are some other ideas to get you and your family in an Earth Day spirit.

Hold a family nature photo contest. Give the members of your family 24 hours to take nature photos from places nearby using their cell phones. Give simple prizes for the most creative photos.  You can use an online photo service to create a book of the photos as a memento.

Explore your pollinator garden. Practice identifying and counting insects to get ready for the Great Georgia Pollinator Census on August 21 and 22. The project website at https://ggapc.org/ contains all you need to learn more about the pollinators in your garden.

Learn to identify the birds in your yard. For added fun learn their calls. Cornell’s bird lab has free resources on bird identification. Feeding birds is a wonderful family hobby. Get tips on now from UGA Extension Circular 976 at extension.uga.edu/publications.

Discover more about the trees in your yard. Can you identify them? The Arbor Day Foundation has a great website for tree identification. What role does each tree play in the wildlife ecosystem? Create some leaf rubbings to decorate your home. For more information, see UGA Extension Bulletin 987 on native trees and shrubs at extension.uga.edu/publications.

Organize your recyclables. If you don’t already recycle, spend some time creating an area in your home to place and organize your recyclables.  Research where to take your recyclables locally.  Does your trash pickup service also take recyclables? For more tips, see UGA Extension Bulletin 1050-2 on recycling at extension.uga.edu/publications.

Plan an Earth Day dinner. This is a tradition with my family each year — we choose a theme and plan dinner and activities around it. For example, plan a pollinator dinner choosing foods that need a pollinator. Strawberry shortcake is a great dessert for this theme! Other themes are foods grown underneath the earth’s crust like potatoes, radishes, sweet potatoes and onions. Or perhaps a spring greens dinner with different lettuces and salad toppings. Cooking together is a wonderful activity for stress relief. Decorate your table for the occasion and plan some relevant dinner conversation topics.

Whatever you decide to do, stay safe and enjoy the day!

For more information on Earth Day visit https://www.earthday.org/.

Plant Reproduction Basics

To better understand how we can ensure that the seeds we collect will result in the plants that we want, let’s go back to high school biology and review plant reproduction basics!

The male parts of the flower are called the staman, made up of the anther and filament.  The pollen sits on the anther waiting to be moved to the female part of the same or a different flower.

The female part of the flower are called the carpel made up of the stigma, style and ovary.  Pollen lands on the stigma (this is pollination) moves down the style to find an ovule in the ovary (this is fertilization).

Some pollen is light and is presented on high anthers.  Wind moves this pollen to female flowers and corn is a wonderful example.  Some pollen is very sticky and needs an insect or other agent to move it to female flowers.  This is true of goldenrod.

Describes pollination and fertilization
This visual explains pollination and fertilization.

Is this starting to sound familiar?  This is very basic and plants have evolved many tricks to make their pollen more available for pollination.  Some plants have evolved with specific insect pollinators.  Flowers, you may know, exist to assist the pollinator in finding the pollen.  To a bee’s eyes some petals seem to have landing stripes leading straight to the pollen and nectar. It is a fascinating topic!  The Community Seed Network has information on a few different pollination types.

For our purposes this basic model will work.  Next time we will look at plant types:  hybrid vs. open pollination.

Happy Gardening!

Increase Your School Garden Scope by Saving Seeds

School gardens routinely grow food crops, create pollinator habitat, and even replicate historic gardens. They are an integral part of school curriculum used to teach botany, math, nutrition, history, literature and even geography.  However, the one area lacking in the hundreds of school gardens that I have visited is seed saving. Seed saving can be an important horticultural part of the garden as well as an additional avenue for tying the garden to school curriculum. With a bit of botany background, proper seed saving is not difficult and will be a fun part of your garden!

Bean seed

Until modern times seed collecting was the only way a gardener had seed for the next year. Seed was shared with neighbors and passed down from generation to generation (heirloom seeds). Seeds were taken across oceans and over the American prairie and they are an important part of our agricultural history.  Your students may have heirloom seeds stories to share.  In my area of Southern Appalachia seed saving is part of many family heritages.

Seeds 101

Bean seed

Hybrid plants are not appropriate for seed saving. They are bred to amplify a certain trait such as disease resistance or larger fruit and are produced by cross-breeding two plants with different genetics.  Tomatoes are a great example.  Most of the tomatoes grown in backyards are hybrid tomatoes with names like Better Boy and Early Girl.  Although these varieties produce delicious tomatoes, they are not appropriate for seed saving.

Hybrid plants produce seeds that are genetically unreliable or not true-to-type. These seeds are undesirable for seed saving.

Open-pollinated plants are the type of plants we want for seed collecting.  They are pollinated naturally and will produce seeds that are true-to-type if they are isolated from other varieties. So, it is important for the school gardener to choose only one variety of the seed producing plant.  For example, do not plant Calypso beans in the same area as Hidatsa beans.  They could possibly cross-pollinate resulting in seeds not true-to-type.  A garden of only Calypso beans will produce true Calypso bean seed! Larger gardens follow the recommended isolation distance for seed saving for most beans that is 10-20 feet.

With the smaller space of a school garden, it is best to choose one variety of the seed producing plant type for seed saving.

SEED SAVING AND YOUR SCHOOL CURRICULUM

Lesson ideas are numerous:

  • Pollination – what exactly is pollination and fertilization
  • Pollinators – how is pollen spread
  • History – heirloom seeds
  • Geography – how did crops spread around the world
  • Math – how many seeds produced per plant/fruit/bean pod
  • Genetics – Hybrid plants and gene traits
  • Cultural Studies – choose plants with cultural significance such as Chinese long beans or tomatillos
  • Literature – research how seeds came from Europe and Africa to become part of our agricultural system

Seed Savers has a website full of seed collecting information. Your local land grant Cooperative Extension office can assist you in choosing varieties of plants that will work well for seed saving and will grow well in your area.  Over the next several weeks we will explore seed collecting in more detail so grab your seed catalogs and start planning your spring seed collecting garden.

Monarchs Migrate Through Georgia

It is the time of the year when Georgians look to the sky to watch for signs of Monarch migration. These butterflies are on their way to the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico to overwinter on the oyamel fir trees of the area. The fir trees provide the perfect climate with a combination of optimal temperature and humidity to ensure the butterflies survive the winter. It is amazing to realize that this super-generation of migrating butterflies endure the hazards of the trip to go to a place that they have never been before.

Fall Monarch Migration Routes  Source:  USGS National Atlas

Reports around Georgia are that Monarch populations are high. A poll taken of insect enthusiasts showed that 83% have seen Monarchs heading south this year. Thirty percent of the respondents indicated that they are seeing a higher number of Monarchs than last year. This is terrific news as Monarch population numbers have been inconsistent over the last several seasons.

To increase the chances of seeing this phenomenon and to assist the butterflies create a fall migration garden. Monarchs will descend from their high migration path looking for food resources. Research shows that migrating butterflies respond to tall flowers that are easily accessible. Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum), goldenrod (Solidago spp.) and Mexican sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia) are all proven Monarch attractors in the fall. Several of our fall-blooming native aster plants (Aster spp.) are perfect for these butterflies as well. The butterflies do not need milkweed (Ascelpias spp.), their larval host plant, at this time of the year. But be sure to include milkweed in your summer butterfly garden.

To follow the Monarch migration and to report your butterfly populations visit Journey North (https://journeynorth.org/monarchs). This organization has tabulated the reports of citizen scientists for many years and is a great resource for school groups. Monarch Watch (https://www.monarchwatch.org) provides online information for learning about these insects and their habitat needs. Contact your local UGA Cooperative Extension agent for more information about butterfly gardening and habitat building. If you miss seeing the fall migration spend time getting your garden ready for the Monarch return in the spring!

Happy Butterfly Watching!

Squash Problem Cheat Sheet

October is Farm to School Month and this year in Georgia we are celebrating with Oh My Squash!. Several of you have grown squash with success and several of you have grown it with less success. For future reference we have created this squash problem cheat sheet. As you plan for your next crop of squash, keep these techniques in mind:

SquashPestManagementFactsheet_Print

Wishing you a bright squash gardening future!

Serve Squash Year-Round – A Guest Post from Bob Westerfield

October is Farm to School Month and this year Georgia is celebrating with Oh My Squash! You can visit the project webpage for more information on how to participate. Many of you may be growing a late crop of squash for this campaign so I thought it was worth reposting Bob Westerfield’s article on growing squash. He is a UGA horticulturalist and our go-to guy for vegetable production.   Bob writes:

To most Southern gardeners, fried yellow squash or grilled zucchini are staples on the table during the summer. Serving up home grown winter squash in the fall is worthy of bragging rights.

While normally easy to grow, the endless choice of varieties and numerous garden pests have made growing squash a little more challenging. Squash come in an endless assortment of shapes, sizes and colors. Choosing the right variety can seem daunting. The squash vine borer, a persistent pest, has caused some gardeners to give up on growing squash.

Read more

Oh My Squash! Farm to School Month 2019

October is Farm to School Month and schools and early care centers across Georgia are celebrating all things squash!  Oh My Squash! is a state-wide celebration to get kids eating, growing and participating in squash-themed activities. UGA Cooperative Extension is a partner in the project and we are excited about the month! To participate in Oh My Squash at your school, early care center, or in your community, visit the webpage.

Squash plant
Squash plants in the garden

Participants will receive free electronic resources to help you plan and implement your activities.  Resources include standards-based lesson plans, quick activities, recipes, videos, school garden planting and harvesting information, and more!

The first 300 people to sign-up will be mailed a free packet of squash seeds, washable squash tattoos, and a Georgia Planting and Harvest Calendar for school gardens. Share your Oh My Squash pictures and activities on social media with #ohmysquash.

Each week during October, anyone who uses this hashtag will be entered to win a gift card and at the end of the month, we will have a grand prize winner of a two day education pass to the Georgia Organics Conference on Feb. 7-8, 2020 in Athens (a $425 value)!

As you plan your Oh My Squash! activities use your local UGA Cooperative Extension office. They can assist with ideas on preparing squash taste tests for the classroom and advice on growing and harvesting the squash in your school garden.

Happy Gardening and Eating!

The School Garden and Your Classroom Curriculum

Little Red school house

School is back in session over most of the state and with that school gardens are being used in curriculum. Hopefully teachers came back to a neat and weed-free space. In the perfect world, teachers would come back to crops planted and paths cleared. If neither of those is your school, you definitely have some work to do this year in building your school garden committee!

Over the coming weeks we will be exploring how to tie your school garden into your classroom curriculum. I look forward to hearing from you all on ideas that you have as well.

This week I want to make sure that all educators are aware of the Great Georgia Pollinator Census. This is happening Friday, August 23rd and Saturday, August 24th. This program is perfect for school gardeners. I have been working with teachers across the state to help them craft events for their students. All that is needed is pollinator garden or an area with several pollinator plants blooming during the census.

For fifteen minutes, participants count insects that land on a favorite pollinator plant and place the insects into categories:

Carpenter Bees
Bumble Bees
Honey Bees
Small Bees
Wasps
Flies
Butterflies/Moths
Other Insects

The Insect Counting & Identification Guide is found on the website and is the key to success with the project. The observation sheet can be printed and carried to the garden and actual counts will be uploaded to the website. You do not need a strong entomology background to be successful with this project.

Two years of pilot projects helped us refine the project and make it ideal for upper elementary through high school students. It fits in perfectly with STEAM curriculums. The website also has a special page for educators with ideas on how to use the census with your students. We also have a Facebook group, Georgia Pollinator Census, where educators have been sharing ideas.

Happy Gardening!

Planning Your Georgia Fall Vegetable Garden

Although the thermometer is rising above ninety on a daily basis and our Georgia humidity is, well, the typical Georgia humidity, it is time to do some serious thinking about your fall garden.

Did you make notes on your summer garden? Making notes about which varieties performed well for you, what pests plagued you, and your overall satisfaction from your warm-season garden will be useful as you plan for 2020. Also, make note of plant arrangement so you can practice crop rotation next year.

Think Green. Fall is the time for lettuce, spinach, collards, mustard greens and kale. Your seed catalogs will show you that there are so many varieties of lettuce that you couldn’t possibly grow them all. Do try a few new ones. They could make a real difference in the taste of your salads. I really enjoy the lettuce variety Drunken Woman!

Bush beans can be a part of your early fall garden. A planting of bush beans towards the end of summer may produce a nice crop for you if we don’t get an early frost. Take note of the days until harvest count and look for something in the lower numbers. Look for varieties that are resistant to rusts and keep a close eye on them for pests like Mexican bean beetles.

Don’t forget root crops. Short day onions and garlic are a MUST for any cool-season garden. Plant these root crops as sets and let them go until the spring. It is easy to grow all the garlic you will need for the year by careful planning. Make sure to mulch the crop.

Finally, if you don’t plan to grow a cool-season crop consider growing a cover crop. Cover crops can hold down weeds while enriching your soil. At the very least please be courteous to your fellow community gardeners and clean out your plot, removing plant debris that could harbor pests and weeds that could produce seeds that you will deal with later.

Cooler weather is on the way! Happy Gardening!