SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

July 5, 2013

Indoor gardening plants a seed with kids

North Shore Gardener
Barbara Barger

---- — Q: Any hints for keeping little hands busy during the hot and rainy days? The kids can’t find “anything to do,” and we still have beautiful weeks of summer ahead.

A: Help the kids to grow something quick and easy indoors. Planting encourages interest in gardening and the very green world that is all around us. The responsibility of caring for a living plant can be a simple life lesson in caring for all living things. It’s a responsibility that can be taken on by even the youngest child.

What will you need? Plants that are cheap and fun and easy and quick to grow. That’s something to do when there’s nothing to do, and it’ll keep the kids busy. Most of these projects will require just a $1 or $2 bag of potting soil. The rest of the stuff you probably have in the kitchen right now or you can add to the shopping list this week, with little expense.

What containers should be used for planting? Recycle the throw-aways. Don’t bother with standard pots, unless you already have them. Yogurt cups, even paper cups are fine for these short-term projects. For larger plants, a plastic cola or milk bottle can be cut to size.

Start with seeds — use seeds from fruits. Grow little trees from oranges, grapefruit, and apple seeds. Stick the seeds into a cup of soil and watch the tiny tree grow. The leaves of citrus are pretty and shiny. Keep the trees well-watered and in a sunny window. Bigger seeds of avocados and mangos grow well indoors and can be moved outside during the warm weather. Ask your produce department manager — he or she may have an overripe fruit (the best for planting) to give away (when he or she hears what you are doing).

Roots and vegetables make interesting houseplants. Plant a forest of feathery carrot tops in a dish of water. Beet tops are even prettier, with their dark green foliage and red-veined leaves. Turnips and parsnips will also grow interesting foliage in a very short time. Most kids would rather plant them than eat them! How long has it been since you grew a sweet potato vine? Suspend a potato in a jar of water. Sweet potatoes grow splendid vines, but not as splendid as we remember. Now, most potatoes are treated with some chemicals that prevent or retard sprouting and add shelf life. The best potatoes for growing will be found at an organic grocer or health food store where these chemicals aren’t used. Cheer up — only a few more weeks to keep kids occupied.

Q: What’s the secret to transplanting a cactus? I’ve got several that are creeping out of their pots. At least one will have to have its pot broken — that’s OK — but what about my hands?

A: Please be careful! Have the new pot ready and filled with a sandy soil. Please wear glasses to protect your eyes, and heavy leather gloves and a heavy long-sleeved work shirt. Take a thick section of newspaper and roll it — bend the roll of newspaper around the cactus and use it as a handle to lift and position it in its new pot. Water it well, then allow the plant to drain — don’t re-water until the soil feels damp. Then, put it back in its usual sunny spot and wait another five to six years until it needs to be re-potted again.

Q: My lawn looks fine this year. I know it’s because of the rain, but what can I do to keep a lawn green through the summer?

A: The word is irrigation, i.e., water. Most lawns require 1 to 2 inches of water per week in the summer — more in hot, dry weather. For most areas, watering twice a week is plenty. Lawns growing in sandy soil may need more frequent irrigation; those growing in clay soil, less frequent. Water is a valuable resource that should never be wasted, so it’s important to irrigate your lawn efficiently. Hose-end lawn sprinklers come in a variety of types, such as oscillating, rotary, traveling and pulse-jet. Hose-end sprinklers are much less expensive than underground systems, but they require more time and attention because they have to be moved. Inexpensive, battery-operated controllers or mechanical timers can be attached to hose-end lawn sprinklers to regulate lawn watering. Determine how much water your sprinklers are applying by conducting a can test: Place several flat-bottomed, straight-sided containers (like tuna or cat food cans) around your lawn. Water as usual for 15 minutes using your favorite sprinkler head, then measure the water in the can. If your sprinkler is applying more water than the lawn can absorb, and it is running off down the driveway and into the sewer, turn the sprinkler off for a half-hour and let the lawn absorb the water, then resume sprinkling. There are some low-precipitation sprinklers being introduced to the market. They use less water, just like a reduced-flow shower head in your bathroom; the water flows at a slower rate but maintains pressure.

This week’s dirt: It’s not just the former president and kids who don’t like broccoli. Researchers at the University of California have discovered that ground-up raw broccoli applied to the soil will prevent the growth of certain mold and mildews.

Also, be very careful when watering plants, filling a kid’s pool, bathing or rinsing after quick swim, or getting a quick rinse from a garden hose; you can scald easily. Run the water for a few minutes, then do a hand test before using.

I have a question, too! I’ve been hearing birds chattering in the middle of the night — it sounds like a whole chorus! And it sounds like happy birds, not a bird in distress. At first, I thought we might have a night predator, like a cat or raccoon, as it seemed to be happening about 1 to 2 a.m. each morning. Then, I thought it might be a full moon or a new streetlight disturbing their sleep. What is causing this nighttime serenade from the treetops? I sent my question to the free Audubon question line — BirdID@audubon.org — and I had an answer back in 24 hours! They assured me that it was not unusual for birds to chirp and squawk at night. Birds always do it when they are roosting — for protection. I was hearing the birdies that have been assigned to guard duty! So, now, I will sleep at night and also feel safer knowing that we have sentry birds in the treetops. Do you think they’d feel more secure if I left milk and cookies for them?

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North Shore Gardener by Barbara Barger of Beverly is a feature of Friday’s Lifestyles section. Reach Barbara by email at nsgardener@comcast.net or write to her c/o The Salem News, 32 Dunham Road, Beverly, MA 01915. Previous North Shore Gardener columns can be found at www.nsgardener.com.