Stop! Don’t burn those leaves or throw them away!

November 2, 2021

By Erin Castillo

The dazzling display of crimson and orange as autumn summons the changes in the colors of leaves will soon fade within a matter of weeks as tree leaves settle to the ground at our feet. To the untrained eye, their purpose seems to have ended only to be tossed to-and-fro by the wind across our yard. But did you know that these fallen leaves from trees can improve your soil? How? Through Leaf Mold.

Colored Leaves Falling on the Ground

What is Leaf Mold?  

Leaf Mold is essentially partially decomposed hardwood tree leaves. If you were to go out into the woods and lift up the layer of leaves to reveal the top soil surface, you’d find Leaf Mold. Instead of leaves breaking down with bacteria, like traditional hot composting pile methods, leaf mold uses a slower, but important, fungi-driven process. The result is Leaf Mold—an excellent carbon-rich natural soil amendment that doesn’t cost you a dime. It can be turned and mixed into your soil or simply added to the top of your soil as a surface mulch.

What Leaf Mold is not

Leaf mold is not a source of nitrogen to be applied as a fertilizer. If someone is advising you to just mix freshly fallen leaves into the soil, that’s bad advice. Remember, tree leaves are high in carbon and low in nitrogen with the carbon-to-nitrogen (C:N) ratio being typically 60:1. In a traditional hot compost pile, you need an ideal bacterial decomposition carbon-to-nitrogen ratio of 24:1. Because tree leaves have a high carbon-to-nitrogen (C:N) level, it is not recommended to till freshly fallen leaves directly into your soil. Micro-organisms in the soil will use the existing nitrogen in your soil to break down the leaves. You want to retain this nitrogen in your soil, so your plant can instead utilize it.

What are the benefits of leaf mold?

Trees draw up through their roots from deep within the earth, nutrients and minerals and then send to their leaves. The leaves then contain Ca as well as N, K, P, Mg, S, and trace minerals. As the tree begins to go into dormancy, these leaves fall to the ground to redistribute these elements back into the soil where they decompose. Fifty percent (50%) of this decomposition feeds the tree through the soil beneath the tree canopy. These leaves broken down by fungi and added to your garden’s soil, provides a proper habitat for the soil’s micro and macro-organisms and an essential part of the soil’s food web. 

Leaf Mold essentially adds valuable organic matter to your soil improving soil structure (tilth) which, in turn, improves water and air movement within the soil. At the same time, Leaf Mold is able to increase the soil’s water-holding capacity. In addition, research has shown that adding Leaf Mold to your soil can improve plant health, crop yields, and even enhance a plant’s resistance to disease. When used as a top layer mulch, it can moderate soil temperature and limit moisture loss. 

For example, in one particular three-year study, scientists grew onions and amended one plot of sandy soil with Leaf Mold compost and in another identical plot added no Leaf Mold to the soil. The Leaf Mold compost-amended plot had significantly greater yields than the cultivars grown in those not amended. Not only did the onion bulb weight increase, but those same compost-amended plots produced a great number of onions than the non-amended plot. Interestingly, in addition, the compost-amended plot of onions did not exhibit soft rot disease despite receiving higher than average precipitation.

In another study, scientists compared tomato yields from compost-amended plots to un-amended plots and found that the plots that received Leaf Mold had again, a significantly higher yield. Further, tomato plants that received compost developed less blossom-end rot than fruit in all other treatments. 

Making Leaf Mold

If you have hardwood trees, you can make your own free Leaf Mold at home. Find a corner of your yard or garden, simply rake fallen leaves into a pile or place a column of fencing wire into a circle creating a column to hold fallen leaves. Your leaves should be moist, but not soaking wet as to encourage the right level of moisture fungi need to thrive. Let your pile “mold” for 1-2 years before using. Remember this is a slow fungal cold process of decomposition. But, you can speed this process up a bit if you add the simple step of breaking down leaves into smaller pieces using a leaf shredder or lawn mower before placing into a pile or wire column. In chopping up leaves into smaller bits, it allows more space for microbes and fungi to work as well as prevent leaves from becoming compacted layers that slow down the decomposition process.

In fact, if you place a 6-10” layer of dried shredded leaves on your raised bed in November and continue to come back to break them down with a mower or shredder once a month from December to March, you can speed-up the process. You’ll have a layer of beneficial mulch when it comes time to plant in your garden come April! To further help things along, walk out to a wooded area near where you live and dig down below the layer of fallen leaves to the wood’s soil. Scoop up this top soil layer and mix in your newly chopped layer of leaves you’re preparing as leaf mold. The micro-organisms from your soil sample will “inoculate” the chopped bed of leaves you have prepared and kick-start the fungal process.

If piles or columns of wire are not your preference, there is another method to making Leaf Mold. Again, shred dried fallen leaves using a shredder or mower, then scoop them up and fill a large plastic yard waste bag. When you have filled the plastic bag with as many fallen and chopped leaves you can, tie off and create a few slits in the bag with a pocket knife for airflow. Sit this plastic bag of fallen chopped leaves aside in a shady corner of your yard and recheck every few months, adding water to them if they seem too dry. Before you know it, you’ll have free Leaf Mold compost to add to your soil or garden!

Using Leaf Mold

Leaf Mold can be tilled into your soil in the early spring, but consider using it simply as a 2-inch layer as it is an extremely effective mulch for a no-till garden. Worms and micro-organisms will come up to this mulch layer and incorporate the humus and nutrients back into the soil. Using Leaf Mold as a mulch will also reduce weed pressure and slow down any nitrogen in the soil from leeching or the loss of any top soil erosion due to heavy spring rain storms. And if you don’t like the look of Leaf Mold as a mulch, simply add a couple of inches of pine straw or decorative natural bark on top of your Leaf Mold layer to make your landscape look polished. No one will know that you are feeding your soil!

Dried Fallen Leaves Can also serve as Insulation:

Don’t forget that in November, you can also take leaves you’ve raked and shredded and use to insulate cold-tender plants by applying a 6-inch blanket of leaves around them. This extra layer of dried leaf insulation can be put on fall veggies like carrots, beets, and kale and can extend your harvest well past those first nights of freezing temperatures. And perennials like Lavender, Rosemary, and Scabiosa (Pincushion Flower) also might like a layer of protection for winter’s cold.

Don’t use Pecan and Walnut Leaves

One important thing to mention in closing—do not use Pecan or Walnut leaves. Pecan and walnut leaves actually contain natural compounds that suppress growth in other plants. If you have these trees in your area, leaves from these trees should go into a “hot” bacteria-based compost pile where they can be sure to completely decomposed before adding them to your garden.

In Summary:

  • Leaf mold can increase yields, plant health, and boost disease resistance.
  • Leaf mold used as a 2” mulch layer on top of your soil can help to regulate soil temperature, moisture and feeds soil life.
  • Leaf mold is an amazing free natural resource trees provide every year that build soil health through the addition of organic matter, biological activity, and mineral nutrients.
  • Dried shredded leaves can also act as a great insulator and barrier to tender plants and perennials 
Autumn fall leaves on display

References:

  • Maynard, A.A. and Hill, D. December 2000. “Compost Science and Utilization: Cumulative Effect of Leaf Compost on Yield And Size Distribution in Onions” 
  • Maynard, Abigail. July 2013. “Compost Science and Utilization: Applying Leaf Compost to Reduce Fertilizer Use in Tomato Production” 
  • Fuder, J. Cherokee County UGA Extension Oct 8, 2015 “Make Fall Leaves Work for You”

8 Reasons GMOs are not good for our food system (and gardens)

Know that there shouldn’t be GMO seed available to consumers and is sold to producers only at this time, but you need to be aware of what is happening in our food supply chain as it could affect you in what you consume from the grocery store.

With genetically modified organisms (GMOs), we risk transforming our food into a patented commodity controlled by a few multinationals, and stripping farmers and consumers of their rights. GMOs are unreliable from a scientific point of view, inefficient in economic terms and unsustainable in an environmental analysis. Little is known about them from a health perspective and from a technical standpoint they are obsolete.

What are GMOs?

A GMO is an organism in which a gene belonging to one species is transferred to the DNA of another – for example a bacterium to a plant. This process cannot occur in nature through breeding or natural genetic cross over.

What aren’t they?

Supporters of GMOs would like to make consumers believe that they have always existed. In reality, they are intentionally confusing the genetic engineering that produces GMOs with other biotechnologies such as grafting, interbreeding, seed propagation, etc. These techniques, some of which are thousands of years old, actually underlie the fundamental developments made by agriculture and humanity itself. GMOs are born exclusively in laboratories; there is no way in which they can be created in nature.

Some stats on GMOs

  • 14 million agriculturists across 25 nations plant genetically modified seeds on 134 million hectares. (2009 data).
  • Of the crops grown worldwide, GMOs represent 77% of the soya, 49% of cotton, 26% of corn and 21% of rapeseed. This is a clear sign of the great decrease in biodiversity on cultivated land.
  • In the first phase of GMO cultivation, between 1996 and 2005, they were used primarily across the Americas. Since 2006 however, the greatest growth has occurred in Asia and Africa.
  • GMOs have been around for 30 years, with the first GMO plant dating back to 1981. But after a great amount of research, in practice only four GMO plants are being used commercially – soya, cotton, corn and rapeseed – and only two characteristics have been integrated: tolerance to herbicides and resistance to insects.


1. GMOs don’t feed the world

99% of GMO crops are not destined for human food, but rather for animal feed and biofuels. Land dedicated to growing GMOs is being expanded at the expense of food production.

2. It is not true that GMOs are more productive

GMOs have not increased productivity. According to official data from the United States Department of Agriculture, there has been no recorded increase in the soya and corn yield following the introduction of GMOs to American agriculture.

3. GMOs do not reduce the use of chemical products

Genetically modified plants are resistant to specific herbicides. For example, Monsanto sells genetically modified corn seeds and also sells Roundup Ready, an extremely potent herbicide that is the only one able to be used with cultivation of this corn. However, using Roundup on the GMO fields doesn’t eliminate all of the weeds: some resist the herbicide and this resistance is strengthened with each generation. These weeds become problematic and new chemical products must be invented to deal with them.

According to the Environment Working Group (EWG) this is a problem and why they, as a ‘think tank’ to monitor the government’s role in managing this with our food system.

“Nearly all corn and soybeans in the U.S. – totaling more than 150 million acres – are genetically engineered to withstand glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup. But over-reliance on glyphosate has led to the growth of “super weeds” that are resistant to the weed killer. Today, more than 60 million acres of U.S. farmland are infested with weeds resistant to glyphosate.

Because of this super weed problem, farmers are turning  to a chemical cocktail of glyphosate and 2,4-D, a possibly cancer-causing herbicide linked to Parkinson’s disease and thyroid problems. The leading cancer researchers at the World Health Organization recently classified glyphosate alone as ‘probably carcinogenic to humans.'”

4. GMOs impoverish biodiversity

GMOs require larger areas of land and intensive monoculture cultivation to reduce production costs. This in turn means farmers are displaced from their land and cultures and traditional knowledge are lost. In fact, a team of researchers reviewed 34 years of USDA census data on every recorded crop species grown in U.S. counties and found a “steady decline in diversity in almost every food-growing part of the country.” 

5. GMOs allow multinationals to control food

The multinational companies that patent and produce GMO seeds control the majority of the seed market and often also produce herbicides and fertilizers.

6. GMOs compromise food sovereignty for communities

How can organic, biodynamic and conventional farmers be sure that their crops haven’t been contaminated? The spread, even limited, of GMO cultivation in open fields will change the quality and state of our agriculture, taking away our freedom to choose what we cultivate and eat.

7. GMOs compromise freedom of choice for consumers

At the international level, labeling laws regarding GMO products lack uniformity and are insufficient. In Africa and Asia no legislation exists at all. In America there is no acknowledged difference between products containing GMOs and conventional products, and therefore it is not deemed necessary to inform consumers of the presence of GMOs. In Europe, producers are obliged to declare the presence of GMOs if in a quantity above 0.9%. However, also in Europe the majority of animal feeds commercially available contain genetically modified soya, but it is not obligatory to declare derivative products such as milk or meat on the label.

8. GMOs contribute to problems with bees and birds and an unbalanced ecosystem

In the last several years, numerous scientists have shown that neonicotinoids such as clothianidin are lethal for pollinators at agricultural field concentrations and are the most likely cause of colony collapse disorder in bees. Other studies show correlations between environmental neonics and the loss of birds, especially species that consume aquatic invertebrates.  

Learn more about herbicide use and GMO crops below.

STOP GMOs! 

Know that there shouldn’t be GMO seed available to consumers and is sold to producers only at this time, but you need to be aware of what is happening in our food supply chain as it could affect you in what you consume from the grocery store.

When choosing seed for your garden, always look for seed providers that have made a commitment to biodiversity and preserving seed DNA as seed stewards through non-GMO open-source, non-patented and heirloom seed (like seed grown by Grow Your Health Gardening.) Not only will you play a key role in helping to maintain biodiversity within our food supply, but you’ll also enjoy the nutritional benefit of these fantastic seeds!

Shop seeds adapted to growing in the southeast (hot and humid zone 7B) in hydroponic systems at store.growyourhealthgardening.com 

Sources: 

Warning to those purchasing kale from Kroger

I just read this announcement (which I will also share with you, because it could affect anyone purchasing these items from the produce aisle…), but before I share, let me just say that there is no reason in my opinion on why individuals cannot grow their own greens. Enlighten me — tell me in the comments below why greens cannot be grown. My inquiring mind wants to know.

I literally just planted a tray of kale seeds yesterday to grow out into our cool fall days. In fact, fall and winter here in Zone 7B is a fantastic time to grow kale, because there is less pest pressure.

If you have never grown kale, you are missing out on one of the most convenient and easiest plants you can grow. You just harvest leaf-by-leaf from the bottom of the stem upwards as it grows and it keeps giving more-and-more leaves to nourish you week-after-week through the cool season.

When we get down to freezing temps, just cover with a row cover material of some sort or if in a planter, roll it in at night into the garage and back out in the day time. Some kale actually tastes sweeter it seems with frost. Or, like me, you could invest in a Hydroponic vertical garden growing system with grow lights like the Tower Garden and grow kale or greens 24/7/365.

Self-sufficiency is not only the healthiest option for you and those you love, but it’s a wonderful feeling to just enjoy the work of your hands. If you have a moment, check out EWG’s Dirty Dozen list. Notice what is on it? And if you’ve been purchasing produce from Kroger — specifically kale — take note of this important announcement just released moments ago from the Georgia Department of Agriculture Food Recall:


The Kroger Co. (NYSE: KR) is recalling its 16-ounce Kroger bagged kale product, produced by Baker Farms, due to possible listeria monocytogenes contamination. This action is being taken in cooperation with the US FDA. To date, no illnesses related to this product have been reported.

This recall includes 16-ounce bags of Kroger branded Kale (see picture below), with the UPC 11110-18170 with a best by date of 09-18-2021, which is printed on the front of the package below the light blue bar. All affected products were pulled from the Produce departments on Sept. 16, 2021.

Baker Farms is recalling their Baker Farms, Kroger & SEG Grocers brand names of Kale, 1 lb plastic bags with BEST BY 09-18-2021107020-21832 due to contamination of Listeria monocytogenes. Products affected by this recall can be found here

On 9-15-2021 the firm was notified by a customer that the product test positive for Listeria monocytogenes. The products were distributed between 8/30/2021 – 9/1/2021. These products were packaged in clear plastic and sold primarily in retail stores located in the States of: AL, AR, FL, GA, LA, MO, MS, NC, NY & VA. No illnesses have been reported to date. 


So in summary, grow kale. Especially now. And eat what you grow. You might just fall in love with growing your health gardening in the process.

Kale harvest from kale grown in our hydroponic/Aeroponic TowerGarden growing system.

Happy growing,

—Erin

3 simple steps to help your decorative fresh pumpkins last longer

There are some fantastic faux pumpkins you can find at the craft store these days, but there’s nothing quite like having a fresh pumpkin for the front porch. If you’re heading out to your local pumpkin patch to pick out the perfect pumpkin, be sure to pick up three additional items from the store to help preserve your pumpkin (if you don’t have these already): bleach, dish soap and matte paint spray sealer.

Photo by Monstera from Pexels

When you return home with your freshly harvested pumpkin, before placing your treasure on the front porch, do this:

  1. In a large sink or tub, prepare a mixture of bleach, water and dish soap: one (1) gallon of water, 2 tablespoons bleach, and a two drops of dish soap. Soak the pumpkin(s) in the mixture for 15-30 minutes.
  2. Next, rinse the pumpkin(s) with cool water and dry completely.
  3. After the pumpkins have dried all the way around them, take outside and give it a coat of spray matte sealer which will help preserve them even longer!
Pumpkin patch at local farm ready for guests to pick out the "perfect pumpkin" for their front porch.
Photo by Tim Mossholder from Pexels

Have fun picking out your pumpkins! And be sure to share pics of your pumpkins with us on social media! Tag us at #gyhg or #growyourhealthgardening on Instagram, Gab, Google My Business, or Facebook.

Poem: “A Package of Seeds” by Edgar A. Guest

In his poem (below), “A Package of Seeds,” Edgar A. Guest captures how easily we take for granted the amazing life force within a simple seed. He highlights how seeds are “a miracle of life” — a power that no one person here on this earth can create.

We at Grow Your Health Gardening stress the importance of every step in preserving the life of the seed we grow whether we are harvesting or collecting seeds, or patiently drying, handling, storing, or transporting the seeds we grow. We think it is essential to keep in mind at all times that inside each seed is not only a dormant baby plant but contains encased in this tiny capsule called a seed, intricate code that carries on the next generation of nourishing food perfectly fit for our body. And it is continually amazing to me that this seed already has everything it needs to grow the moment it is given the opportunity.

The healthier the plant while it lives without succumbing to pest, disease or chemicals from the environment, the stronger the code of its DNA. The more the plant is adapted to it’s growing environment, the stronger the code of its DNA. The more care in watching how much a seed experiences moisture and temperature fluctuations while in storage, the healthier the seedling which leads to stronger code of its DNA. Russel H. Conwell understood the importance of starting with good seed when he said, “I ask not for a larger garden, but for finer seeds.

I ask not for a larger garden, but for finer seeds. —Russell H. Conwell (1843-1925)

Finer seeds… What is the value of good health? I say it begins and ends with finer seeds. We should not take for granted good organically grown seed that will nourish our body. It should be treasured.

It’s amazing how much inflation has affected the price of seed lately, but still in the greater scheme of things, seed is still effectively quite inexpensive compared to ready-to-purchase produce. As I came across this poem today while doing some research I thought it was a good time to pause and just remind myself what an amazing gift these plants are to our body. And by the way… here in zone 7B, it’s time to plant poppies and pansies! 😉 What one thing will you do today to grow your health gardening?

Cheers! — Erin


“A Package of Seeds”

Edgar A. Guest, Poet who wrote poem “A Package of Seeds”.

I paid a dime for a package of seeds
And the clerk tossed them out with a flip.
“We’ve got ‘em assorted for every man’s needs,”
He said with a smile on his lip.“
Pansies and poppies and asters and peas!
Ten cents a package and pick as you please!” 

Now seeds are just dimes to the man in the store
And dimes are the things he needs;
And I’ve been to buy them in seasons before,
But have thought of them merely as seeds.
But it flashed through my mind as I took them this time“
You have purchased a miracle here for a dime!” 

“You’ve a dime’s worth of power no man can create,
You’ve a dime’s worth of life in your hand!
You’ve a dime’s worth of mystery, destiny, fate,
Which the wisest cannot understand.
In this bright little package, now isn’t it odd?
You’ve a dime’s worth of something known only to God. 

—Edgar Albert Guest
Poet (1881–1959)
British Born and American Immigrant who was often referred to in his time as the “The Poet of the People”. He published more than twenty volumes of poetry and was thought to have written over 11,000 poems.

Source:

  1. https://poets.org/poet/edgar-guest

Beauty Lottringa — stunning on the vine and on the plate

Beauty Lottringa growing on the vine. Such a pretty tomato!

We are loving eating BLTs (Bacon, Lettuce + Tomato with Mayo on a slice of bread) fresh from the garden with tasty hydroponically-grown heirloom tomatoes! (So juicy!)

And this rare variety from Russia called Beauty Lottringa makes a tasty AND beautiful plating! Can you believe that each tomato has less than five seeds in it?! WOW! I personally love how each slice looks like a red flower.

Slice of Beauty Lottringa on a BLT Sandwich.
This variety only has about 5 seeds or less on average in each tomato!
BLT Sandwich with Black Passion and Beauty Lottringa featured in photo above. To shop all our hydroponic-adapted exclusive line of seeds visit store.growyourhealthgardening.com

I’m still debating on whether to sell this variety because of the low seed count, but I may end up doing a giveaway, so be sure to visit store.growyourhealthgardening.com and sign-up for our email updates and tips to be the first to hear when our new hydroponically-adapted line of seeds release or if we do a give-away on this particular variety.

Do you love BLTs as well? What is your favorite slicer variety?

Happy Growing!

—Erin

Coming soon… Exclusive line of GYHG hydroponically grown using organic methods herbs and seasonings

Y’all! We are SO EXCITED about our new line of hydroponically grown herbs and seasonings grown using organic methods and coming soon (this week) to our store!

Research at The University of Minnesota found that hydroponically-grown herbs have 20-40% greater amount of aromatic oils when compared to herbs grown in conventional fields. This translates into higher quality herbs with a more robust flavor versus soil-grown herbs.

If you haven’t already, go to our store and sign-up for our emails to get the big announcement when they all release! http://store.growyourhealthgardening.com

🍃🍃🍃🍃🍃🍃🍃🍃🍃

Recipe | Egg White Breakfast Scramble

Egg White Scramble with Kale + Sweet Peppers + Chicken Sausage + Goat Cheese

If you’re working on losing weight or lowering cholesterol, an easy way to win in both these areas is to simply remove the yolk of the egg from your scrambled eggs. For convenience sake, you can purchase in carton form egg whites and measure out however much you need using a liquid measuring cup.

We added a protein source to our scramble here (chicken sausage), but feel free to substitute any protein source you have on hand. It’s also a good idea to add veggies and greens — in this case we used sweet peppers and kale because they were readily available.

Top off with goat cheese or feta and add while the cooked eggs are still hot so it softens a bit. I’m all about convenience these days and have been purchasing the squeezable ready to go guacamole from the grocery aisle refrigerator section and it is great when you want just a little bit of avocado without cutting into a whole one. No more worrying if the avocado is ripe and trying to time things right — just take out of the fridge and squeeze onto your food. Win!

Egg White Scramble

Low calorie breakfast tasty option
Prep Time10 mins
Course: Breakfast
Keyword: bell pepper, chicken, goat cheese, kale, keto, low carb, pcos, quick, recipe, weight watchers
Servings: 1 person
Calories: 259kcal
Author: Erin Castillo

Equipment

  • non-stick frying pan
  • large wooden spoon or spatula

Ingredients

  • 3/4 cup Egg Whites 100 calories
  • 2 small Snacking Peppers, diced and sautéed 27 calories
  • 1 TBSP Goat Cheese, crumbled 20 calories
  • 1 patty Al Fresco Chicken Sausage 80 calories
  • 1 medium leaf Kale, torn and sautéed (about a 1/4 cup) 9 calories
  • 1 TBSP Guacamole / Avocado 23 calories

Instructions

  • On medium heat, place a non-stick frying pan and add 1/2 tsp of Olive Oil or non-stick spray
  • Add chopped sweet peppers and diced/torn bite size pieces of kale to hot pan and cook for 3 minutes stirring occasionally
  • Cut chicken patty into bite size pieces and then warm chicken patty in Microwave for 40 seconds.
  • Pour egg whites into hot pan with warmed sweet peppers and kale. Stir occasionally until all egg whites are cooked and turn off heat source. Place in bowl
  • Add goat cheese crumbles to top of scrambled egg whites. Top off with a small squeeze of ready-to-serve guacamole.

Helpers in the Garden

While harvesting some kale this morning, this little guy hopped off of one of my leaves. If you’re a little squeamish of critters, keep in mind that tree frogs like these help eat aphids and other bugs that want to munch on your plants.

We also have green anoles (a type of small lizard) here in Zone 7 near Atlanta, Georgia. We used to spray 15 years ago and I noticed the anoles disappeared — we took away their food source!

Since then I have come to understand that these critters keep a balance to nature and show a healthy eco system is in place. Plus, my kids love to catch them! What helpers have you found in your garden?

How Gardening with my Children Forever Changed How I Look at How Kids Learn

Quote on benefits of gardening

April is “Gardening with Kids Month” where the industry focuses on encouraging young people to learn more about growing food at home. I wanted to join in on this topic, because I feel it’s so important to teach the next generation about how to grow food. And here’s the best part — you don’t have to know everything about growing food to do it. It’s fun to learn together! If you’re interested in gardening with your children, hopefully our story will inspire you in your journey…

A little bit about my background and knowing a little something about gardening with kids…

As some of you might know, I am a mother to five (5) amazing souls — I am blessed, despite battling PCOS, to have identical twin sons who are now 20 years old, another son who is 16, another son who is 11, and a daughter who is now 8 years old.

When my twins were going into 5th grade, my husband and I felt led to homeschool our three boys (our other two littles had not yet been born.) I left a good paying career in marketing to dive into something totally foreign to me… educating my own children. I felt strongly that I only had my children for a season and I didn’t want to be so distracted with wealth-building that I missed the greatest wealth right in my arms — my children.

Thinking back on that time period, I was very involved in our sons’ education. I volunteered at their school and knew the Principal by name. I knew our sons had a lot of potential, but they were struggling in an environment where they were expected to sit at a desk all… day… l-o-n-g. We hit a breaking point, when I learned one day my son had not been out to recess in over a month, I was not only livid, but I knew that to continue doing the same thing and not getting the results you wanted was not the answer. I remember at the time that I got together with a small group of moms from our church to scrapbook each month and it just so happened that when we met that evening at my house that it coincided with learning my son hadn’t had any time to move his body and play at school for over a month. There was this mama in our group that had homeschooled one of her two children that asked, “Erin, have you considered homeschooling your boys?” Gasp! No! Who does that?

Slowly my friend began to share and open my eyes to the possibilities with homeschooling and she eventually took me to a homeschool expo that totally blew me away. There was so much I could do with my boys as far as teaching them that I was overwhelmed with the possibilities. Here I was, a college educated fully-capable woman who thought only trained “professionals” (aka: government school teachers) were equipped to teach children. How blinded I was by my own biases. It was one day while driving down the road when one of our boys in the back seat of our SUV dropped a swear word that my husband and I looked at each other and simultaneously said, “We’re homeschooling.” It was becoming more and more evident that their environment was impacting them more at school that our efforts were at home.

Taking the leap to homeschool felt like I was jumping off a high cliff into a deep pool of water, but looking back over these past decade of living life in this way IT IS THE BEST DECISION I’VE EVER MADE. My children went from doing life in silos, to doing life together. We focused on developing character and growing in relationships just as much as reading, writing and arithmetic. But alas, I digress. Back to how we used gardening to grow our children…

When I began to teach our sons, I saw first-hand what their teachers had complained about — the high distractibility and the difficulty focusing on tasks for any length of time. Even I was a bit surprised at how hard it was for them to get through a subject. Here I was taking out of school because they didn’t fit the mould and at home, I was just making it look like what they came out of doing because that was what was familiar to me. Doing the same thing over and over again, while expecting different results is akin to insanity, so this SANE mama gave herself permission to step outside the box, society had placed us in and begin to do what was best for my children even if it looked different than what the government school was doing. So I began to deep dive in to figure out how my sons best learned as individuals with the aim to change them from fidgety fifth graders to fantastic focused learners!

At the time, I had joined a homeschool group where one of the moms offered a Classical Education / Charlotte Mason group out of her home where Mom’s met once every couple of weeks on a Saturday to discuss the book, “The Well-Trained Mind” by Susan Wise-Bauer and Jessie Wise. [Get on Amazon]. One of the big take-aways from those wonderful group of mamas with a heart for their children was to simply get children outdoors. And this ended up be the perfect place for me to start with my active young sons.

We encourage our children to explore this amazing world around us and respect the creatures they discover. All five of my children have brought me various critters they have discovered (here a skink) and I take a picture for posterity before they release their catch back into the yard or wild. Photo: Follow us on Instagram @GrowYourHealthGardening

Tap your child’s natural curiosity and imagination through exploring the outdoors

So one of the big take-aways this Charlotte Mason / Classical Education type group focused on was our ability as a parent to tap into the natural curiosity of our child / children and the outdoors is the PERFECT place to spark the imagination and wonder of a child. One of the ways we can do this is through nature walks. Prior to going on our nature walk (aka hike), we would equip our children with a task to find one object that was simply interesting to them. They were only to collect one item, nothing more. Of course, the beauty of this was it didn’t have to be limited to a hike — in fact, when I had a newborn in my arms, I would send the boys out into our fenced back yard for a certain length of time with instructions to bring back something that caught their eye as interesting. Sometimes it was an oddly colored or shaped rock. Maybe it was a leaf. Or a bug. Or moss and a uniquely shaped branch. Or some other type of critter like a skink. The goal of the exercise was simple — get them out from behind a desk and get their body moving and their eyes open to the world around them.

Something amazing happened. They were able to come in and sit down and stay focused on their task. I was a believer in this learning method. We had found something that worked!

I would call them in and we would set on the back deck or at the kitchen table and discuss as a family what they had found. This helped their linguistics and built confidence talking about what they thought and gave me insight into what they found to be interesting. One son loved moss (interestingly he ended up having a moss garden as a teen) and another son liked a frog (which totally Next, I had a simple set (like 7 colors) of water colors and brushes with water in solo cups for each child and a small 6 x 6 piece of blank water color paper. The instructions were simple… paint what you see. And the most important part — I did it with them. You might be wondering, Erin, why didn’t you have them use a sketch pad and sketch paper? Well, in using water colors, a child learns how different colors interact with each other. They learn how colors can blend and layer upon one another for a certain affect. They learn how to pay attention to detail — to not only the color hue of whatever object they are examining, but even down to how the light hits that object and creates a shadow. It was okay if it wasn’t perfect. We weren’t aiming for perfection — we were simply observing and trying to communicate visually what we saw and orally what we had observed. The two step process of letting them move their bodies, find what is fascinating to them, and then slowing down and paying attention to detail showed me that my children could indeed focus. Without any drugs. Without missing any recess. And learning about the amazing world right out our back and front doors.

My youngest son (age 10 in this photo), brings in our hydroponic cucumber harvest. This variety is Ashley Cucumber and hydroponic-adapted seed can be found in our Grow Your Health Gardening (GYHG) Seed Co. store. Photo: Follow us on Instagram @GrowYourHealthGardening
Our son, Joshua, shows just how big our kale harvest was off of one Tower Garden last spring when it was at it’s full production mode. We processed all this kale freezing some for healthy smoothies and making some into healthy kale chips which my kids love as a snack. Photo: Follow us on Instagram @GrowYourHealthGardening

Understanding how a child learns and helping them make connections is key

And the beauty of this ‘learning method”, if you will, is you are using both sides of the child’s brain. Very young children in particular are very right-brain hemisphere dominant, especially during their first three years of life. According to the book “The Whole Brained Child: Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind” by M.D. Siegel and Ph.D., Bryson, you want to encourage cross-brain learning functions whenever possible. [Get the book] They write, “We want to help our children become better integrated so they can use their whole brain in a coordinated way. For example, we want them to be horizontally integrated, so that their left-brain logic can work well with their right-brain emotion. We also want them to be vertically integrated, so that the physically higher parts of their brain, which let them thoughtfully consider their actions, work well with the lower parts, which are more concerned with instinct, gut reactions, and survival. … What molds our brain? Experience.”

We want to help our children become better integrated so they can use their whole brain in a coordinated way. For example, we want them to be horizontally integrated, so that their left-brain logic can work well with their right-brain emotion. We also want them to be vertically integrated, so that the physically higher parts of their brain, which let them thoughtfully consider their actions, work well with the lower parts, which are more concerned with instinct, gut reactions, and survival. … What molds our brain? Experience.”

Siegel and Bryson, “The Whole Brained Child

When using watercolors and painting, you are tapping right brain creativity, but in giving them the task of looking and remembering detail, you are tapping left brain logic. If you have a child that asks “why” all the time (I remember my mother getting exasperated with me at one point because I was this kind of child), know it’s their left-brain wanted to know the linear cause-effect relationship in the world and to express that logic through language. It is a blessing to have a “why” asking child as they are wanting to make connections and learn!

Siegel and Bryson I think would agree with this outdoor Charlotte Mason / classical education method of learning for they write, “…children whose parents talk with them about their experiences tend to have better access to the memories of those experiences.” So, getting in the habit of engaging a child by focusing on the world outside your front or back door is key in engaging and inspiring these kinds of conversations. What I found over time is when they were older, they were able to have some very grown-up conversations with adults to discuss their experiences and relate to people in a way their peers didn’t seem to be doing. In their high school years, I also saw a richness to what they wrote about as they drew from these memories and made connections to the world around them on a bigger scheme. My middle 16 year old son, who was given time outside from first grade on to explore his world continues to BLOW ME AWAY at times with the connections he makes with literature and history right now as a homeschooling Junior in high school. And he writes poetry for fun… again… I’m blown away by him and his creative mind that taps into the logic of what he is perceiving about the world around him.

Children will watch what you do and follow your lead

I know what I’ve mentioned here is not specific to gardening, but as we were doing every day life, this kind of learning was adapted to what I was doing — growing food. For example one day, my son, Joshua, noticed me saving some seed from some fruit I had processed from the grocery store. I would set these seeds on a tray in the corner of my kitchen to dry and save. Soon, I noticed my seeds were being added to by someone else in the family. Other seeds being added to my drying area. Come to find out, Joshua had taken notice of my actions and he was inspired. He saved seeds I would have never tackled! I remember he saved a mango seed one time and actually grew it into a tree! (It was doing great until it was left outside on a cold night [sad face]). Today, Joshua has graduated for Seed Saving School from the Seed Savers Exchange and is a great help in isolating, pollinating, collecting and processing seed for our Grow Your Health Gardening Seed Co.

Joshua collects basil seed off of our hydroponic system. Photo: Follow us on Instagram @GrowYourHealthGardening

Involve your children in what you’re learning or curious about

If your children see you learning and inquisitive, they will see that learning isn’t limited to school — learning is for adults, too — it’s an attitude. And a mind that continually learns is a good thing. I didn’t want to only teach my children reading, writing and arithmetic and science — I wanted them to learn how to learn. I knew if they had the skills to find the information they didn’t know, they could learn anything whether I was there or not. And I had the honor and priviledge of being that example to them from a very young age.

If your children see you learning and inquisitive, they will see that learning isn’t limited to school — learning is for adults, too — it’s an attitude.

—Erin Castillo, Grow Your Health Gardening
Here, one of my twins finishes potting up various pots to learn about root growth and development as part of a lesson on aerial root pruning.
Photo: Follow us on Instagram @GrowYourHealthGardening

When my twins were about 8th and 9th grade, I began to really get intrigued by this idea of hydroponics. I was tired of fighting the Georgia clay soil. I would amend it and invariably it was never enough, because the very next season it always returned to clay. And then I fought the weeds. Oh the weeds! As a busy mom of five at this point, I didn’t have the band-width to be out watering the garden and weeding day in and day out. I was doing good just to feed them three square meals a day and get their lessons done. There just wasn’t enough of me to go around it seemed and so our little gardening patch suffered as a result. But I missed growing food and I was determined to find an easier solution. So, when I say I dove in to learning more about hydroponics, I mean a full-head-long plunge. I watched videos, read articles, purchased books, attended workshops. I immersed myself in learning whatever I could find on the subject online and from the library, new books and old books. (Even still today I listen to podcasts and read to learn more.)

There was a YouTube video by a gentleman that particularly caught my eye. He was growing tomatoes in bato-buckets. It was a gravity fed circular system and it fascinated me. I was astounded at how simple the system was while getting seemingly high production out of the plants he was growing. I wanted to see if what he was claiming was true, so I talked my husband into helping me and the boys build a simple system. As part of their High School Biology class, I incorporated some botany since they were studying the differences between plant cells and animal cells. I had the older boys track the pH levels and PPM levels using some meters I had picked up from the hydroponics store in Atlanta. I was amazed at how the tomatoes thrived and the parsley and basil flourished! And I didn’t have to weed or water a single thing! I just had to make sure my reservoir was full and nutrients and pH were in range every couple of days or so during the hottest days of the season. We had tomatoes and herbs growing until our first snow that year! I was impressed! I was hooked!

We didn’t just stop at the hydroponics for learning… we dove in and even did other types of labs. For example, we did one on how different pots affected root growth through air pruning. In this exercise, our sons learned that roots need oxygen to grow and how air pruning will strengthen a plant through encouraging lateral root development. The more roots your plant has, the more it can uptake nutrients you offer it whether in soil or in a hydroponic/aeroponic system.

Our then 7 year old daughter holding hydroponically grown Rainbow Swiss Chard. I had to move some things around in my Tower Garden and we both learned that day that Rainbow Swiss Chard has roots that are the same color as the stalk! How cool is that?!
Photo: Follow us on Instagram @GrowYourHealthGardening

The rest is history as some would say… we have explored all sorts of growing systems using water including aquaponics, the Aerogardens, and my go-to-favorite, the vertical garden growing system the Tower Garden (full disclosure, I am a Rep as well because I love it so much and I want Mama’s to succeed in growing healthy food for their family!) Since this all began, I now hold certifications in hydroponics, aquaponics, seed starting, a graduate from the SSE Seed School and more. Joshua (the son who was and still is a seed saver) can now take any orchid and rescue it, bringing it back to it’s intended beauty. And, as far as I know, he is also the youngest to become a Master Gardener in our county.

I am so thankful for our local County Extension Office — they have been an excellent resource to our family as we have learned over the years and grown. I will talk more about this resource in upcoming articles and how you can tap into it for FREE! Here Joshua holds an azalea plant he won for attending a local workshop. Photo: Follow us on Instagram @GrowYourHealthGardening
Tower Gardens were a game-changer for how much food we could grow in a small space. Here, we grew over 100 plants on our back deck. Photo: Follow us on Instagram @GrowYourHealthGardening

And the learning hasn’t stopped with just my sons as they’ve graduated from High School and have moved on to other things. My younger children keep me going. One recent example has come out of a book I read which made me want to get better at growing flowers in my garden. I began to follow a gardener from Virginia (also in zone 7, so similar growing conditions to where I live in Atlanta, GA), Lisa Mason-Ziegler. I picked up her book “Vegetables Love Flowers: Companion Planting for Beauty and Bounty“. In this book, she talks about how important the flowers are to the food bearing plants in the garden — not simply for pollination, but for bringing in natural predators and balancing the ecosystem. I would play her Facebook live events while I worked on my own seed starting. There’s always something new you can learn…

Be watchful of what delights your child and then be purposeful…

It was around this time-frame where I was listening to Lisa and working in the garden that my then 7-year-old daughter ran up to me with a clutch-full of Dandelions and wild Violets. Then a thought fluttered through my mind… she loved flowers so much that she brought them to me to share her joy in them. How could I join her in that? If I could combine that desire to pick flowers she had with my desire to grow more flowers … and that led to growing two flower beds last season of sunflowers and zinnias. My husband financially backed my hair-brained idea and generously gave me some sunflower seeds and kits from Lisa Ziegler’s shop for Mother’s Day. I was so tickled to dive right in and do this project with my daughter.

Throughout the growing season, she learned so much about how plants grow and what flowers needed after they were picked to extend their vase life. We even learned how you can use lemon basil or cinnamon basil as filler in your arrangement and it makes it smell divine! My favorite part was when we would go out to pick flowers together she would be stripping off lower leaves and say, “Mom, thank you so much for helping me plant a flower garden.” Kid you not — this is forever engrained in my mind as a special moment we would share. And she didn’t just say it once, but multiple times throughout the season. I knew we were onto something that was working!

In looking back on last season, I think it also gave her something a little bit different than what I was doing (growing food) that she could make her own. It was HER flower patch to pick from anytime she wanted. She may not understand for a long while that I was intentional about all that, but that’s okay. The spark of learning about flower growing has been lit and my job is to fan the flames of learning and supporting that interest. She and I both find great delight not only in bringing bouquets in to our home and making our home environment beautiful, but also sharing with neighbors and those who need encouragement.

As I write this, in our upcoming growing season she is growing more cool season annuals. What’s more, she is dreaming and talking about one day owning a flower and gift shop. Will she do that? I hope so… I love the idea of encouraging entrepreneurship, but what I love more is she is learning about how plants grow and finding joy in the journey. She is learning through gardening. And the best part is, I am blessed to get to do that right along side her. We grow in relationship as mother and daughter doing something we both love — she can be mimicking my example of growing plants, but make it her own by it being her own little patch to nurture and enjoy.

Like Siegel and Bryson mentions in their book, “Spending time with family and friends and learning about relationships, especially with face-to-face interactions, will wire it in yet other ways. Everything that happens to us affects the way the brain develops…This wire-and-rewire process is what integration is all about: giving our children experiences to create connections between different parts of the brain. When these parts collaborate, they create and reinforce the integrative fibers that link difference parts of the brain.”

—Siegel and Bryson “The Whole-Brain Child: Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind
Our seven-year-old daughter waters in her Sunflower and Zinnia transplants while her big brother, Joshua, helps with finishing touches to the flower bed. I love how gardening brings our family together. Photo: Follow us on Instagram @GrowYourHealthGardening

Here’s the main thread through all these years with my children… we had fun growing in relationship with each other and learning about the world we live in along the way. My children are more connected to where their food comes from and why they should eat those greens I put on their plate, because we have reached out the world outside our front door and have brought it into our lives. They have learned a life skill in how to grow food — they can be independent and self-sufficient in a world with a burdened food system where people rely on large scale agricultural farming practices. When Covid hit and grocery stores were bare, we had food growing and didn’t feel fearful. We felt empowered. They have developed some great character traits in patience and now understand the work that went into the food that is on their plate making them more appreciative of others and our hard-working farmers. These are just some of the great things gardening has brought to our family and I’m only getting started…

I’ll stop there for now, because there’s more I’d like to share about teaching children to grow their own food, but hopefully that will give you an idea of a little bit of our journey as a family and how I approach involving children in the garden… more to come… but for now the garden calls me with our 2021 seed season ramping up. (My children are finished with their math and ready for a break so we are all headed outside for a bit.) Let me know if you have learned something through gardening with your child in the comments below. I love to hear from you!

Chat with you again soon…

— Erin

PS: A special thank you to my help mate and best friend — my husband, who has supported me every step of the way. Love you.

Erin Castillo is a certified hydroponic grower, small-scale farmer outside of Atlanta, Georgia, and owner of Grow Your Health Gardening Seed Co.. She loves to share her passion for helping others grow healthier lives through connecting with people she loves while also growing nutritious food.

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