How to Enjoy the Winter Garden with Children

Winter in the garden: Still plenty to do!

By Anne Nagro

The garden is a magical place in winter, but you've got to get outdoors to enjoy it.  Put on your hats, gloves, boots and warm jackets, ready the hot chocolate for your return, and get out there.

Explore the Senses. The garden is a different place in winter.  The sound of busy bees is replaced with the scraping of bare tree branches in the wind.  Zingy, cold air on your face has replaced the soft feel of sage leaves. Take a moment to explain this stage of a plant's life cycle... of 'sleeping' perrennials and seeds waiting for the soil to warm. 

Make Winter Fairy Houses. Nothing sparks the imagination more than building fairy houses ... or 'houses' for any of the little critters that may live in the garden. Encourage children to build these mini dwellings from items they find in the winter garden, such as snow, twigs, leaves and stones.

Make Ice Sculptures. Take scissors and go on a winter scavenger hunt to collect bits of evergreen, pine cones, sticks, bark, and winter berries.  Arrange the items in buckets and old plastic containers – one for each child – and pour water over them. Set them outdoors for one to two days, depending on the weather.  (This process may be best done outdoors so the students don’t get wet carrying water-filled containers.)  Once frozen, turn the buckets over to release the ice.  (You may need to dip them in warm water first, or bring them inside for a few minutes if they’re really frozen hard.) Arrange the sculptures along the walkway to the school or around the garden.

Paint the Snow. Winter is a time for planning out the spring garden. Make your garden plan a little more “real” by painting pictures of the fruits, vegetables or flowers you plan to grow on the snow. How?  First, collect clean, empty spray bottles – one for each color of paint you plan to use. Then pour a small amount of non-toxic, water-based tempura paint (poster paint) in each bottle, add water, screw on the spray top, and shake.  Test the mixture on a patch of snow.The paint should be vibrant and stay on top of the snow (not soak in).  You may have to adjust the water-paint ratio to get the right consistency. ‘Paint’ the snow by squeezing the trigger while forming shapes. Give each student an item and area to paint.  Then stand back and admire your colorful winter garden.  (Of course, this project requires a layer of snow of the ground.)

Build a Bird Feeder.  Draw in our feathered friends with easy-to-make bird feeders using pine cones (collect them with students if you have them on your school property), peanut butter or suet, and bird seed. Tie a string onto the pine cone, coat the cone with peanut butter or suet using a plastic knife or popsicle stick, roll it in a bucket of bird seed and hang on trees or structures near your classroom window.  This is a messy project, so you may want to have plenty of shallow boxes to hold students’ feeders until they get hung up outside.  If possible, hang the feeders near a window for easy classroom observation or mount a motion-activated camera near the feeders to capture images of visitors.

Track Tracks. Regardless of your garden’s size, you might be amazed and the kinds of critter tracks you can find in the snow.  Have students hunt for animal tracks and try to identify them.  Why is that animal in or near the garden? What does that animal eat? Where does it live?  What is its habitat?  What could you do to attract more of this animal?  Less?

Plant Cool-Season Crops.   If you're lucky enough to live in a region with mild winters, grow crops through the winter. Or, use row or hoop covers like the Gary Comer Youth Center rooftop garden in Chicago. These can significantly extend your harvest and shelter hardier plants from extreme temperatures. Cool season crops include beets, peas, lettuce, spinach, carrots, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussel sprouts.  Some, like kale and collards, even taste better after a touch of frost. Call your local cooperative extension to learn what cool season crops are best suited for your area, and when to plant them.

Plan Your Spring Field Trip. After warming up, take a moment to plan your spring field trip to one of the country's amazing public gardens.  Botanical gardens, children's gardens, conservatories, arboretums, nature centers and forest preserves can be found in every state.  And don't overlook neighboring school gardens.  Taking students to enjoy a garden created and cared for by other students can be a real source of inspiration.

Copyright Anne Nagro

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