Valerie Shaw

Winter growing, reading, and making with kids

by cathym on November 1, 2019

by Valerie Shaw

It’s a chilly early winter day, there’s frost in the garden, the furnace humming expensively, and your little ones are waiting with anticipation for the next holiday, or snow day, or weekend. You may not be able to convince your kids to venture outside, but don’t worry, there’s still green-thumb fun to be had!

One of the bigger trends right now has the rather gross name of “Kitchen Scrap Gardening,” which just might sound icky enough to be interesting. You can also call it “Plant Rescue” for the kinder of heart, or “Garbage Gardening,” “Bio-active Recycling,” or something similar. Whatever you call it, it’s a quick process with satisfying results.

Tops and bottoms: Save your celery or onion bottoms, or your carrot or beet tops, and stick them in either a little container of water or some moist potting soil. Give them a few days and, like the Thanksgiving turkey leftovers creatively hidden in every dish, they’re backkk! You can make this a quick experiment and toss them, or plant them in pots and keep them in a sunny window. Feeling especially green? Try doing this with lettuce roots or turnip tops. Once we kept “perpetual lettuce” growing for an entire winter. It didn’t make enough for a salad, but it was fun to pick fresh leaves to stick in a sandwich.

Tubers: Sweet potatoes make lovely vines, as you probably have discovered in your plant-buying travels. Simply wait for a sweet potato to sprout from an eye and stick it halfway in water. It’ll put out roots and leaves shortly. They like sunshine and will climb upward to frame a window.

Growing an avocado tree from a seed
Photo courtesy Flicker: Maria Keay.

Avocado Tree: Want lots of leaves? Enjoy your avocado, then scrub the seed clean. Stab it with four toothpicks and suspend at the top of a jar with the wide part of the seed touching the water. Change out the water every two days until the jar fills with roots. Plant it in a big pot and put it somewhere sunny, then stand back. These are abundant and fast-growing plants! The Internet is full of different advice about growing these, so you can assign your science-minded kid a project to determine the truth.

With the holidays approaching, I’ve compiled some new projects that will get your kids busy, and still inspire them to love their “planty” pals.

Photo courtesy Flicker: Marco Verch

Cranberries: They are not only delicious, and grow in intriguingly different methods than most plants, they are also quite cheerfully beautiful and their large size makes them easy for kids (and grownups!) to handle. Kids will enjoy making cranberry ornaments, garlands, and even easy candle displays, and the fresh cranberries remain bright red even when dried. For an easy ornament, simply string cranberries and beads (silver or gold look lovely) on floral wire and twist into a circle. Tie a ribbon on top and you have a pretty, lightly scented ornament for your room, or as a nice gift for grandma! Check out Ocean Spray’s website for more great cranberry crafts.

“The Secret Garden” courtesy Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division

Reading: Oh yes, books are a gardener’s friend! Try The Secret Garden, Seed People, or, for the little ones, Peter Rabbit, for cozy reading when the snow’s flying.

Flowerpot People: All you need is a clay flowerpot to make a cute, funny pal. Have your child paint a face on the pot with acrylic paint, then fill with potting soil and sprinkle some chia or grass seeds on top. You can use wheat grass seeds to make this a cat treat, too. Water and keep somewhere sunny, then enjoy trimming the pot pal’s “hair” when it begins to grow long!

That’s all for this year! Happy holidays, from my garden to yours!

Valerie Shaw is a YMCA coach, PTO mom, and aspiring novelist with too many distracting goats. She lives on a patch of plant paradise in West Monroe, NY, with her wonderful husband and two energetic tweens.


A Visit to Ballantyne Gardens

by cathym on September 9, 2019

story by Valerie Shaw; photo courtesy Ballantyne Gardens

When you think of gardening, using your ears is one of the last approaches that might come to mind, but at Ballantyne Gardens in Liverpool, what you hear is just as important as all the other senses. There’s the sweet hum of happy, busy bees, bumbling from flower to flower with big, plump, pollen-pants. There’s the splashing of a beautiful pond and several water plant pools; and the swish of tall, strong perennials perfect for this climate. There’s even a contented cluck-cluck-cluck of vigilant hens, scouting along beneath flowerpots to eliminate pests. 

Bald-face hornet collects nectar from a doublefile viburnum 

My family and I discovered Ballantyne Gardens recently while on my customary birthday plant hunt. Although the nursery is not vast, we spent nearly an hour there, and left feeling we had enjoyed an adventure. From the moment you pull into the small parking lot, your eyes feast. The aesthetic of the gardens are inspiring, intriguing, and thick with the joy of life. Multiple little buildings are nestled along the winding rows of beautiful plants, and there are secrets to discover all over the place. These gardens do what many gardens aspire to: They delight. 

Unique signage

If you are looking for native plants strong enough to weather our summer humidity and frigid winters and create the kind of yard that people slow down for, here is where you can find them. Thanks to organic practices and an understanding of working with our weather, Tim and Lisa Ballantyne offer plants that will not only thrive here in upstate New York, but also encourage pollinators to flock to your gardens. If you need information, the folks there take the time to talk. I enjoyed Tim’s excitement as he pointed out a stand of milkweed growing by the rain spouts. He made sure we could show our children the cute, plump Monarch butterfly caterpillars. Both Tim and Lisa are Cornell Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners, actively engaged in learning the newest growing methods and gardening trends. With degrees in horticulture and landscaping, this gardening team has plenty of skill and knowledge and are on point for organic gardening. 

Pond plants

Started in 1997, Ballantyne Gardens has grown and flourished. With a “customers come first” attitude and a gentle, organic approach, Ballantyne is a nursery that local folks love. Even in the cooler months, the nursery is busy. There are houseplants of all kinds, statues, garden decor, seeds, and tools, in addition to a wonderfully whimsical—and plentiful—selection of fairy garden items. The Ballantynes work closely with the Liverpool library, offering classes like wreath making, terrarium building, and herb gardens. They also give presentations to local groups and have hosted bus trips to various amazing gardening adventures, including the New York Botanical Gardens, the Philadelphia Flower show, and other New England destinations. You can follow Ballantyne Gardens on Facebook or check out their blog on their website. 

Flower tower

What I enjoy most about Ballantyne was the overall loveliness. It is the kind of place that curious gardeners can get lost in, be inspired by, and discover treasure. I went home that day with some native plants for my pollinator friends; a vigorous, highly coveted rose plant for my birthday; and some warm, fuzzy memories of very friendly folks and their delightful gardens. 


You can visit Ballantyne Gardens at their website, or, better yet, hop in your car, and take a drive on over. They’re located at 4825 Hopkins Road in Liverpool. 

Valerie Shaw is a long time garden-center aficionado. Valerie lives in West Monroe, NY, with her husband, two kids, Harvey the wondermutt, and a platoon of compost-making goats and poultry.


Fun Spring Things

by cathym on May 17, 2019

by Valerie Shaw

It’s spring! For moms everywhere, this is a triumphant announcement for many reasons—no more itchy, smothered kids complaining about winter coats, the games of tag and pinch your brother can move outside, and the gardening season is in full swing! But how do you convince your tween to switch from building square Minecraft gardens on the Wii U to going outside into the great—and sometimes uncomfortable—outdoors? The answer is, make gardening fun! Here are a slew of ideas to help your kiddos open their minds and hearts to your green space. 

• Get them involved. Like cooking, grocery shopping, and even learning to drive, learning alongside Mom or Dad and taking over smaller chores will lead to mastery over big ones later. Have your little ones count and set seeds, select plants, and water. Simply being asked, “What do you think?” is a big thing. 

Garden gnome. Photo courtesy Flickr: Ann Oro

• Garden decor. Kids love, adore, and cherish garden statues. Right now, all of mine are hiding in two stick tepees, as the kids were protecting them from yard trolls. They move around the yard, sometimes in the spots I put them, sometimes wherever the kids’ imaginations transport them. And yes, garden gnomes are a huge hit. I found a slew of them at the dollar store one year and those little dudes travel all over our yard all summer. Other terrific decor items can include solar lights (they are coming out with cooler ones every year, including solar fairy light chains!), decorative rocks, and whimsical planters. Just remember that children are hard on things. Resin and stone hold up, while glass and thin ceramic do not and are not good for younger children’s spaces. 

• Water features. I wrote about this last year, but it bears repeating. Kids are attracted to water like ducks to a pond. Even if it’s just a bird bath or butterfly drinking pool, bring in water and they will want to help you care for it. Our favorite over here is our froggy pond—truly, it’s a giant, perpetual puddle, but I dug it out so that it’s deep enough to weather the sun of July, and we put boards over it for bridges and an old log for frogs and salamanders to hide under. If you don’t already have a wet spot in your yard, you could sink a kiddie pool down to soil level and disguise the edges with rocks or mulch. Another simple option is the storage tote pond. Just remember, with any water feature, mosquitoes are an issue. Remember to change the water often, or you can add goldfish to eat them, or purchase biological preventative pellets to kill the larvae. 

• Cool plants. There are so many terrifically interesting plant choices out there—let your kids choose one or two to be their plants. Simply having ownership of their plant will encourage them to get on out and explore. Last year we found purple clover. Chocolate peppermint, lemon grass, bunny tail grass, pineapple strawberries, and lemonade blueberries—these crazy things are all actual plants we have enjoyed in the garden! 

• A welcoming zone. Bugs, sun, and dirt. Nature is sometimes our biggest foe, despite all the fun we can have out there. Making sure you have the basic gear to enjoy the outdoors is key to your kids getting engaged. A good pair of rubber boots will protect little toes and a selection of big floppy hats will keep off the sun and light rain showers. Make a station by your door and have a go-to box filled with hats, trowels, jersey gloves, sunscreen and bug spray. You’ll all use it, and it’ll make life better. 

• Just try. The last thing I’ll leave you with is this—great gardeners don’t have magical green thumbs. They have a willingness to observe, a spirit to learn and try, and the courage to murder plants until they figure them out. So, be brave, and bold, and get out there- with your kiddos! 

Valerie Shaw is a longtime plant murderer, YMCA youth coach, goat-wrangler, and fruit tree crusader. She encourages you to practice radical exuberance in your own backyards this summer, and give those hard-pressed honeybees and butterflies some great pollen. You can email her at