Valerie Shaw

Think Spring!

by cathym on April 1, 2019

by Valerie Shaw

The wind is howling, my daughter is home sick, and the snow can’t seem to decide whether it will melt, harden into ice, or smother us in another five inches. It’s starting to feel like winter will never end! Yet, beneath that icy layer, things are getting ready to change. Believe it or not, it’s time to start thinking Spring! 

Mini Greenhouses
How about some fresh veggies, right now? In our sunny living room, we’re trying something new this year. My son calls it, “Let Us Have Lettuce!” It’s easy, inexpensive, and fun. First, get a clear tote, with a lid, and a bag of potting soil (not starter, that’s different). Place the lid of the tote where you want the greenhouse; it’ll get heavy, so make sure it’s a sturdy table. Lay the bag of soil flat on this, and then cut a wide rectangle in the bag’s top, making a little garden bed. Fluff slightly with a fork or other tool, then generously sprinkle lettuce, kale, spinach, or other salad green seeds. Water gently, pat down the seeds a little. Now take the clear tote, and put it upside down over the lid. Our lettuce sprouted the very next day! If it’s too gloomy, you can use a halogen or other growing light to help your little sprouts. Just the same as any other method, if it gets very sunny and warm, make sure to lift the tote for airflow so you don’t cook your seedlings. You can use this this idea outside once it warms a little, too! This method also has the added perk of protecting your seedlings from too-curious little fingers, or interested family cats. You might also try growing radishes, herbs, or mini carrots this way.

Planning Ahead
One of the biggest pieces of advice I give both kids and parents doesn’t even need a trowel. Read! Read those catalogs, and read those seed packets before you rip ‘em open. Kids get hooked on gardening when they are successful at it, and reading ahead is one of the best ways to make sure that happens. For example, if you’re buying a blueberry bush, make sure it’s intended for your area. There are northern and southern varieties, and choosing the wrong one will waste a summer’s worth of work, and your moola, too. 

Garden Planning
Get out your pencils! Now is a great time to plan ahead and make some garden plans. It’s prime seed catalog time, and soon the nurseries will be filling with green choices. Think about the veggies your family likes to eat, and try a few new varieties. Or take the Veggie Challenge: As a family, pick a vegetable you don’t like, but know you should. Grow a few plants of it, and see how many different ways you can eat it. Maybe one will be a winner! Sometimes, we just have to try something a few times to change our minds. 

If you don’t have one yet, now is a great time to start a garden journal. No fancy book needed, a notebook will do! Colored pencils and stickers can help kids add their own touches to your records. Make sure to write down any funny or interesting memories, too.

Mom‘s Strawberry Jam. Photo courtesy Flickr: Meal Makeover Moms

Berry Good  
I highly recommend strawberry plants for children; they’re just so joyful and easy. Have the child paint a big flowerpot whatever colors they choose, put in some potting soil, and three to five strawberry plants. Or make a little garden bed out in the yard. And here’s a fun painting project that is very useful: painting a handful of strawberry-sized rocks can trick your local birds into leaving your juicy berries alone! Simply paint the rocks a jolly berry red (acrylic paint works great), and place in your strawberry patch a few weeks before your berries come in. The birds will attempt to “eat” them, decide that these are the worst berries ever, and then leave your patch unscathed when the real fruit ripens. Remember, “June bearing” strawberries will make a ton of berries all at once, great for making jam. “Ever-bearing” will keep pumping out berries for a longer season, but less at once.    

Pumpkin Club
This last idea is actually a year-long project, ideal for school, church, or other groups. It would be good fun in a close neighborhood, or group of friends! The group all buys a packet of pumpkin seeds, and plants them at the same time. Once a month, someone hosts a “pumpkin party”, and kids can share their growing tips and show off how their vines are doing. There’s a ton of fascinating methods on the Internet for growing big pumpkins (did you know some people feed them milk?). In October, there’s a final Harvest party, where everyone brings their ‘kins. Prizes can be given out for the biggest, the cutest, the most orange, spookiest, and so on. It’s a great way to bring families together for some gardening fun! 

Valerie Shaw lives in West Monroe, NY, with her lettuce-loving family, some silly goats, and too many wild deer that prematurely prune her fruit trees. She’s a youth coach at the Y, an avid gardener, and a painter that also loves to write long novels. She can be reached at for any kid-related gardening questions!


Cold Weather Garden Fun

by cathym on December 3, 2018

by Valerie Shaw

Ice balls. Photo courtesy Flicker: Robbie Sproule.

There’s nothing like the blue sky of an autumn day. Now it’s time to bring in the garden statues, take notes on your garden successes and failures, and prepare your garden for winter. Acorns, pumpkins, and beautiful leaves invite children outside for one last romp before the snow comes. The gardening fun doesn’t have to completely end, though! Here are some activities to keep your li’l green thumbs engaged throughout the cold months ahead.

Snow Poppies—Now is a good time to grab a packet of poppy seeds and spy out a prime poppy area in your garden or yard. Tuck the seed packet in the fridge and wait until a good snowy day. Then, pull on the snow boots, hike out to your spot, and scatter your poppy seeds in the snow! With the melting snow the tiny seeds are drawn into the soil. Come spring, look out for the slightly spiky looking leaves, followed by intriguing fuzzy stems with big flower buds. Poppies are cheerful and fun, and kids will like planting in the snow! Remember, though, that poppy plants will spread. If your kids are older, they might enjoy learning about the historical nature of this beautiful flower.

Ice Gazing Balls—Easy and very fun to make, you can stick these anywhere in your yard, and enjoy them as long as the temperatures stay cold. Simply fill balloons with water and several drops of food coloring. Stick them in your freezer or outside. When they’re solid, run them quickly beneath hot water and peel off the balloons. You’ll have made beautiful round ice balls that will reflect the pale winter sunshine. If you want to stick them to a railing or other object outside, you can use water to “glue” them in place. We made a series of them and stuck them on the arm of our mailbox—the kids thought they were amazing, and they looked very pretty for several days!

Sachets—If you’ve been collecting flowers or drying herbs from your garden, a simple sewing craft that many kids enjoy is making scented sachets, or scented hot pads. They also make great presents for the holidays. Using felt and a larger needle can make the project easier for small children. Old flannel shirts or other clothing with nice fabric can be a reusable resource, or hit the store and enjoy all of the beautiful fabric designs.

Homemade potpourri is another fragrant way to enjoy plants indoors. A simple recipe we use is as follows: The peel of one orange, a stick of cinnamon (or a teaspoon of powdered), and either powdered or whole cloves. Put the ingredients into a pot with two cups of water. Cook on medium until the scent starts wafting, then turn the heat down to low. (Also, of note, don’t use clementine peels. Though the fruit is yummy to eat, the rinds don’t smell good at all.) There are other great recipes at:

Dream, Gardener, Dream—One surefire antidote to the February blahs is the arrival of seed catalogs. Now is a good time to sign up for all the catalog joy. Try some new nurseries, and don’t forget to let your kids look through them too. Our little gardeners love putting their initials next to veggies they want to eat and flowers they want to plant. Some fun nurseries that might be new to you are Baker Creek (, the Cook’s Garden, Fedco Seeds, Pinetree Garden Seeds, and Thompson & Morgan.

And lastly, don’t forget houseplants—Geraniums come in many fun scents, like pineapple and rose, and are easy to grow in a sunny window. Head out to a nursery and you’ll be sure to find childhood favorites—pink polka dot plants, strange carnivores, and easy-to-care-for succulents. Many of the herbs you love outside can come in too. Just watch out for any insect hitchhikers when bringing in garden plants. (A brief quarantine is never a bad idea.)

Remember, spring is only a few months away! Happy holidays to you all.


Valerie Shaw is a homeschool mom, YMCA youth coach, and gardener with a yard that rather ran away with her this year. She lives with her husband and two kids in West Monroe, NY, and is excitedly awaiting spring, and the new batch of little goat kids that are due in March.


Gardening with Kids: Preserving the Bounty

by cathym on September 9, 2018

by Valerie Shaw; artwork by Andrew Monrad

Fully open dahlia bloom

As the scorching days of summer yield to the cooler, shorter days of early autumn, some of the most wonderful flower displays and veggie harvests are just beginning. The big favorites around here, squash, sunflowers, and tomatoes, are drowning us in their cheerful abundance. If you’re into preserving foods, you may have your shelves lined with colorful jars of pickles and jellies, or your freezers full of plump berries. Your kids might be delighted to discover that not only can you keep the yummy harvest over the winter, but you can keep parts of your beautiful garden preserved to enjoy later too! Here are some fun ideas for savoring all of your late summer gardening adventures.

Firework design created using unopened sedum blossom

Garden journals. These can be really fun for kids. Using a simple notebook, binder, photo binder, or any pre-made version, create a scrapbook or journal that documents all the great things about your garden. You can buy disposable cameras and let your kids be roving photographers, then “publish” them in a fun scrapbook. You’ll be able to see the garden from their eyes. Use stickers, scraps of
fabric, used seed packets, and doodles. Your kids will love pulling out their garden journal year after year, and be encouraged to try their hand at it again next spring.

Recipe Book. Whether it’s a five-page handwritten booklet or a chock-full book you have printed and bound at Staples, making a family recipe book is a great and delicious way to connect your garden to your table. Kids can be encouraged to make their own signature salads, vegetable dips, pizza sauce, or zucchini brownie recipes. Let them come up with fabulous names for their dishes! Having your kids choose the recipes will encourage them to get involved, try new veggies, and take pride in their hard work. They can include drawings or photos, and make a special cover for it too. If there are other gardeners or cooks in the family, your kids could collect favorite recipes from them as well, making it a truly memorable keepsake! These make terrific presents for grandparents and other family
members for the holiday season.

Succulent twirled to create a spiral

Painting with flowers. Head on out to the garden and snip a big bouquet of flowers or plants with interesting leaves. Using poster or acrylic paints, use the flowers as paintbrushes. For toddlers, this is a great activity to use with finger paints. Older kids might enjoy practicing on paper, then moving on to using the flowers with acrylic paints on canvases. My kids really like the mini canvases. They’re smaller and less intimidating. If you buy the canvases with thick wooden walls, you don’t need to worry about framing them; a tack on the wall and you’ve got a display! Simply have them paint on a solid background color (usually a pale color, like yellow or light blue works well), and then apply flowers dipped in paint to make patterns. Stiffer petaled flowers, like zinnia or mums, work very well, although don’t rule out anything until you try it! Again, these make great presents for your child to give to others, and telling the story from the planting of a seed to the making of a beautiful painting is a lovely way to build pride in hard work and dedication.

Another fun thing to try with flower painting is making flower shirts. Choose a plain tee or sweatshirt. Using the same technique as the canvas painting, dip the flowers into fabric or acrylic paints and make a fun pattern on the shirt. When the snow is up to their knees, they can wear their flower shirt and remember the time you all sat around in your tank tops and sandals, playing with petals! Spring might not seem so far away, after all.

Valerie Shaw is a gardener, YMCA youth coach, and homeschool mom in West Monroe, NY. She shares her garden with two adventurous children and a patient husband, to whom she has promised that this last goat, Flora, is the final addition to their herd. At least until spring.