Mari's Dirty Fingers

A Newbie's Garden Experiment

Seeing Red on Mother’s Day

A few weeks back we were picking lettuce for our Friday salad at school.  We found a bunch of yellow eggs on some of the leaves, so we placed them in a plastic jar.  We were anxiously waiting for our little caterpillars to hatch out.  Instead, we had little black alligator looking things walking around.  Ladybug larvae!

Ladybug larvae looking for aphids on lettuce leaves.

Ladybug larvae looking for aphids on lettuce leaves.

The kids were interested, so we started learning all we could about the ladybug life cycle, feeding habits, benefits to the garden, and stories.  We had aphid hunting expeditions to feed our voracious larvae.  We watched as they quickly molted into larger spiky, orange striped, aphid eating machines.

LAUSD was conducting their standardized testing last week.  That’s probably why on Monday we realized we had nothing planned for mother’s day to go home on Friday.  Oops.  Luckily, I remembered seeing an adorable ladybug garden craft by Kristin at That Bloomin’ Garden.

So the teacher goes to a home improvement store to buy the rocks and then a craft store for the paint.  I look online for a suitable Mother Day’s card, then rummage the supply room for construction  paper,  paper bags, brads, and tissue paper.  Here’s how it went.

1.  Pull students to paint their ladybugs. We had to wait for one color to dry before painting the next.

Students pick their rock and paint them.

Students pick their rock and paint them.

2. Stare at the awesomeness of the ladybugs.

Army of Ladybugs.

Army of Ladybugs.

3.  Wrap in tissue, place in paper bag, and staple adorable card.

Ready for mom.

Ready for mom.

Happy Mother’s Day!  And thank you all for sharing your interests and talents on the internet. It surely saved our skin this week.

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California Natives

My anniversary is in May.  My husband and I have spent the last few ones pursuing activities we both like.  This year we decided to spend it in and around San Diego picking out new additions to the school’s California native plant garden and learning about Tilapia hydroponics.  My husband has a survivalist/self-sufficient streak that overlaps my gardening/homesteading interests.  I don’t know if our relationship is complimentary or codependent.

Romantic right?  For us it actually is.  My husband and I are usually so busy with the needs and interests of our boys that we run out of time for ourselves.  The two hour drive to San Diego, lunch, coffee with sweets, and the two hour drive back is probably the most alone time my husband and I spend all year. 

Our first stop was to Las Pilitas Nursery in Escondido, California.  This nursery only sells California native plants.  Their website is amazing with all kinds of information on every plant they sell including how many of each plant they have for purchase. 

This place rocks!

This place rocks!

They have an online garden planner that helps narrow your search of suitable plants based on the amount of sun exposure, soil type, and frequency of watering of your garden.  They include pictures of what the plants will look like when they mature.  This is really helpful if like me, you purchase the less expensive one gallon plants.  It’s nice to have an idea of what their full grown potential is.  The folks that run the nursery are amazingly knowledgeable, approachable, and helpful.

The entrance and sorounding grounds are all feature CA native, plants, shrubs, and trees.

The entrance and surrounding grounds feature CA native plants, shrubs, and trees.

Last year the students planted about a dozen plants in our CA native garden.  We had two die, but the rest are now big, beautiful, and blooming or preparing to bloom.  I try to pick plants that produce attractive flowers.  Mostly because flowers are nice to look at , but also because they attract wildlife.  It’s always interesting to see city kids flip out when they see a butterfly, bee, beetle, or hummingbird.  They go nuts when they get a glimpse of our resident Western fence lizard.

This year we will be expanding our native garden and replacing the non-native hedges along the building.  My hubby is slowly removing them.  Here is a picture of some of the new babies that students will plant.  I’ll post some before and after pictures later on.

New plants to add to our CA native plant garden.

New plants to add to our CA native plant garden.

Next week I’ll write about the Tilapia hydroponics talk we attended that same day.

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Reused Garden Fence

A few months ago we cleared a section of lawn to make a corn patch.  Parents would walk in that area to look at their children through the gates as they lined up in the morning.  I was worried that they would step on our new plantings, so I put up a 1 foot high twig fence.  Now that the corn and watermelon are planted, I wanted a more sturdy barrier to protect that area.

I had an old picket fence that I wanted to reuse for that.  We always try to find ways to reuse materials for the garden.  It’s mostly to teach the importance of Reduce Reuse Recycle.   Lack of funding is another reason we reuse materials.  Necessity is the mother of invention after all.  Here was the plan.

Drawing of the what I want the reused fence to look like with plans for garden art.

Drawing of the reused fence with plans for garden art.

First my hubby cleared the mulch and marked off where the posts would be placed. The old fence can be seen on the left side of the picture below.  Please note the awesomeness of the corn! We added watermelon mounds on the four corners of the corn patch this week.

The before shot. Moving mulch to dig post holes.

The before shot. Moving mulch to dig post holes.

While he dug the holes I started painting the fence.

The first post in  the ground.

The first post in the ground.

Adding a bright new color to an old fence

Adding a bright new color to an old fence

We finished painting after the fence was attached.  Looks pretty cool.  I can add something new to the list of things I can do! I have another old fence of this same size and maybe I’ll extend this one.

I will have a first grade class make butterfly garden art to display on the fence as well as planting some morning glory to climb it.

Finished Project

Finished Project

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The Updates are Coming! The Updates are Coming!

I like visiting blogs as part of my gardening research. The big websites have valuable tried and true methods, but I love the innovation and experimentation of individual  people.   What I don’t like about some blogs is that you only see the enthusiastic beginnings of projects and never the end results.  I’m as interested in the failed attempts as I am in the successes.  There are lessons to be learned with both.  So, here’s where all my  pre-spring manic gardening attempts are as of today.  You can click on the bold title to link back to the original post.

Children of the Corn

Recap: Started corn indoors on 2/21/13 in newspaper pots for later transplanting in school garden.

Of the 45 corn seeds, only 37 germinated  (82%) and survived to be planted in the garden. We cleared a 7′ x 7′ section of lawn and mixed in a couple of wheelbarrows of compost. At almost 3 weeks old the corn roots were just starting to break through the newspaper pots.

corn growing

Corn at 2 weeks

Future home of the Corn

Future Home of the Corn

Students planted corn about 1 foot apart and then gave them a nice deep watering on 3/11/13. The teacher also planted some of the corn.  She is convinced she has a black thumb and says she kills everything she plants. She is very excited (but doubtful) to see the corn grow. 

Corn ready for transplanting

Corn ready for transplanting

Corn Field in the Morning Sun.

Corn Field in the Morning Sun

Prepping for March

Recap: Started tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and squash indoors in anticipation of warmer spring weather.

This update is mostly about yield.  I read that eggplant and peppers are difficult to grow from seeds and have low germination rates.  They require 1-3 weeks and 80-90 degrees Fahrenheit to germinate.  I kept my seeds covered with saran wrap under a 60 watt bulb. Here is a picture of what germinated (below).  Some eggplant and pepper seeds germinated after a few days and others are still emerging after 2 weeks.  All the squash emerged and will be planted into the ground next week.

Column Left to Right: 1-2 Eggplant, 3-4 Grand Bell Pepper, 5 CA wonder Bell Pepper, 6 Zucchini Squash

Germination Rates:

Eggplant 5 out of 12 (42%)

Pepper Grand Bell Mix 6 out of 12 (50%)

Pepper California Wonder 3 out of 6 (50%)

Zucchini Squash 6 out of 6 (100%)

Germination rates were actually higher but some plants died a day or two after they sprouted, so I’m not including those.  Even though the rate for eggplants and peppers are low, it’s still a great deal to grow plants from seed. I paid $0.25  for each seed packet at the Dollar Tree and I will end up with 12 plants for the school garden that would  normally cost me a few dollars each.


The Black Plum tomatoes where done in 2 batches. The first batch was started in egg cartons then transplanted to milk carton pots after the first true leaves appeared.  The second batch was sown straight into the milk cartons.  As you can see, the transplanted batch made for small weak plants while the second batch are all bigger and stronger.  If you have the space then I recommend you start individual seeds in larger containers over egg carton transplants.  I have never tried using commercial seed starting plugs so I have no opinion on those.

Left side: sown in egg carton then transplanted to milk carton. Right: sown straight in milk carton.

Left side: sown in egg carton then transplanted to milk carton. Right: sown straight into milk carton.


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I’m Gonna Make You Purty

cleared grass and newly planted native plants

cleared grass and newly planted native plants

There was a different principal last year at the school where I do my garden volunteering.  She was very supportive of developing the neglected garden into a teaching tool.  She pretty much gave us the thumbs up for all the ideas we came up with.  She gave us permission to rip out 200 square feet of  lawn to make a CA native plant garden using donated cement cylinders and free mulch.  She let us pull out another section of lawn to make pumpkin and watermelon mounds.  The only thing she ever complained about was the untidy look that the garden area had.

The vegetable boxes and paths where overgrown with crab grass.  Many of the trees, shrubs, and bushes were in desperate need of trimming.  Weeds were growing and flowering all around. We did eventually get all of that cleaned up with the help of students, parents, and teachers.  Even so, I wanted to do some additional beautification to serve as a Thank You for all the principal’s support.

The first thing I did was make garden signs using scrap pieces of wood and craft paint.  I bought some cutesy painted wood decorations and glued them on.  The most time consuming part was brushing on the 3 coats of urethane because they needed 2 hours between coats to dry.




Cute right? The CA native plant sign tells visitors what’s going on in that area. The top most picture is from when we first planted almost a year ago.  The plants are much bigger now and are starting to bloom.  I can’t wait until the spring starts and the plants really start to show off.

With the vegetable garden sign I was trying to give the kids a sense of ownership and pride.  I thought this was important because there had been some vandalism in the garden.  There was graffiti on the benches where the kids wrote their journal observations.  Parents would take the tomatoes and lemons before the students could harvest them.  Once, someone walked through all the garden boxes compacting the soil and killing some young sprouts.  From the small size of the footprints it was probably one of the school’s students.  I decided to make smaller signs with the name of the teacher whose class worked that box.  Signs also had to be made asking that the vegetables not be picked.  Overall the parents and students have been much more respectful of the garden.

Steve protector of garden

Steve protector of the garden

I also wanted to include the students in the garden beautification.  We made a scarecrow named Steve.  The students decorated his shirt, dressed, and stuffed him.  We are going to work on getting Steve a scarecrow girlfriend to protect the corn that we just planted this week.

There’s a lot of other stuff on the planning board.  I want to put up a couple of picket fences to keep parents and kids from trampling on our veggies.  We’ll reuse some old fences that need repainting.  I’ll get the kids to paint them.  I also want to make some of those great topsy turvy pot towers.

Do you have any neat ideas for the garden that can be done with a whole bunch of school children?  If so, please share them in the comment section.

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If I Charged Them, They Wouldn’t Be Able to Afford Me

Photo: Spent the last few weeks helping with art lessons. Our art gallery is up in the hallway.I’m a stay at home mom.  I’m not an especially good house wife though.  I shun most domestic duties.  I figure that if my family are fed tasty healthy food, and everyone and their clothes are clean, then I’ve done a pretty good job.  Please don’t look under the beds.  I don’t recall the last time I passed a broom down there.  The truth is, if you find me cleaning frantically,  I’m probably expecting company or I’m crazy mad.

So what the heck do I do all day?  I volunteer at my son’s school.  A lot.  I help with the new in-classroom breakfast program.  I  make copies, correct papers, laminate stuff, gossip, etc.  Lately, I’ve been pulling groups of students to work on art projects.  I like being at school.  I know the teachers and administrators.  I know how my son is doing academically and socially.  They get free labor and I get the inside scoop.  It’s a good deal.

Overgrown Box

My son’s teacher last year was on the garden committee.  His class would go out to the garden once a week and I would volunteer to help out.  I quickly realized that the teachers had too much on their plate to properly plan and maintain the school garden.

The boxes were overgrown with crab grass.  The kids would try pulling it out but it just  grew back with more vigor.  The drip lines were all out of whack.  Some boxes were bone dry while others drowned the plants. The outings were sometimes chaotic because the teachers did not have time to plan the outside activities.  I’m going to blame standardized testing for that.  Did you know that LAUSD does mini tests to see how kids are going to do on the big standardized test?  They do this 3 times a year.  I see it as wasted instructional time.

Anyways, I slowly started taking on more responsibility until I became the Garden Lady.  With the help of my trusty sidekick, Juancho Pansa, we dismantled, sifted, weeded, mulched, repaired, trellised, and trimmed that garden into shape.  My dad helped fix the faulty drip line system.

Now I give mini gardening lessons in the classrooms and plan a lot of the planting.  I try to come up with ways of making the garden beautiful as well.  We made a scarecrow and garden signs. I think it’s important that the students have a sense of ownership and pride.  They love picking their veggies and they really do eat them.  I’ve seen it with my own eyes.  Like me, these kids are city kids.  Many live in apartments and don’t have opportunities to grow any kind of garden.  In school they get a hands on opportunity to learn about growing food.  Last year only 3 classrooms worked in the garden.  This year all 9 garden beds will be used by 8 different teachers.

Picture of all beds weeded and all paths mulched in January.


Picture of boxes February 25.

All but 2 garden boxes planted with maturing winter veggies.

All but 2 garden boxes planted with maturing winter veggies.

So what am I trying to say (other than look how awesome I am)?  I’m not a good housewife, but I have interests and talents that have value.  I don’t really have a green thumb.  I have a computer, time to look stuff up, and people that are willing to help me.  I have found a way to be helpful while totally doing what I enjoy.  I think everyone is good at something.  If you could share that talent with others then please do so.  If you could do it in a classroom then your kids will be the beneficiaries of your good deeds.  If you don’t have kids then find a different way to help and please stay out of the schools because that’s just creepy and illegal.