The Wonder of Living Science, Part 2 | Teen MARVELous

Last issue, I talked about ways we’ve done science in our past when it came to the animal kingdom. This time, I want to talk about the plant kingdom.

This may seem an odd topic for the theme this month, which is free your mind, but I’ll approach it so that studying the plant kingdom can become a freeing experience.

Freedom Number One is from our microwave world. In other words, growing and studying plants is primarily a long-term project. The exception would be sprouting something like cress seeds, but even they will take about seven days. Other projects of a similar length would be putting carnations in different jars of water, each colored with a different food dye in order to see a plant’s capillary system in action; or growing bean plants under different colored lights to see which ones grow fastest.

By far the biggest anecdote to the world’s quick fixes is growing fruits and vegetables. When we got it into our heads that we wanted to do this, we first had to completely dig over a part of our yard, removing grass and weeds, assembling the frames for raised flower beds, planning what we would grow, then taking a trip to the garden center for our seeds and plants.

The hardest thing was sticking with our plot throughout the growing season: we had to water and weed, fight pests that weren’t just bugs,

but birds, rabbits, and even cats, and learn to pinch growth, train vines, pollinate, and protect with netting, if required.

Of course, I hold my hand up and admit we were pretty bad at this gardening project. The planning was fine, the tending throughout the season was ok, but because we always took a trip to my mother’s in Texas in the late summer, we always missed the harvest!

Freedom Number Two is the polar opposite: making a terrarium, followed closely by xeriscaping, both of which are plant-and-forget projects. The enclosed plantscape that is a terrarium is probably the easiest, lowest-maintenance plant project I’ve ever undertaken. In fact, the terrarium we made, which I have never added a single drop of water since we planted it up seven years ago, is still thriving in the corner of my office. I’ve seen versions that live in a glass milk bottle turned on its side, a 2-liter plastic soda bottle, wine bottles, Christmas ornaments, and even an old lightbulb.

You can google the process, or follow the instructions at
As for succulent gardening, you need to research the best plants for indoors and your geographical region, as cacti aren’t necessarily all low maintenance! I’ve seen some people widen out this plant study with history or geography, such as desert biomes, indigenous peoples and their diet, or even a unit study about the Alamo in Texas.

Just to offer a shortcut, here’s a website with some beautiful and easy-care cacti for you to try:

Freedom Number Three is literally free: foraging! This is where you pick fruit, berries, green leaves, etc, that are edible and free. When we lived in England, we were blessed with hedgerows of blackberries, rosehips, elderberries, hawthorns, plums, and apples, all of which we’d throw into a big jam pot, boil and strain to make hedgerow jelly. That is, if we didn’t eat all the blackberries and fresh apples first!

When I was growing up on a Texas ranch, I’d walk barefoot through the creek to the banks of a dairy farm where a giant mulberry tree practically bent double with all the fruit on it. I took a bucket but never managed to put anything in it, somehow the berries ending up in my mouth along the way.

There are two keys to foraging, the first being that you need the land-owner’s permission, and the second that you pick things you know to be edible! (Note: There’s a whole book that’s a cautionary tale of eating only what you know, the title of which is Into the Wild and the author, Krakauer).

Helpful websites for the topic of foraging include which is an interactive map of foraging sites in your area. According to the map, there’s a dewberry tree on common lands in my neighborhood where the harvesting time is April and the yield is fair. Why not plug in your own address and see what’s nearby?

The Society of St Andrews is a charity that gleans unwanted fruit and vegetables in order to feed the hungry. It has offices in ten states, and arranges gleaning events where volunteers either pick from farms, or rescue produce from farmers markets or farms where market constraints mean the food would otherwise go to waste. Much of the items they “rescue” are distributed to food banks, group homes, homeless shelters, rehab facilities, etc. Look up End Hunger

My son who was 9 at the time went along to one of the visits where stud dog and breeding mama were left in the yard to do their “business”. He said to me, “Good thing people don’t have babies this way,” prompting me to ask what he meant.

Freedom Number Four is a freedom to observe. The great thing about adding plants to your homeschooling studies is that there are dozens of ready-made unit studies, most of which are even in your own back yard: literally! You could take a leaf (no pun intended) out of the “one small square” series by Donald M Silver and mark out a section of your yard to observe throughout all the seasons. Or, you could lapbook ten or even twenty wildflowers in your local area, make a scrapbook about trees, go on a fungi hunt, read up on the folklore about mistetoe, use pressed flowers in gifts and crafts, or go to a farmers market/buy a vegetable box and learn ways to serve the weird, wonderful, and unusual fruits and veg you’ve never seen before.

The final point I’d like to make is this: as homeschoolers transition into high school, there seems to come a point when every parent re-thinks their resolve, and it’s almost always over the fear of doing science wrong. Traditional schools, so the thought-process goes, have “real labs”. Some families even cite this as a reason to send their children back to school, not thinking for a moment about why there are labs in the first place.

Science, at its essence, is about explaining and understanding the natural world around us. A lab is planned, carried out, and reviewed. It’s only in a traditional school environment that the process has to fit within a 45-minute period or during the 180 days of the school year.

Using plants in our strategy for science can achieve all the same kinds of experimental and experiential goals of school science while going beyond the limitations of the classroom.

The famous gardener, Gertrude Jekyll, said: “A garden is a grand teacher.” As homeschoolers, we are so blessed that we can spend as much time in it as we make room for. It’s a freedom we don’t need to be missing out on!

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