Growing Gardeners: Science Fairs, Organic Fertilizers, and the Power of Poo.

There's a story I've wanted to tell you. It's a tale about a boy. A boy, a science fair project, and the love of gardening.

Michael is Lucky Number 3. Although I encouraged Tyler and Kristen to garden with me, neither of them really enjoyed gardening. Now that he's an adult, Tyler appreciates the results of gardening--pesto, bruschetta, caprese salad--and is happy when we send herbs and vegetables home with him from the garden. Kristen likes to be outside, stalking animals and chatting while I weed. Both of the older kids love nature, but gardening never appealed to them. Too much like work, I suppose.

Then, there's Mikey.

Thank goodness for Number 3.

Mikey is my gardening buddy. Last year, when he asked for his own raised bed, I felt like I'd won Gardening Parent of the Year. (Really, I think this should be a thing. We could create an entire awards program based on this concept. Medals for parents who get their kids to grow Brussels sprouts--and eat them. Monetary prizes for the dad who can convince the kids that weeding is fun. Gift certificates for the mom who gets the kids to eat peas straight from the vine. A recognition program kind of like Garden Writers' Association awards for excellence in writing, but for outstanding parental guided gardening. Brilliant, don't you think?!)

But I digress. We're talking about my garden buddy, Mikey. Sure, he's not perfect--his raised bed is weedy, and he needs reminders to water--but at least he's interested. He doesn't hide when I suggest we work in the garden. I'll take what I can get.

So, when the science fair information sheet appeared in his binder, two things happened. First, I said some really foul words in my head. You have to remember: he's my third child. I know the realities of science fair projects. The angst filled evenings, the weekends worrying if the kid will ever finish the project, the eleventh hour trips to the craft store... No matter how much the project needs to be the child's work, the parents always, always become involved to make certain the pint-sized scientist stays on track.

As I checked myself to make certain the words didn't actually come out of my mouth, something else happened--something that made all of those unspoken expletives evaporate.

"I think I'm going to grow something."

Wait...what? Could it be? One of my children actually wanted to grow something for science fair???

Be still, my heart!

As ideas rushed into my head and happiness filled my soul, I caught myself. Once upon a time, I was THAT mother. You know the one. First child, science fair project, smartie kid...and a mother who micromanaged the project. Really. In my defense, I was new to this parenting thing. I had a child who had a seriously big brain, and sometimes, I didn't know exactly how to manage that gift. Instead, I read every single resource about gifted kids and how to parent them. Which is why, perhaps, my first-born ended up in a university lab (with a really kind, tolerant professor) testing the impact of discarded cell phones on soil toxicity.

I know, I no longer want to be my friend.

However, I've learned a thing or two since those days, and I actually cringe remembering my parenting faux pas. I apologize often to Tyler. He was my guinea pig in learning how to parent. Recently, I met a young woman, and within the first three minutes of our conversation, I knew her four-year-old child's IQ. While I don't think I was quite that bad...I was close. If you looked up the definition of "helicopter mom," I'm afraid you'd find my name.

The reality is--Kristen and Michael are just as gifted as Tyler. However, I've learned how to let go and let them explore and enjoy their talents. Most importantly, I let them make mistakes and learn from them, which is an important life skill. My job is to support them, but I let them lead the way.

So, while I was jumping up and down that Mikey wanted to create a garden-related science fair project, I also checked myself. This needed to be his project.

We talked about some ideas, and we looked at the different supplies we had at home. I receive many samples from different companies, which is fabulous when a kid needs to do a science fair project. Plus, we all know I'm a seed hoarder. Mikey decided to test organic fertilizers to see which one would grow the biggest pea plants. Based on what he'd learned when studying Native Americans and their planting techniques, he hypothesized that Neptune's Harvest fish emulsion fertilizer would grow the biggest pea plants, since Native Americans used to bury fish to fertilize their crops. (His control was water-only, and the other two organic fertilizers he selected were Authentic Haven Brand Moo Poo Compost Tea and Jobe's Organic fertilizer.)

Science Fair Hypothesis

Since the science fair project took place in the winter and the peas needed to be grown in the greenhouse, he opted for a dwarf variety of peas to keep the growth manageable. To help ensure that all of the seeds germinated (to keep the fertilizer test results fair), he soaked the peas in water overnight, planted them in organic soil in peat pots, and also planted some extra seeds, just in case some didn't germinate.

Organic Fertilizers

Filling pots with soil

The actual experiment with the organic fertilizers didn't begin until all of the seeds sprouted. Once he saw growth, he began fertilizing weekly with the different fertilizers.

Growing Pea Plants

The thing about science fair projects in fifth grade is that many kids do an experiment over a weekend--and are done. The biggest challenge with Mikey's project was that it lasted almost two months. The first couple of weeks were fun--he was anxious to see how his green babies were growing. It's a little easier when your mom already has a greenhouse and grow lights. My roll became the enforcer: making sure he didn't forget to water the plants. It's hard to compile results for a science fair project if the plants die.

Growing pea plants

Fortunately, he was pretty good about caring for the plants, partly because I told him that I would not be the one saving his experiment if he forgot to water and fertilize. (See? I'm growing as a parent! And yes, there were days that it KILLED me when I'd walk in the greenhouse and find dry soil, but I waited until he came home from school so that he could care for his plants.)

As the plants grew, he began measuring and charting their growth.

Pea plant growth MooPooTea

Pea plant growth fish emulsion

Pea plant growth Jobes Organic

Interestingly, he found that his results didn't agree with his hypothesis.

Results graph

Results chart

Authentic Haven Brand's Moo Poo Tea grew the largest pea plants!

Results of test

I loved his findings, because I use Annie Haven's Moo Poo Tea as a soil conditioner in the garden. I knew it produces healthy plants and helps amend the soil, but I'd never quantified how well it compared to other organic fertilizers on the market. I've always used a mix of organic fertilizers, but I think I'll be reconsidering my gardening strategy after seeing the results of Mikey's science fair experiment. Moo Poo Tea for all!

Of course, once he had the results, he still needed to create the display. He did a great job typing up his project. Our only glitch came when neither of us could remember how to make a bar graph. He thought he knew how to do it, I thought I'd remember the steps to show him...but no. We were stumped. Let me tell you, the online Excel tutorials are not helpful. Fortunately, it's good to have a big sister who is computer savvy. Kristen saved the day for her little brother and showed him how to create the bar graph. (Whew.)

Full disclosure: I did help with the hot glue gun. Our family is notoriously bad about burning ourselves with hot glue guns. Kristen sported a blister a few weeks ago from it after she made a display board for her school project. I managed the glue gun, and Mikey compiled the display.

Science Fair display board

Science Fair display board close up

My gardening buddy placed second in the biology category and continues onto the regional science fair in March! He was so proud of his project.

Me? I'm proud of my gardening buddy, too. But I'm also a little proud of myself. I've learned how to abandon that helicopter, let the kids take the lead on their projects, supporting them while letting them enjoy and learn from the process.

And no matter how the regional science fair turns out, I'm really the winner.

I have a garden buddy.

I can't wait for spring to work with him in the garden.