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Are you looking for activities that the whole family can take part in? Then consider growing a theme garden. Not only will your children learn about plants, they will also learn about soil, water, weather, decomposition (ecology), wildlife, and many other aspects of the natural world, while they sharpen their observation skills. They will benefit from the opportunity to play outside and get some healthy exercise, too. More and more people are planting gardens as part of the green movement. And, with any luck, you can all eat the results of your efforts.

Thinking that this is not the time of year to plant a garden? In many parts of the Northern Hemisphere your garden is probably growing full tilt by now, but our growing season starts in the fall. We can start to plan what we will plant in September, believe it or not. Also, you can still do a lot with containers no matter where you live, so don't give up on gardening just because it isn't still spring.

If you can't grow outside right now, how about picking a theme and researching a garden for next year? Theme gardens can inspire you to try new things and children love them. To get you inspired, here are some popular children's garden themes:

1. ABC garden: Can you find a flower or vegetable to represent every letter of the alphabet? Plan the garden in the shape of letters. Make letter signs out of craft sticks to mark each plant. Make letters out of recycled materials (junk) to decorate the garden. Don't forget to plant bulbs for spring color, too.

2. Rainbow gardens add color and can be planted in a rainbow shape. Try to find unusually colored vegetables, like yellow beets and blue potatoes. Or pick one color and find plants to make a single-colored patch. Do you have an artist in the family? Then you have to try a color wheel garden.

3. Animal gardens can go way beyond the traditional butterfly garden idea. Have your children pick an animal, from an antelope to a water buffalo, ant to zebra finch. Research what the animal eats and then grow some of those plants. Choosing local animals will ensure success because you can find local plants more easily, but creative substitutions can make an exotic animal garden fun too. Ever tried growing peanuts for an elephant garden?

4. Food themes are enjoyable for gardens. Try a salsa, soup, herb or pizza garden. Herbs are often easy to grow and add another dimension to the garden through odors and textures.

5. Pick a favorite story or book that talks about vegetables or other plants and then try growing some of them. The Bible is a traditional favorite, but many books lend themselves to be garden themes. If I get a chance I'll add some examples later on.

(Edit: Theme Gardening with Kids Book List here.)

6. Research your heritage and plant some of the plants from your ancestors' culture or cultures. Or pick a culture you have been studying. Growing and eating plants of a given culture makes the learning experience many times richer.

7. Use plants to make forts, huts, and other places to hide. Tall plants, such as hollyhocks and sunflowers are easy to grow under a variety of conditions. Building a structure and covering it with vines is another option.

We recently saw a number of great theme gardens at the National Arboretum. Some of them might not be as appropriate for small children, but older kids are likely to be interested in plants used for dyes, medicinal plants and plants that produce materials used in industry. Be sure to check out their virtual tour of "Power Plants" on the website. These are crop plants with potential as renewable fuel sources in the future.

When it comes to developing a theme garden, all you need to do is to use your imagination and have fun.

This week has been very busy, but I do have a minute to post this cute beetle.

Beetles like this one belong to the family Scarabaeidae, which contain the scarab beetles, the dung beetles, and the May or June beetles. Some scarabs are brightly colored like shiny jewels. Others like the dung beetles, are drab or dark brown. Most are easy to recognize with their boxy, square shape. This one is probably picking up a snack of pollen and/or nectar from this flower.

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Who doesn’t love ladybugs? They are beautiful, and helpful. Now you and your children have an opportunity to help out a scientist with a project on ladybugs.

Dr. John Losey, a professor of entomology at Cornell University, wants you and your children to find and photograph ladybugs. Scientists have noticed that some native species of lady beetles are disappearing, while introduced ladybugs are on the rise. Dr. Losey wants children to help document ladybug populations around the country by taking photographs and sending them to him, with information about when and where they were found.

This is a fun project for learning about ladybugs, which are actually a type of beetle. However, before you rush to the website, I would like to add my two cents to the information provided on the website. First of all, it is pretty easy to take photos of ladybugs without catching them or handling them. You can spot ladybugs while out hiking. They sit on plants, usually out in the open. That’s how I got this photograph. The less you handle them the better, especially if you are lucky enough to spot a rare one.

ladybug

Second, be sure to download and print out the Field Guide. Although the photograph here looks like the one on their website, it is actually the introduced seven-spotted lady beetle, not the nine-spotted one. The Field Guide helps a lot.

To find out more, go to the Lost Ladybug Project <snip>

Have fun!