Thursday, September 29, 2011

September Blog Carnival Extended (Thanks, Irene!)

Due to the delayed opening many of my teacher friends on the East Coast experienced as a result of Hurricane Irene, the Blog Carnival closing date for the September Carnival has been extended to October 14, 2011.

I know many, many of you have been accessing the September Newsletter and nature study posts, and I do not want people to feel rushed to complete their studies.

Remember to use the linking tools (Mr. Linky and The Little Green Corner Blog Carnival link) in the sidebar, to the right.

Have a terrific last week of September!


Saturday, September 24, 2011

Citronella Ants Go Marching

Originally published, 2011. Edited and submitted to Simple Science Strategies September 2012 Blog Carnival.

When we moved into our 1896-built brick American Foursquare home in 2004, we discovered a pile of bricks in the basement. We also discovered a neglected backyard that looked like the jungle scenes in Predator: hibiscus hedges grown 10-feet high, bittersweet vines rambling over the tops of everything, moss growing beneath the undergrowth.

Being a gardener, I set out to turn our city yard into a little green corner of rest amid the parking lots and multifamily homes of our neighborhood. My husband provided the brawn and the hedge management, and I set about to restore the flower and vegetable gardens that my father-in-law had planted many years ago. And, being a nostalgic kind of girl, I grabbed bricks from that pile of leftover bricks from the house, to help define the edges of the beds.

One side benefit of this edging being everywhere is that it makes a ready-made exploration center for little boys (and their mom!). My son and his friends regularly spend mornings systematically turning over each brick, seeing what kind of interesting creatures they can find. One permanent resident of the brick edging in our yard is the citronella ant.

For our September study, we decided to modify the One Small Square activity a little, and we used each brick as an observation "square." We worked our way around one flower bed, noting all the organisms that we saw along the way, including our citronella ant friends. Instead of sketching in our nature journals, we photographed the things we saw, and reviewed the photographs later.

[Note: I have previously mentioned that my little guy, while he loves science and nature study, does not have the patience all the time to sit and observe quietly. So we are practicing sitting still and observing in small doses, but photographing what we observe allows us to also go back and "revisit" an observation at our leisure. This has been invaluable for us as we practice our skills of observation, and has also led to my son deciding to go back outside to the spot, to get more firsthand information. I've also used photojournaling as a learning strategy with kindergartners on nature hikes -- they move fast and miss things, and the photographs help jog their memories later.]

What is a Citronella Ant?

Lasius (Acanthomyops) claviger (
Citronella ants are a medium sized ant (smaller than carpenter ants, and larger than black or red ants), that can frequently be observed at this time of year, parading in a very long file from across the yard, sometimes up the side of a house or over a rock wall, as they move from a summer abode to a fall lodging. The first time I saw citronella ants, there was a line of thousands of them strolling between an old stump in the flower bed that we observed this month, across the yard and up the side of our house. Their size and color made me panic, as they resemble termites!

I looked them up on the Internet that year, and learned that, if you rub or squash a citronella ant, it gives off the odor of oranges, which gives it its name. So, much to my relief, a "field test" of this strategy showed me that we did not have an infested home, but a harmless wanderer in search of a winter cabin in the woodchips at the edge of the yard. Citronella ants are not a household pest -- they rarely move into homes for the winter, as other ants might, and do not come into homes to forage. They alarm people, usually in the fall, because they travel in a huge quantity for a few days, then they go back to their private habits again.

We have a large citronella ant colony that moves around one part of our yard -- we study them often.


Our Photo-Study of Citronella Ants
(all photos Kim Bennett/One Big Happy Family (c) 2011, except where otherwise noted)

A brick edge makes a great "small square"

Science Process Skill:

Method of Data Collection:

Materials Needed:
Digital camera
Clipboard and observation sheets (optional)

We took our camera outside, and began at one end of a flower bed, turning each brick as we went. Here are some of our more interesting observations from our modified "One Small Square" activity.


What evidence of ant activity can you see?

What do you look for when observing wildlife?

We can tell that a creature has been present in four different ways:

  • direct observation of the animal
  • tracks of the animal
  • scats left by the animal
  • other signs of the animal's presence
Here, we see lots of signs of ant presence (tunneling), but not many ants.

More signs of ant activity

What's a track, and what's a sign?

Sometimes, when we study larger animals, we see the actual impressions that their feet leave in the soil, mud, snow or creek bed. These are animal tracks, which tell us a lot about the size, activity and habits of the creature we are studying. You can learn more about animal tracks in "Follow Those Tracks!" 

Of course, when you study tiny creatures, such as ants, you will not see tracks. So you need to look for other evidence of their activity and movement, such as tunneling, body marks, claw scratches, gnawed wood, shed skin or tufts of hair. These other traces of the animal's presence are called signs. Ants leave lots of signs of their activity, and their tunnels are very interesting to study.

Who else lives here?
Learning from neighbors...

Sometimes, we come upon other living things in the vicinity of our target organism. All the creatures that inhabit a particular area are part of that area's ecosystem, which includes the living and non-living elements that exist in harmony with one another in a particular part of a habitat (See The Power of Observation: Life in a Tiny Ecosystem for a similar study of the life on, around and under a rotting log).

This white grub is the larval stage of a beetle (probably a June bug or rose chafer). It hangs out, eating plant roots. A few black ants are visible.

Direct observation of citronella ants
Direct Observation

What you are really hoping for when you set out to observe a living thing, is to actually see it with your own eyes (or at least your video equipment!). When this happens, you are making a direct observation of the organism -- you are not looking at tracks (footprints), scats (droppings), or other signs, but the actual creature of interest.

In this photo, we can directly observe another white grub, an earthworm, a centipede, and some citronella ants caring for eggs (at the center, right).


Did you know about...?

The next time you are exploring the life underneath a rock, log or other object, look for white, fuzzy or root-like material at the surface, just beneath the object that you turned over. Most people think this material is the root system of a plant, or is fungus. In actuality, this is a fungus-like organism in the group called actinomycetes. Actinomycetes are very fond of wood for food (in fact, fungus isn't very good at digesting the cellulose in wood, so any time wood rots, actinomycetes are involved). They are the organisms that give fall it's characteristic smell, and that let your nose know that it's going to rain (these critters love damp weather, and wet leaves or spring rain cause them to give off an odor that we all recognize).

The yellowish "blobs" in the photo are masses of actinomycete "bodies."

You will learn more about actinomycetes in another blog entry.

Citronella ants hard at work
Ants are social insects

One of the neat things about an ant study is you can learn more about the life of a social insect.  Social insects live in large groups, usually centered around one fertile female (the "queen"), with a number of workers (infertile females) and some males. Ants live in a social group called a colony. where individual ants all assume a particular role to keep the colony alive, protected and healthy.

Here, you can observe a group of ants entering and exiting from one entrance to the underground colony.

You can see this cooperation at work through a little experiment. When you find the entrance to a colony, gently cover the hole with some soil (it's ok -- ants have multiple entrances to their colony). Nearly immediately, you will observe the ants nearby stop what they were doing, and open the entrance again. Then they will get back to their original activity. Very cool.

Global Newt has a number of online games that are based on social insects (bees, ants and termites). Learn about life in one of these family groups as you play.

Ants communicate with one another
Communication in social insects

In the Arthurian tale, The Once and Future King, a young King Arthur (referred to as "Newt" by his mentor, Merlin the Magician) is turned into a number of different types of living things, so that he can gain wisdom from learning about their lifestyle. In one chapter, he becomes an ant (an experience he doesn't enjoy), and learns how ants communicate with one another.

If you observe citronella ants or any other ants, you will see that they approach one another very closely, and actually touch when they meet. You might even see them rub their antennae together, or exchange material mouth to mouth. Ants use their antennae to communicate information to one another, to recognize one another (so intruders are kept out of the colony), and to sense their atmosphere in other ways. Many types feed one another regurgitated food.

You can read more about the communication and behavior of ants at Ant Farms.

Winged ants

At this time of year, you might observe some of the ants in your area sporting a set of clear, long wings, as some in this photo have.

Sometimes an ant colony will grow too large, or will need to move. Some ants are raised in the colony which, unlike the workers, are able to reproduce. These include some females, and a lot of males. These winged ants reproduce and the females become new queens in new colonies. Winged ants are often seen late in the summer, as the colony prepares for wintering.  Once the ants get to their new home, the wings drop off.

The Colorado Cooperative Extension Service has an informative article on flying ants that explains more about this phase of a colony's life.

Enchanted Learning has over 300 separate items on ants, including diagrams, life cycle mini-books, and fables that can be used to supplement an ant study. Our ant study led into our mushroom study, which you will see in the next blog entry, so we did not spend as much time on notebooking with our ant study, as we have in the past with bird studies.

The Notebooking Treasury has a beautiful set of Nature Study Notebooking pages which we regularly use for documenting our nature study activities. This set includes generic observation pages, insect pages and diagrams, and pages for documenting the life in and around a log.

Check back soon for our next blog on mushrooms, fungus and the strange case of the "zombie ant".

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Friday, September 23, 2011

September Study 3: Migration

I don't know what the weather's like where you live this week, but it's been unseasonably warm and tropical here in Connecticut, and, right now, it is pouring. Despite the warm turn, we see the flora and fauna around us listening to a different message, as they begin to prepare for cold weather which is soon to come.

September is an excellent opportunity to begin a year-long study of migration.  Here is a suggested outline for the fall portion of a migration study, with ideas on how to follow it up in the spring.


Background Information
The Handbook of Nature Study has an overview of bird migration on pages 35-37; for information on the migration of monarch butterflies, check page 305.

An excellent research to consult all year is American Robin: Journey North, a collection of pages with photographs of the robin lifecycle, range and migration maps, downloadable recording sheets for classroom use, newsletters and more. Even if you decide to study an animal other than the American Robin, you will get a lot of ideas on how to organize a year-long migration study.

Migration Basics, by the National Parks Service, is an excellent overview of migration, and covers many kinds of animals besides birds and monarchs. There are also many links to activities for home and classroom.

Beginning the Study in September

1. Choose an animal to study.

First, do some research to find out what animals that live near you migrate in the fall. One of the best sources of information is your wildlife field guide. Find a creature that you see regularly in the summer, and look up its range on the range map in the field guide. If your creature has separate winter and summer ranges, it migrates. Some animals migrate incredible distances, while others move just enough to keep up with their food supply.

  • Look up migration online or in a book from the library. What animals migrate where you live? What animals in other parts of the world migrate?
  • Do these animals all migrate for the same reason?

2. Watch for signs of impending movement:

Animals usually change their behavior when migration is imminent. For example, many migrating birds will begin to congregate in large groups. Begin by counting the number of the creature you see in your yard each day. You should see that the number increases, or you will start seeing large groups gathering in parks, school yards, or other open areas. You may notice a large group of birds coming into your yard to eat berries or other foods that you have in the yard.

  • What animals do you see gathering in larger numbers than in the summer?
  • What are they doing when they're in the large group? When do they gather? Do they gather all day, or just in the evening to roost?
  • Are there males, females and young birds? Or are the males and females separate?
  • When did you begin to see them gather?

3. Start noticing the weather:

Scientists don't know all the things that trigger migration instincts in animals. But we do know that changes in the seasons are connected. Vultures will often take flight on a warm, sunny day after a cold spell, because they ride "thermals," columns of warm air that rise from the ground, to get to soaring heights. You will see several all spiraling slowly into the sky in a column -- very cool to see. So start keeping track of the weather. 

  • What's the weather like when they gather? Is it warmer and sunnier than usual, or colder? Did the weather change suddenly?
  • Was the weather cold for a period of days before you noticed the animals gathering?

Collect Data

Create a data table. Count the number of your animal you see each day (your dependent variable), and some other factor that you think has something to do with migration (your independent variable -- ideas include air temperature, sunny/cloudy weather, day length...).

Some sites, like American Robin, include places for "citizen scientists" to submit their data. Also check out Cornell's Laboratory of Ornithology for projects that involve volunteer data collectors who watch bird movements throughout the year.

Don't forget to sketch, take photographs and journal about your observations. Enchanted Learning has migrating animal printables to add to your notebook. The American Robin site has Resources to Explore that include many items that can be used in a homeschool or classroom migration study.

Use a migration study as an opportunity to do some map work. Incorporate range and sightings maps into math and geography. Calculate distances traveled for math. Practice using a map key, a map scale and legends.

Extend Your Learning
Do more research about your animal:
  • Where does your animal go when it leaves your area? 
  • Find your home and the animal's winter home on a map. How far does your animal travel?
  • What does the animal do when it gets to its winter home? 
  • Does your animal change color before or after it migrates? Why or why not?
  • When the animal returns in the spring, do the males and females come back at the same time?

Share Your Study

When you finish your September observations of your migrating species, tell us how you documented your study. Post the link to your blog in Mr. Linky, and submit your blog post to The Little Green Corner Blog Carnival (see the sidebar to the right).

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Feeding the Birds: An Experiment (or Two...)

We just love the birds in our yard. We live in the city, but we have a large lot because our house used to be a multifamily home. We cram as much of the natural world into our yard as we can, and plant it with things that will attract birds and butterflies.

As part of our study of Exploring Creation Through Zoology I: Flying Creatures of the Fifth Day, we conducted an experiment on seed preferences of our backyard birds (Lesson 2: "What Makes a Bird, a Bird?"). This was also a connection to the September Edition of the Handbook of Nature Study Newsletter: Weeds, Seeds and Other Delights. Here is how to conduct it in your backyard:


  • 2 styrofoam plates or 2 other identical "feeders"
  • 2 kinds of seeds (we used black oil sunflower seed and Niger thistle seed)
Note: We reviewed the terms dependent variable (seed preference) and independent variable (seed type), and introduced a new term, confounding. We reviewed the importance of having only one independent variable (the kind of seed), so it is very important that the feeders are the same. Otherwise, the difference in the feeders will introduce confounding into your experiment.

  • Place the feeders in an open space where they can be viewed.
  • Observe them, keeping track of how many visits each feeder gets. We observed our feeders over the following several days, and made a simple tally chart to record visits. As an extra, we decided to record the species of birds who visited each feeder, as well.
A little word on the experiments in Apologia Science's Young Explorers Series, from the scientist-mom:

When you conduct an experiment, you are testing to see the effect of you independent variable (here, seed type) on the dependent variable (seed preference).  In order to measure this, you are assuming that any differences in seed preference are ONLY due to the independent variable-- so you must make sure there are no other factors that could affect the dependent variable. If we put one feeder in a wide open space, and one under a shrub, then we introduce another factor which would affect birds' preference in the seed (i.e., availability of cover), and we can't say that the results were only due to the type of seed.

You will notice that the experiments in the Young Explorers Series (for elementary students) very simple and use common items. This is deliberate, so that you spend more time reviewing the principles and the scientific method. The directions for each experiment include a discussion of "big kid" scientific terms and concepts, and concentrate on methodology, rather than complicated equipment or steps, letting your child spend more time on the actual inquiry part of science.

When children are older (middle and high school), we will want them to follow complex, multistep procedures with precision. This is a skill, by itself. So, for now, we are keeping the procedures simple, so we can concentrate on the components of the scientific method.


  • Null Hypothesis: Seed type has no effect on the number of visits to each feeder.
  • Alternative Hypothesis: The type of seed affects the number of visits to each feeder.
Maliks' hypothesis: "I think the thistle seed will get more likes."


Here is how we set up our data table, and our results:

Niger Thistle Seed

Black Oil Sunflower Seed

English (House) Sparrow – II

Northern Cardinal – II
Mourning Dove – I



We  accepted our alternative hypothesis, that the type of seed influences bird seed preferences in our yard. Malik also concluded that different birds prefer different types of seed.

Sometimes, a picture says it all.

In a research paper, scientists then include a section called Discussion, where the scientist talks about the particulars of an experiment, what surprised him (or her), what didn't go as planned, and what adjustments would be made next time, to better test the hypothesis. This is also the section where the researcher tells what next experiments should be done, as a result of these findings. This section was not included in the lab report from the Apologia materials, but we included it. Here are the three areas that might have affected our results.

1. Human activities. When we first set up our experiment, my son asked, "But won't the birds fly away every time we open the screen door?" In fact, we did notice this, and it was challenging to actually catch the birds feeding, although it was clear they did.

2. Cat activities. As Malik put it in his conclusion, "The cats were on the ground, and so were the feeders."

3. Feeder location. We saw that the types of birds that came to the feeders were birds that don't mind feeding on the ground. My son expected goldfinches to come to the thistle seed, since we see them on the thistle feeder all the time, but they do not feed on the ground, and we didn't observe them.

We would repeat this experiment by hanging the feeders where we could observe them through a window.


In the photo, above, you can see the net bag that used to contain our Smart Suet. It was very popular with the birds (but a little soft in the heat -- we'll put the rest out once the weather gets cold). They pulled it off the hanger and finished it off.

The Handbook of Nature Study has some helpful hints about how to turn your yard into a haven for nature (pp. 43-44), and for the basics of beginning bird study with young children (p. 28). See also Barbara McCoy's blog by the same name, Handbook of Nature Study, for an article on Making Your Yard a Wildlife Habitat.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

God Bless America...

We will never forget...

Flying Creatures, Lesson 2: What Makes a Bird a Bird?

Lesson 2: What Makes a Bird a Bird?
How we implemented "Exploring Creation through Zoology 1: Flying Creatures of the Fifth Day, Lesson 1

Links will be updated as we add new blogs and web pages. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but an List of the activities, projects and resources that we actually used to complete the lesson (like a window into our science class!).

Please check back for web pages on key concepts, strategies and skills as I write them.


Key Concepts: field identification, anatomy, field marks, behavior, communication, experiment, variable, measurement, scientific and common names

Key Strategies: using field marks, keeping a journal, making an organized list, mapping

Key Skills: identifying birds, using a field guide, following a procedure, measuring


(includes links to correspond web pages and blog entries, as we complete each and post about it)

  • Bird Watching (pp. 22-23)
  • Benefits of Birds (pp. 23-24)
  • Identifying Birds (p. 24)
  • Field Guides (p. 25)
  • Do You Reside Here? (pp. 25-26)
  • Field Marks (pp. 26-27)
  • Wings (p. 28)
  • Crests (p. 29)
  • What's in a Name? (p. 29)
  • Passerines (pp. 29-30)
  • From Large to Small (p. 30)
  • Bird Behavior (pp. 30-31)
  • Habitats (p. 31)
  • Bird Banter (pp. 31-32)
  • Songs & Calls (pp. 32-33)
  • Claims to Territory (p. 33)
  • The Purpose of Calls (p. 34)
  • Other Communications (p. 34)
  • Bird Banding (pp. 34-36)
  • Nature Points (p. 36)

Additional Readings

Sparrows Nature Study:

Activities, Experiments and Projects

 Showing and Telling --
  • Daily oral narration
  • "Fascinating Facts About Birds" notetaking activity
  • Written narration: "What Do You Remember?"
  • Scripture copywork
  • Vocabulary crossword
  • Notebook activity: "Map a Bird"
  • Notebooking pages --  house sparrow, song sparrow, white-throat sparrow, white-crowned sparrow
Strategies to Learn --
  • Try This! - (Using field markings to identify)
  • Try This! - (Using field markings to describe)
  • Try This! - (Using bird songs, calls and sounds to identify)
  • Mapping field markings
Experiments to Conduct --
Things to Create --
Other Things to Do --
  • Nature Points: Birds in My Yard (life list) [NOTE: We created ours online, using Birdstack]

Other Links and Internet Resources
Handbook of Nature Study (Harmony Arts)
WhatBird -- the Ultimate Field Guide

Friday, September 9, 2011

September Study 3: Ants,Termites and Ant Lions

Originally published 2011. Edited and republished for the Simple Science Strategies Blog Carnival, September 2012.


Fall is a time when lots of creatures begin to make preparations for the winter, while the weather is still warm and food is abundant. It's a good time to observe insects, especially social insects, like ants and bees, who get busy in the fall preparing their colonies for colder weather.

Every fall and spring, there is a line of black ants that passes through our kitchen, from some distinct point outside, to some distinct point somewhere on the other side of the house. They annoy us for a couple of days, then they disappear as quickly as they arrived. Similarly, about this time of year, we witness a parade of citronella ants moving from point A to point B in the yard, leaving their tell-tale orange-y odor behind them

Ants are an easy creature to study using the One Small Square strategy for observation.

Before You Go Outside

  • Read up on ants in the Handbook of Nature Study (pp. 369-378).
  • Gather materials you might need for your outdoor studies: hand lenses, string or something else to mark your square, clipboards, a few crackers (one per pair of students), the observation sheet of your choice (see below).
  • Read One Small Square: Practice Looking Closely at the World and Outdoor Hour Challenge #9: One Small Square for a description of how to carry out the observation activity. 
  • Prepare observation sheets for each student.
  • Teach students how to work with a partner.
  • Review the five senses.
  • Find a place that is out of the way where you can set up your observation area. I used to use the sandy area at the edge of the blacktop on the playground as my ant observation area. The area should be large enough to accommodate enough "squares" for all the pairs of students in your class. If it makes it easier for the custodians, mark out the area with stakes and "flags" so it doesn't get disturbed.

The One Small Square Strategy
  • Pair up your students. Think about roles -- do you want all students to sketch and record, or do you want one student to take the job as recorder?
  • Take the students outside and let them choose a "square" as their study area. (If it makes it easier, pre-mark the squares). Guide students to select an area where there are signs of ant activity. 

Five-day study:

Day 1:

  1. Use a journal page with a large space for illustration. Draw the ant hill in your square. 
  2. Where are the ants? Which direction are they heading? Watch what they do when they meet one another. Do they appear to interact with one another? How? What are the ants doing as they move about?
  3. How many ants do you think live in the ant hill?
  4. What do you think their home looks like below ground?
  5. Write some observations in your nature journal.
Day 2:
  1. Use a lined journal page with a small space for illustration today. Find one ant. Draw it in the small square. 
  2. Watch what your ant does. Try to make a note every minute or two minutes (you'll have to practice writing notes, not full sentences). 
  3. During this time, your partner should watch a different ant, recording what that ant does.
  4. Do the ants appear to have jobs? Do all the ants do the same activities? Compare your observations to your partner's. Did your ants do the same things?
 Day 3:
  1. Use a journal page with a half-page for illustration, and half-page with lines. Take a cracker with you when you observe your ant hill.
  2. Place some cracker crumbs where the ants are active, but a few inches away from the entrance to the ant hill.
  3. How long does it take for the ants to find the cracker crumbs? What does the first ant do? What happens next? Do other ants come? How do they know to go there? Where do they take the cracker crumbs?
  4. What do you think they use the cracker crumbs for? Why do you think this?
 Day 4:
  1. Use a journal page with space for two illustrations. Label one "before" and one "after."
  2. Draw your ant hill as it looks today. Make sure to note where ants are located, also.
  3. Now, carefully cover the entrance to the hole in the ant hill, by brushing the sand into the hole.
  4. Watch how the ants respond to this. What do they do? Do they become more active? Do they run away? Do they unblock the hole? Talk to your partner about what you see.
  5. About 5 minutes before your observation is finished, draw the way the ant hill looks. Did the ants unblock the entrance? Did they create a new one? Did they work together? How did they cooperate? Why do you think ants behave this way?
Day 5:
  1. Use a journal page like the one you used the first day. Go outside to observe your ant hill when the weather is very different from the first day (for example, after a rainstorm, or on a cold day, or a very hot day).
  2. Draw what you see. Does the ant hill look different? Why or why not? Are the ants doing the same things as the other days? If they aren't, why not?
  3. Can you make an inference about the relationship between activities of ants and weather? 

Follow-up Activities in the Classroom:

Learn More About Social Insects
  • Use the library and the Internet to learn more about social insects, such as honeybees, ants and termites.
  • Global Newt has online games that teach about social insects, using a termite mound, bee hive and ant hill as the settings for the game.
  • Record your research on this research worksheet


Ant lion pit
Look for Ant Lions
Ant lion (doodlebug). (c) Scott Robinson, 2005 via Creative Commons.


Identify Your Ants

Citronella ants smell like citronella candles when disturbed. (c) A Child's Garden, 2010.

 Literacy and Math Connections

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Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Nightshade Family (and a Little Surprise)

We had begun this plant family study when Barbara introduced the September Challenge on Weeds, Seeds and Other Delights. What timing!

We are having such a successful time studying birds family by family, that we decided to do the same with plants. And we have so many "cousins" in this family, right in our vegetable garden: tomato, potato, pepper, eggplant, the rogue tomatillo from years gone by. Also our little petunia basket.


The Nightshade family (Solanaceae)

Our garden has quite a few members of the nightshade family. It is a nice family to study for nature study, as it originated here in the Western Hemisphere (although its ancestors didn't resemble most of our common garden varieties now).


I have this thing about books about gardening. I usually go through periods of bringing home armloads from the library, followed by more restrained times where I bring home some chapter books. All through the summer, we read a great number of books about vegetable and flower gardening. Here are some favorites (from this summer and previous years):

In Enzo's Splendid Garden, by Patricia Polacco (anything by Patricia Polacco is terrific)
The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett (good connection to history)
Miss Rumphius, by Barbara Cooney (so many Maine connections for us)
The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein (this book always made my boys cry...)

There are so many... You can get so much mileage out of the ones above, because the characters are so delightful. Lots of life lessons.

We also took the time this summer to study Genesis 1 and 2, to learn about the Garden of Eden, when we began our series of read-alouds about gardens.



We started our notebooking with a colored sketch of our common nightshade, which tumbles along our back fence behind the wildflower garden. We had fun sketching together. I found that my son did a nicer job with his detail when I sketched along with him. And I enjoyed myself too -- how often do we stop to spend that time with one another, just BEING?

 We noticed as we sketched that we had a hitchhiker, who we will talk about later...

We found a diagram of a potato plant  that we studied and colored. We wanted one that was more like a diagram, and not cartoony.

We used a number of blank notebooking pages from the Notebooking Treasury, because we did a lot of sketching of the nightshade plants and other "cousins".

Here are some other places for notebooking pages on these plants:

The Outdoor Hour Challenge Crop Plant Challenges Notebook Pages include pages for a number of common vegetable garden plants, including tomato. Here is a link to a sample.

Homeschool Notebooking has free pages for download, on many topics.

Enchanted Learning has so many pages, diagrams, mini-books and activities, that you are bound to find something to include in your notebook. My little guy doesn't always like to sketch, but he enjoys diagrams, so this is a good place to go for things to add to your drawings.



Background Information:

The Handbook of Nature Study has several pages (pp. 582-584) about the petunia, the flowery cousin to the common nightshade and its vegetable friends. Petunias are nice to use to study the flower structure of the nightshade family, as the flower parts are big.

Here is a case where there isn't a lot that can substitute for just going out and working in the garden. Even in the years when the garden doesn't do well, we always learn something new and get a refreshed spirit from working with seeds and soil.

If you didn't have a vegetable garden this year, think of putting even a container garden in next year.

Lesson Ideas and Links:

1. Grow a Vegetable Garden

We spent a lot of time gardening while we studied this plant family. We learned about how common nightshade is poisonous, while the other cousins in our garden are not. As we gardened, we compared the flowers, and talked about how botanists use the flowers to identify a plant.

We have about a zillion cherry tomatoes, and they are so much better than the store ones! Two of our four kids don't like tomatoes, but the other two love them. We also have plum tomatoes, some big, meaty, pink-fleshed ones, and, of course, Brandywines. We picked a bunch before Hurricane Irene, just in case, but the plants did well, even thought the heirlooms have climbed far out of their cages. 

We had started digging potatoes just before the hurricane, and I'm sure that we have a ton of them -- if it can just stop raining! Our soil was already quite wet before Irene, and I think we've only had 2 or 3 days without rain since she passed through our way. I just walked the dog, and the ground sounds like a sponge. At any rate, the first potatoes were delicious for breakfast,  so we're looking forward to the rest.

Malik planted some potatoes in his little garden, too. He found digging potatoes to be fun but tiring.

I planted the cutest little eggplants this year. I am the only one who likes eggplant in the house, but I think the flowers are beautiful. Don't you? Like our nightshade flowers, on vitamins.

The ones I planted have little fruit (about 3" long), which are purple and white striped. We had to fight the squirrels for the fruit this year. Last year, they would wait until the fruit were just beginning to look like eggplants, then they would strip the branches off! GRRRR!

This year, they started, but our cats spent their first summer outside since they were born, and I think that discouraged the squirrels enough to let the eggplants have a fighting chance. I think we are doing well!

I am amazed at how resilient eggplants are. We have had one of the wackiest summers that I can remember -- about two weeks of near 100 degree, humid weather, followed by a cold spell, followed by tropical, followed by hurricane... And they keep coming!

We have not seen any potato beetles on any of our nightshade family plants this year. Last year there were a few on the eggplants, but I picked them off by hand once, and that did the trick. A few holes on the potatoes, but that's it.


Our hot peppers were not nearly as resilient as the eggplants, potatoes and tomatoes. It's always tricky, timing the planting. Peppers don't like being cold. And it seems like they never really recover from being set out when the soil is too cold. My plants are small. The peppers are tasty, but there could be more of them. Next year, we'll wait, then we'll plant more.

If you want a great hot pepper for your garden, grow Hot Lemon Peppers. They are pretty, bright lemon yellow, and produce a ton of peppers that are about 3 inches long. I'm not sure why, but no vendors had them available this year. It must have been a bad seed year last year. At any rate, if you are seed catalog shopping this winter, and see them for sale, buy them (we usually buy plants). You'll be pleased.


If you want to do a nice botany study, the nightshade family makes a nice choice, since there are so many members that you can find at your local garden center. Plus, you get to eat the results of your study!  In these two photos, you can see how the shape of the potato leaves is very similar to the shape of the common nightshade leaves, below. But the habit of the nightshade (almost vine-like) is more like the old-fashioned tomatoes that we have in the garden.

For older children, slicing the fruits lengthwise (stem end to flower end) and sketching the arrangement of the seeds would be a very beneficial botanical study. You will need a hand lens to compare the fruit of the common nightshade. Did you know that all the fruits are berries?

I wanted to find the strange nightshade weed cousin, Jimson-weed, to add to our studies, but have not found any in the vacant lots on our walks. I will have to check by the railroad tracks. When I've found Jimson-weed before, it was in a grassy, overgrown second growth meadow.  The fruits of Jimson-weed are prickly. Jimson-weed, like nightshade, is poisonous.

When I was a little girl, we called the bright red fruits of nightshade "poison berries." I read in one source that 200 of these would be enough to kill a grown man.

2. Make a Plant Press

Before the hurricane, we built a simple plant press, following the directions in Barbara McCoy's blog post, "How to Make a Plant Press."  We will continue with our plant press project after things dry out a little bit!


3. Learn Some Scientific Names

My son enjoys the scientific names for the plants and animals we study. For more information on Latin binomials and binomial nomenclature, see my article, "Animal, Vegetable or Mineral? Scientific Names and the Natural World."


4. Practice Penmanship

When we first started homeschooling last fall, we struggled with our little guy's handwriting. He had learned so many bad handwriting habits, and it took a lot of practice (and holding the bar high) to get things back in shape. Charlotte Mason would say of copywork and penmanship, "Accept only excellence."

We use our vocabulary sometimes as a source for copywork. This is what we did with our nightshade family plant names.

Because Malik is in third grade, we practice manuscript several times a week, but we also work on cursive.

As a teacher, I always introduced the letters in the order of ease of creating them: the "loop" letters first -- e, l; then the closed loop letters -- i, t, u, w (a little trickier).  We only write words that we have studied the letters of, or we practice joinings, only.  The photo below shows some cursive practice of joinings.

Periodically, I have my son "grade" himself on slant, size and shape of his letters. We also put a smiley or star next to our favorite word or joining on the page.


5. Bug Study

We discovered an interesting, as yet unidentified, insect who hitched a ride on the nightshade we sketched. Malik named him, "Buggy." It looks like a shield bug, but it eats holes in the leaves, and most true bugs are sap drinkers.

Buggy is very happy in a plastic container with a fresh supply of nightshade leaves regularly provided.  We will keep trying to identify him (unless one of you can!). It doesn't seem to like the other nightshade family plants nearly as much as he likes common nightshade.

Fall is a great time to do a bug study. Friday, we will be posting about the incredible crop of anthills that have sprung up in our driveway this summer.


For classroom teachers looking for integrated studies centering on nature study, download my September newsletter, "The Little Green Corner," posted today.