Mustard Monsters! Making Cover Crops Interesting to Kids

In the Napa Vally, the annual bud break makes front-page news. This annual event signals the official arrival of spring and the kickoff of the wine-grape growing season. Just as bud break signals the beginning of the season, mustard marks the end of the fall harvest. Each year, mustard is sown on the valley floor as a cover crop. It’s yellow flowers furnish vibrant color through the rainy season, but its benefits reach beyond beauty.

Mustard is a member of the brassicacae family (relatives include cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, and kale). As a cover crop, mustard provides soil protection and erosion control during heavy winter rain. Unlike other cover crops, however, brassicas also release chemical compounds that provide natural fumigant and antibacterial properties, useful for pest control and weed management. They also can scavenge for nutrients deep underground.

Wine grapes don’t hold much allure for young kids, but mustard can! This message was well received recently at the annual California Foundation for Agriculture in the Classroom conference in Palm Springs, where I shared the hands-on activity “Mustard Monsters.” A creative twist on the popular “chia pet” or “chive hairdo” planting activity,  Mustard Monsters are a low-cost, high-interest way to impart ideas about seasonality.

To make Mustard Monster, first gather the materials you will have students use. Tongue depressors or popsicle sticks work well. Provide plenty of inspiration and model how to draw facial expressions that show if the monster is scary, surprised, friendly, or fun. Use permanent marker; water soluble will run if the wooden stick gets too wet. I prefer to glue the eye(s) on first to avoid having kids work with glue and soil at the same time.

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For the planting, you’ll need to source mustard seed. Check your local nursery for bulk seed; most carry at least a few cover crops by the pound. Then select a small container and appropriate growing medium. When doing this activity with a large number, I prefer to make newspaper pots. Fill each pot with two thirds to three fourths with slightly moist seed starting mix or potting soil (weed-free with good drainage). Sprinkle a teaspoon or so of seeds on top and cover. Use a spray bottle to evenly water and then watch it grow!

California’s Napa Valley is home to one of the world’s premier wine grape growing regions as well as one of the country’s first agricultural preserves. Wine grapes do not have many implications for school gardens, but agriculture does! Regardless of the crop, seasonality is tantamount to agricultural literacy. Mustard is a common and quickly-germinating seed perfect for a fun, place-based planting project that also teaches about the importance of cover crops.

 

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