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All a 'Hush' in Daisy's Garden...Hibernation with Nature Cat

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Daisy’s garden in late fall and winter is a quiet place. Leafy plants stand brown and withered. An autumn frost has killed and blackened any fruit forgotten on the vine. Leaves from the nearby oak tree litter the bed and pile up between the furrows. There may even be early snow there. So why visit, you ask? What is there to see?

There are no spider webs woven into corners; no toads basking on rocks. The garter snake that often slithered out from under a rocky ledge and startled you hasn’t been seen in weeks. There are no bees or hummingbirds buzzing about. There are no flowers.

 Young children rely on their senses to tell them about the world around them, and in this situation, their senses tell them there is nothing going on here. The garden’s bleakness in December is in stark contrast to the same garden they experienced in the spring and summer. Just a few short months ago this was an exciting place of wonder.

It will take some convincing that this is still a place of wonder. We just have to dip into our imaginations to picture all that is happening in front of our eyes—and yet out of sight.

Daisy is on to the garden’s winter secret. She knows to leave the leaf litter and dead plants in place, to clear away come spring, because several helpful garden friends need these for cover from the cold, and to hide from hungry winter foragers. Visiting a garden this time of year gives us a chance to check that the ground is undisturbed and that all the living things hidden beneath it lies protected. That’s right. There is an entire world just beneath our feet.

While you invite your students to think about the critters tucked away in the leaf litter and below ground, encourage them to tune into the quiet. And to breathe in deeply. What does the garden smell like, and how is it different from the summer?

Consider the plants. Above ground, once green stems and leaves have turned brown, dried up and shriveled. For some plants, this is the end of its life. If you want to see them again next year, you’ll have to plant new ones. In Daisy’s garden, tomato and green bean plants fall into this category. They have completed their job of producing the fruits that contain the seeds of the next generation.   

But for other types of plants, the dried up, shriveled appearance isn’t the end of life. Rather, when the length of day shortened and the temperatures dropped, they entered a period of rest, called dormancy. In dormancy, the plant stops growing and drops its leaves. It also slows its food-making process (photosynthesis) and respiration. Below ground, the roots release some of the water they hold to keep from freezing. Combined, these strategies help the plant conserve energy and tolerate the colder temperatures. And they survive!

In Daisy’s garden, her perennials, as these are called, include the roses and many of the flowers in her butterfly garden (e.g., lupine, sage and common milkweed). All through the colder months, though they don’t look it, they are still alive! Come spring, students will see the plants produce new growth without having to be replaced. Discovering this new growth in springtime is as exciting as meeting again an old friend.

Now what about the bugs, the amphibians and reptiles from last summer? What about the birds? Invite your students to share what they think has happened to them. Again, children might say they died, or went away, and both are good answers, but only part of the story.

Take, for example, the mason bee, an important pollinator in the garden. The female mason bee spends her spring and summer foraging and laying eggs in small nesting holes, such as in the hollow stem of a plant. At the end of the season, she dies. But in those nesting holes, the eggs hatch, the larvae transform into adult bees and enter a state of dormancy (there’s that word again). And when temperatures warm in the spring, a new generation of bees will emerge to continue the cycle.

This time of year in your garden is a good time to look for insect cocoons. Inside those cocoons are the larvae from last summer’s egg layers. They are resting inside their cocoons until warmer weather tells them it’s time to complete their metamorphosis and prepare to emerge as a new generation of insects. You might find wooly cocoons under rocks or tucked into packets of leaves. And you might find hard shelled cocoons attached to the stems of last summer’s plants. You can help children imagine a small worm-like creature tucked inside, waiting to wake up and change into something new. If you mark the locations of the cocoons you find, you can return come spring to see if the new insects have emerged!

Other animals survive the winter by hibernating. Hibernation is a lot like a plant’s dormancy. And while your students may think of it is sleeping, it is actually quite different. The animal’s bodily functions slow way down or stop entirely. For example, the hibernating animal may significantly reduce its heart rate. In the fascinating case of the wood frog, the heart stops beating entirely and portions of its body actually freeze!

In Daisy’s garden, Gracie, an American toad and excellent controller of pests, may be hibernating one to two feet underground, below where the ground freezes (the frost line). A strong digger, Gracie would have used her hind legs to dig as she backed into her hibernating spot. The garter snake is also hibernating here. Garter snakes will often hibernate in groups, using the burrows of other animals, tree stumps, rock piles or other natural openings to cavities where they can escape the cold.

Spiders may spend the winter in cold climates under leaf litter. They tuck in their legs and slow down their metabolism to conserve energy and heat. There are other bugs that rely on dead leaves to help them get through the winter, including the woolly bear caterpillar, some species of butterflies and moths, queen bumble bees, snails, beetles and millipedes. There may be a wood frog under there, too.

Children will enjoy looking at pictures of these bugs and amphibians and imagining them ‘asleep’ out of sight. After they have compared their pictures of their gardens as they looked last summer, you can invite them to make pictures of the garden now, complete with hidden friends waiting out the cold.

Not so desolate after all! 

Bonus Classroom Activity!

  • Make signs to promote ‘leaving the leaves’ and other plant matter in other places around the school yard to help support a variety of animals that winter over.

Frances Nankin and Jesse McMahon Content Producers and Writers

Frances Nankin is an award-winning editor, writer and television/Web producer with more than 35 years experience developing content for children’s educational media. Prior to her current role as Content Producer for NATURE CAT with Spiffy Entertainment, she was Executive Producer/Editorial Director for the CYBERCHASE series with Thirteen/WNET, New York. Before that, she was Co-director of Science Content for THE MAGIC SCHOOL BUS TV series with Scholastic Productions. Nankin, a self-taught naturalist who grew up in the Ramapo Mountains of New York, is the author of several science-related books for children, and was the founding editor of a number of children’s magazines, including COBBLESTONE, a history magazine now in its 39th year of publication. 

Jesse McMahon, Content Producer for Nature Cat, holds a master’s degree in journalism, and brings to the team more than a decade of experience in research and writing in print media and educational publishing. She  telecommutes from Maine, where she lives with her husband, two dogs and numerous chickens. McMahon's other TV credits include Content Brief Writer for Cyberchase and Science Consultant for Magic School Bus Rides AgainMcMahon's byline has also appeared in numerous publications, including The Boston Globe, ProPublica and the Investigative Reporting Initiative at Northeastern University. Her commitment to volunteer work in environmental advocacy and deep respect for the natural world is a passion she is delighted to transfer to young viewers.

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