Into the Great Outdoors: Change is in the Air

By Erin Marteal

The only constant in life is that everything changes, a truth gardeners are intimately familiar with.

October is the time of year that particularly highlights this truth with abundant visual cues: Leaves change color and fall, daylight slips off to its slumber earlier each evening and is slower to rise each morning. Frost kisses the plants in the garden and forces us to recognize that the principle growing season is over. The wardrobe transitions from wispy, fair weather fabrics to more voluminous and substantial stock. The hats, mittens and boots begin to line the entryway – or pepper the floor in a way that may resemble an obstacle course if you share your home with children.

This particular fall has been unseasonably warm and late to arrive, so even though some days may still feel summery, a celebration of the season helps ground us and keep us connected to the living world in our unique region. Here’s my Top 10 list of ways to make the most of this fleeting season, perfectly appropriate and equally fun with or without kids.

Visit a pumpkin patch. We are fortunate to live in a region with many excellent choices of pick your own. Go to the farm and find the quirkiest, bumpiest, weirdest pumpkin to bring home, carve, and bake with. While you’re there, you may wish to indulge in a hay ride or other farm fun.

Toast pumpkin seeds. Once you’ve picked your pumpkin and carved your Jack-o-lantern, don’t neglect the delicious, nutritious power pellets contained within each seed. It’s a bit of a slimy business, making it the perfect sensory immersive experience for kids of all ages.

Make a leaf suncatcher. There are many ways to do this but my favorite is to go on a leaf walk and gather those leaves you find particularly beautiful. Variety of shape, color, or those with unusual variations which may include evidence of insect interactions add interest. Arrange the leaves between two pieces of wax paper and iron on medium- low heat with a pillowcase in between the iron and the wax paper. Once the wax has melted, trim the suncatcher into a circle or simply round the edges with scissors. Punch a hole and hang in your window.

Make a leaf luminary. Gather beautiful leaves and cover the outside of a glass jar using packing tape, glue, or decoupage. Place a candle inside and extend the autumnal light.

Create an autumn leaf mandala. For those who are artistically inclined or curious, find or design a mandala as simple or complex as you like. Very simple mandalas can be created by starting with a heavy duty piece of paper and tracing a dinner plate and then a saucer plate inside, and use a straightedge to bisect the concentric circles however many times you like. “Color in” the mandala sections with pieces of leaf that you cut out with an exacto knife. Try starting with uniform, straight edge shapes until you get the hang of it.

Go apple picking and make apple sauce. Pick the drops for a discounted price and make huge batches of sauce that you can freeze for use all through the winter for less effort than canning (although canning is great too). Apple pies, apple crumble, applesauce cake, and apple muffins are all delightful ways to use the bounty.

Read “Leaf Man,” by Lois Elhert, with your favorite young person or browse the library shelves for an autumn-inspired book that captures your attention. Another favorite of mine is “When the Root Children Wake Up,” by Audrey Wood and Ned Bittinger.


Leaf Piles. Garden cleanup makes for great material for this family-friendly, free activity. Just plan your time for a two-step process: Rake the leaves, jump in them, rake them again. Enlist young helpers when possible. Grab your camera and capture the memories. No leaves? No problem! Come on over to Ithaca Children’s Garden – feel free to use the leaves there. We’ll leave some rakes out for you!

Go camping in the mountains – or in your backyard. The cool nights make for delicious outdoor sleeping, but soon the window will close to camp without hearty winter gear. Roasting marshmallows over a campfire is a sweet way to wrap up the night outdoors. If you would like to go camping and lack the gear or experience, get in touch and I can help connect you with what you need.

Stargaze. The earlier appearance of the night sky brings the stars into view before bedtime. Grab a friend or family member and wander outside after dark. Even within Ithaca’s city limits, there are plenty of places away from street lamps that provide a view of the stars on a clear night.

Autumn is here, but will be gone before you know it. Get out there and soak it up!
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Erin Marteal has served Ithaca Children’s Garden as its executive director since 2011. She can be reached at