|Gardening with Kids
Gardens are magical, fun, and always full of surprises. Watch a child pull a carrot from the earth, brush off the soil, and take a bite, or see the anticipation in the eyes of a youngster creating a bouquet of flowers
she grew. There is a natural magnetic attraction between children and
the earth, whether it’s making mud or discovering a germinating seed
emerge from the earth. Gardening with children, from toddlers to
adolescents, opens new windows in a world dominated by technology.
Whether you are an accomplished gardener or a novice, gardening with
children is your chance to partner with Mother Nature to make magic.
Don’t worry about achieving horticultural perfection. Just dig in and
grow something beautiful or good to eat. Your garden is your treasure
chest; you and your young gardener—exploring together—can discover its
priceless bounty for an afternoon’s delight or for a lifetime.
Memories last longer than one season. Adults who fondly remember a
childhood spent in a garden often recall a parent, grandparent, or
neighbor who guided and encouraged them to explore the natural world.
Jim Flint, executive director of Friends of Burlington Gardens, in
Vermont, takes pride in planting a straight row, which he learned from
his father, and in preparing food he’s grown himself, which his mother
taught him. His strongest memory of gardening in childhood, however, is
of being with his grandmother. In the garden, "she talked and explained
things, and not just gardening."
Flint gardens with his own children and has helped hundreds of other
children become involved in school and community gardening. At first, he
says, they just play in the garden, "grazing" on vegetables.
Incorporate planting and play, and kids become more comfortable. We can
teach even the tiniest child garden etiquette, such as where to walk.
Later, they learn the consequences of good (or poor) care: watering, weeding, cultivating.
Moreover, both kids and adults learn patience in the garden. We have to
wait for nature to take its course. "Keep kids’ gardens simple," Flint
advises, "and a manageable size, about 6 by 10 feet." Begin with only a
few seed or plant varieties that grow quickly, and give the children
tasks appropriate to their age and skill level. Watering is a favorite
and even weeding can be. The pathway to better health and nutrition is
right outside the door. Of course gardening offers great opportunities
for exercise, fresh air, and good food. "Growing their own food expands a
young person’s choice of foods, a key to good nutrition," Flint notes.
"If they have grown up on home-grown and homemade food, they can taste
the difference." Most Americans live in cities and are removed from
their food sources. Will Allen, director of Growing Power, a nationally
recognized nonprofit organization that promotes urban agriculture,
believes we need to reconnect our youth with the land-right now. For
him, it all comes down to the soil. "It’s just such a healthy,
therapeutic thing to teach about the living soil. Kids can be wired, and
they calm down when they work in the soil. To eat something you produce
is a worthwhile and meaningful thing."
Though success is relative in the world of gardening, positive
experiences do help sustain interest for kids. One child learns that
worms are not just slimy and gross; they are garden friends. Another
masters the art of measuring his growing corn stalk. A third extends
garden learning at the computer. A fourth pulls a carrot from the earth,
brushes it off, and eats it. All have had successful experiences. You
can guide a child to have his or her own successful gardening
experience, but you must explore yourself. You and they must learn from
your mistakes. Celebrate wonder. The key to success and sustained
interest lies within you and the little gardener(s) with whom you plant
the seeds of hope—which is, of course, what a seed is and what a garden
is—a promise of what will come.
Top Tips for Novice Gardeners
1. Choose a site with as much sun as possible! If there is no
sunny space, you can still plant a garden. Simply choose plants that
thrive in shade.
2. Have your soil tested so you know its acidity or alkalinity. (Contact your local extension office.) Treat your soil and garden organically. Don’t use chemical pesticides or fertilizers.
3. Do not plan too large a garden. It is far better to begin
with a small plot and increase the garden’s size when the gardener is
4. Dig the earth in your chosen garden site to loosen the soil. Add some compost to enrich it. Rake it smooth.
5. Keep the garden plan simple. Allow plenty of space for paths
(at least 24 inches) and easy access to each plant (no more than a
6. Choose only a few varieties of plants to begin. Add others as
you and your young gardener learn how much space and how much attention
your garden requires.
7. Choose plants and seeds that are appropriate for your site-
sun-loving plants for sunny areas, shade-loving plants for shade. Ask
before you buy plants; read the instructions on the seed packet before
8. Choose good-quality tools that fit your young gardener’s
hands. Plastic "toy tools" are not adequate. Many garden tool
manufacturers make child-size tools. Ask at your local garden center or
check mail-order catalogs. Use tools properly. For safety’s sake, never
leave a shovel, hoe, or rake with its "working side" up. When it’s not
in use, stand or lean it securely against a vertical surface, such as a
fence or building. Or lay it down, turning the blade/tines toward the
9. As you and your companion(s) begin to plant, offer reasonable
instruction, but do not be too particular. Seeds do not need to be
planted in a straight row. Plant them in a circle or in a free-form
design, or scatter them. Never cry over spilled seed.
10. Try not to walk in the garden right after it rains. It compresses the soil and makes it hard.
11. Wait until the soil is moist before you try weeding. Then pull each weed gently, from its base, to remove the whole root.
12. Another option for those with limited space is to plant in
containers. A flowerbox or large flowerpot can brighten your deck,
balcony, windowsill, stoop, or stairway. Choose seeds and plants
appropriate for the size of the container. (See "Sprouts for Sprouts"
13. Harvest the fruits and blossoms of your garden with wonder and love—and share them with family and friends.
Sprouts for Sprouts
These simple and fun-to-grow seed selections are favorites of young
gardeners. Smaller varieties of all these seeds are terrific in
containers as well as in the ground.
Alyssum. (Lobularia maritime). Great for creating a carpet in
miniature gardens as well as for creating borders around a child’s plot.
’Carpet of Snow’ is classic and easy to grow.
Cosmos. (Cosmos spp.). In shades of pink, lavender, and white,
as well as in bright orange, cosmos is drought-tolerant, free-flowering,
and self-seeding, giving color and grace to all kids’ gardens. Choose
any variety, or get seeds from a neighbor.
Marigolds. (Tagetes spp.). Marigolds, especially the tiny and
mixed French varieties, are hardy and so fast-growing that children can
plant seeds in pots for Mother’s Day presentations that are always a
treat. Planted within a child’s garden, the marigold is a natural
pesticide and a common companion plant to tomatoes.
Morning glories. (Ipomoea spp.). Nothing beats ’Heavenly Blue’
morning glories that grace a trellis, a fence, an arbor, or a garden
"house" with walls made of sunflowers. Morning glories also come in
white, pink, and lavender.
(Heliantus annus). Sunflowers do best in full sun; because tall
varieties can sometimes reach for the sun, they often flourish
unexpectedly. The basis for a sunflower house, the tallest varieties are
a delight, and strong enough to support the morning glories that
entwine their stalks. Seek out the familiar golden petals surrounding a
dark center, but don’t overlook the myriad varicolored varieties now
available, as well as small varieties. Sunflowers are beautiful in the
garden and attract birds and insects, as well as small rodents, when the
seeds ripen. Simply a must for you and your child gardener.
(Zinnia spp.). Zinnias germinate readily and produce bright spots in
your garden and your hearts as children enjoy them growing and to cut
for bouquets. Although the "giant" varieties are great, they may not be
as delightful to children as Z. elegans, the popular ’Thumbelina’, or
some old fashioned mixes. Choose quick-maturing vegetables for spring
salad gardens and for sustaining interest, while waiting for
slower-maturing plants such as tomatoes, peppers, and pumpkins.
Choose quick-maturing vegetables for spring salad gardens and for
sustaining interest, while waiting for slower-maturing plants such as
tomatoes, peppers, and pumpkins.
Bush beans are quite easy and trouble-free, maturing earlier than pole
varieties. Choose from many varieties, including brightly colored ones.
The purple or burgundy variety is vibrant-colored outside and green
inside, but the exterior turns green with cooking. Magic! Most delicious
when picked young.
Beans, pole. Choose these for the bean pole tepee. Pole beans
are great space savers and continuous producers when picked often. ’Blue
Lake’ and ’Kentucky Wonder’ are classic varieties.
Beans, runner. Easy to grow, these vines make great fence
covers. Scarlet runner beans are beautiful in bloom and extravagant in
the pod, producing delightful seeds of many colors. (Jim Flint of
Burlington Gardens recommends them for bean pole tepees.)
Select either red or golden early varieties, ’Early Wonder’ or
’Golden’. Tops and very early pickings are edible raw in salads or sauté
as greens. Carrots (Daucus carota). For early eating, choose
’Thumbelina’, a bite-sized shorty carrot, perfect for containers or
heavy soils and for anxious eaters.
Not everyone can grow corn in the space they have available, but when
it is possible, corn is a staple of the Native American Three Sisters
Garden, in which corn, beans, and squash are interplanted. Once again,
choose smaller-eared, early varieties. Check out corn selections from
local seed producers, when possible. Popcorn is easy to grow, but like
ornamental corn, it requires a longer growing season.
Greens. Greens are the staple of many diets, African American,
European, and Asian among them. From mustards and collards to dandelion
and purslane, greens in many varieties belong in all gardens. They are
beautiful and good for you. And kids love them fresh from the garden.
Loose-leaf varieties mature in about three to four weeks. Many
varieties are sold in mixed packages called salad blends or mesclun
mixes. They are perfect for kids’ gardens, including containers. Also
look for ’New Red Fire’ or ’Little Gem’.
Onions, bunching varieties or scallions. Sown as sets (tiny
onions) or seeds, these bursts of flavor are easy for children to
recognize, and even the tops, chopped into salads, are a taste treat.
Snap and snow peas are fast-growing cool-season plants that are sweet
treats right from the vine, and although they require about two months,
they are interesting to watch grow.
Sweet or hot, peppers, like beans, are staples in most diets, grown for
pizza or salsa gardens. Little gardeners enjoy watching the fruits
develop and change color. ’Banana’ and ’Jingle Bell’ (a miniature)
mature earlier than traditional bell varieties. Hot peppers are
delicious, but children need to learn how to handle them, because of the
capsicum tendency to "burn." Jalapeńos are most familiar and
fastest-ripening of most hot peppers.
Pumpkins (both tiny and large).
Tiny pumpkins are a treat for kids of all ages. And they are not only
cute but edible. Try ’Baby Boo’ or ’Jack Be Little’ varieties. When it
comes to growing a jack-’o’-lantern-to-be, the "giant" varieties, if
space allows, are terrific. Any size pumpkin, however, whether destined
to become a pie or a magic lantern, is a great addition to a child’s
Radishes. These tiny cool-weather jewels are best grown in early
spring or late summer. They are sweetest when harvested young. Their
fast-maturing habit makes them perfect for children who delight in
pulling the perfect fruit from the earth. Try ’Cherry Belle’, ’Easter
Egg’, or short icicle varieties.
Spinach. Another cool-weather plant, grown early, it ripens
shortly after leaf lettuce. Try the bolt-resistant varieties and enjoy
fresh in salads or sauté with breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Swiss chard. Actually a member of the beet family, Swiss chard
provides dark green veggies between spinach harvests. Try the
multicolored ’Bright Lights’, which is beautiful to grow and delicious
to eat, making it a favorite of kids. It’s also good in containers.
Nothing beats the taste of the first ripe tomato grown in your own
garden! For kids, the tine cherry, grape, and plum tomatoes are the most
fun to grow, to eat, and to share. ’Early Cherry’, ’Sweetie’, and
’Golden Nugget’ (all cherry); ’Yellow Pear’, ’Jolly Elf’, and ’Morning
Light’ (both grape) are terrific choices.
Salsa isn’t salsa without tomatillos. These plants are delightful to
grow and interesting to children as well as adults. They resemble
tomatoes when growing.
Zucchini and other summer squash are fun to grow, if your garden has
space, because they grow so quickly. Squash is susceptible to numerous
viruses and blights, however, and may not be ideal in some climates.
Strawberries (June-bearing and everbearing varieties).
If your child can grow only one fruit in your garden, make it
strawberries. June bearers produce one large crop over two to three
weeks early in summer. Everbearers produce smaller amounts throughout
summer and fall. They’re a great treat for children grown in containers
or in the ground. Plants produce runners, which can be used to grow even
Chives. This herb has a mild onion flavor and is easy to grow, indoors and outdoors. Kids like the tiny leaves and pretty blossoms.
Cilantro. Cilantro and coriander are the same plant: Cilantro is
the leaf form; coriander is the seed. Cilantro is a staple for salsa.
It’s quick-growing, but be careful to cut it quickly, or it will bolt.
Repeated plantings work well.
Epazote. This traditional Mexican herb is added to bean dishes to prevent gas.
Oregano. A perennial, oregano makes a great addition to a pizza garden.
Spearmint. This hardy and prolific mint is great for teas, salads, and baking. A perennial, it grows well in containers.
Sweet basil. Even the very first leaves of this fast-growing
herb contain flavor and fragrance. These simple and fun-to-grow seed
selections are favorites of young gardeners. Smaller varieties of all
these seeds are terrific in containers as well as in the ground.
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