In the Garden:
Northern & Central Midwest
July, 2005
Regional Report

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My daughter proudly holds a carrot she grew herself!

There's Nothing Like Having a Child in the Garden

I took my girls out with me the other night to pick slugs by flashlight, and they were fascinated. I didn't exactly let them know what I was going to do with the slugs after we had a bucketful, but they were so captivated by the other things to see in the garden by flashlight that they didn't even ask.

There is a world of interesting things in the vegetable and flower garden to intrigue children. Since children love to pick flowers, I always put in a cutting garden or at least some cutting flowers in the vegetable garden. Brightly colored zinnias, cosmos, marigolds, asters, and sunflowers are virtually foolproof annuals for children to tend and cut. Picking flowers from the cutting bed will have the added benefit of keeping the children from picking prize perennials.

We also routinely walk through fields to cut wildflowers and grasses for the table. They enjoy picking out a vase or even something unusual to use for a vase -- such as a watering can -- and then arranging the flowers. It's a nice opportunity to teach them about color and texture, and they don't even know they are learning anything.

Edible flowers, such as nasturtiums, violets, calendulas, and chives, fascinate children when you pop one into your mouth or garnish a tuna sandwich or scrambled eggs. I am careful, however, to make sure they ask before tasting since there are some flowers that can be toxic.

Children are also enthralled by scents. Mints, creeping thyme, chamomile, lemon balm, and rosemary in the vegetable garden are favorites since they release a sweet aroma when you brush against them or step on them while working. And, even though bedtime is before dark these days, it's a special treat to stay up after dark for firefly chasing or to smell the nicotiana or moonflowers that release exquisite fragrance in the evening to attract night-flying pollinators.

Theme Gardens
As any parent, I'm constantly trying to get my children to eat vegetables. I've found that when the kids see them grow from seed to the table, they really are more open to trying new tastes. I recently saw a great idea for a garden for older children. It was a pizza garden with tomatoes, oregano, basil, and green peppers planted in pizza slices outlined with onions. What kid wouldn't be excited to tend this kind of garden if the reward is helping make and eat the pizza?

The possibilities for theme gardens such as these are endless. How about a spaghetti garden with tomatoes, basil, onions, and garlic? And what a great afternoon activity -- making and canning spaghetti sauce. How about throwing peppers, tomatoes, and onions into the food processor for salsa? Children are surprisingly adept at learning how to adjust seasonings when they sit down with a bowl of chips and eat their own salsa.

Even the most savvy, grown-up kid will smile when served a zucchini boat she grew filled with spicy rice and trimmed with a paper sail. I'll admit that it's hard to grow a hot dog garden, but specialty gardens may help convince the children to try new and different vegetables, especially if they also gain the experience of cooking with them.

There is an amazing array of interesting vegetables to interest kids, such as miniature white pumpkins, yard-long beans, long Armenian cucumbers, gourds for birdhouses and dippers, eggplants shaped like golf balls or string beans, yellow- and red-striped tomatoes, purple-podded string beans, spaghetti squash and luffas for sponges. And with kids, the more bizarre, the better!


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