In the Garden:
Middle South
September, 2010
Regional Report

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When the garden fails to excite, butterfly shows and other special events can help connect kids to the natural world.

Garden With Kids & See Them Grow

It's been a long time since I've heard the pitter-patter of little feet in the garden, but that's about to change. Caitlin, when she arrives in November, will be my first grandchild, and as you would expect, I plan to spoil her rotten. Not just with hugs, toys, pink frocks and bows, but with miniature garden tools, tiny gloves, books about bugs and, most important of all, a plot to grow whatever she likes.

Children and gardening are a perfect fit. Kids have a natural curiosity about nature and when encouraged in the right direction are fascinated by the world they live in. They're enthusiastic students who relish hands-on projects, too. And have you ever met a kid who didn't like to get wet and dirty?

When little, both my sons were avid nature buffs and gardeners. Daniel, the youngest, was a champion tomato-grower by the time he was 8-years old, while his brother, Andrew, could point out every bird's nest in the garden and was a pro at finding lizards, beetles, and all manner of creepy crawlers.

I'll never forget the summer the three of us planted a moon vine (Ipomoea alba) on the railing of the back porch. At dusk, we would sit on the steps in our pajamas to watch the white flowers swirl open and to smell their sweet perfume. If we waited long enough and didn't make too much noise, we might see a hawk moth arrive for a sip of nectar.

There's really no wrong way to garden with children, but when Caitlin arrives, there are some dos and don'ts I'll try to keep in mind.

Children have short attention spans, so it's important to keep gardening projects simple. Look for flowers and vegetables that are easy to cultivate and grow to maturity in a short period of time. Among the best are cherry or grape tomatoes, radishes, lettuce, carrots, potatoes, pumpkins and sunflowers.

Cherry tomatoes are fun for a kid to pick and eat straight from the vine, and when planted as a seedling rather than a seed, the plant can produce a crop in 50 to 75 days. Radishes are the quickest crop from seed, germinating in just a few days and producing within a month.

Lettuce and carrots prefer cooler temperatures, so they are great crops for spring and fall. Growing these vegetables are also a good way to tempt kids to eat healthfully. Potatoes, especially red varieties, are a never-fail crop, and harvesting them from below ground is like finding buried treasure.

Pumpkins, if you have space, are a must. Seeds sprout in about a week and soon leafy vines are twining across the garden. Small varieties are the easiest to grow and the best for painting, while mid-size pumpkins generally make the best pies, and large varieties are prized for carving.

No plant seems to capture a child's imagination like the sunflower, however. Planted as a seed, a sunflower will sprout in a week and grow to 2-feet tall in a month. At about 8 weeks the flower will begin to form and grow into a huge head with hundreds of seeds. Rich in protein and iron, the seeds can be roasted for snacks or dried for the birds.

Beyond these easy to grow vegetables and flowers, choose other plants for their special attributes. Grow bulbs for their surprise blooms, herbs to taste and smell, and plants that will attract birds and butterflies with their fruit, nectar, or habitat potential.

You'll want to give kids their own space in the garden, but it doesn't have to be big. For a very young child, plant a garden in a large pot or measure out a yardstick-sized bed to keep the project manageable. For an older child, convert an outgrown sandbox into a raised bed and encourage them to design their own layout. Whenever possible, ensure success by giving them the best light, as well as the best soil.

Don't give up when things don't go right from the get-go. If nurturing plants doesn't spark the child's interest, then step outside the garden plot to create a worm bed or a wildlife feeding station.

Computer savvy kids might enjoy exploring nature and garden Web sites, such as Kids Gardening (www.kidsgardening.org), or The Yuckiest Site on the Internet (www.yucky.kids.discovery.com). Keep an eye out for special programs and exhibits too, especially those offered at botanical gardens and arboretums. If all else fails, create a scarecrow, or better yet, two scarecrows- one to mimic you and one that looks like them.

The rewards of gardening with children are great and many. Caring for plants and wildlife nurtures new skills and fosters understanding. It also helps them learn responsibility, gain self confidence, and develop an affinity for the natural world.


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