Spring 2016: Today’s Gardner

Start a family garden and watch kids’ excitement grow

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Brian Hallett

There is an affinity and almost magnetic attraction between children and the earth, whether it’s making mud or discovering the emergence of a germinating seed. Children and nature seem to go hand in hand. They just love getting their hands into dirt, digging and planting. Whether you are an accomplished gardener or a novice, gardening is a chance to partner with nature to make magic.
In my family, gardening has always been a family endeavor. Memories last longer than one season. I fondly remember a childhood spent in a garden with my parents, grandparents or a neighbor who guided and encouraged me to explore the natural world. I have to admit, although I often fall short, I take pride in planting a straight row, which I learned from my father, and in preparing and canning food I grew myself, which my mother taught me. However, my strongest memory of gardening in childhood is of being with my grandparents in their garden. In the garden, they talked and explained things, and not just gardening.

I gardened with my own children. We always gardened. Over the years our available space ebbed and flowed, but we planted in the yard and in pots on the porch. As young adults, my children remain connected to growing. My daughter attends garden club meetings in a foreign country as a means to meet new friends. She told me during one phone call after a seed swap she’d attended, “Dad, have you ever met an unfriendly gardener?” My college-age son is an excellent cook and grows containers of culinary herbs on the steps at his apartment. At first, children play in the garden and “graze” on vegetables. I tried to incorporate planting and play and watched my children become comfortable in the garden. I remember one year we made a teepee in the middle of the garden with sticks and pole beans. We can teach the tiniest child garden etiquette, such as where to walk. Later, they learn the consequences of good or poor care: watering, weeding, cultivating and harvesting. Mostly, children and adults learn patience. We have to wait for nature to take its course. Gardening is a lesson in patience.

Keep your children’s garden simple. Start with a manageable size, about 4-by-8 feet. Resist the urge to till up the entire yard. Begin with a few seed and plant varieties that grow quickly. Potatoes, onions, peas, beets, carrots and Swiss chard can all be planted in early spring when the weather is cool. Give kids tasks appropriate to their age and skill level. Watering is always a favorite. Younger children can have more success with a watering can they can fill with a hose. This keeps young plants from being washed away. Though success is relative in the world of gardening, positive experiences help sustain young interests. You can guide a child to have his or her own successful gardening experience, but you must also explore for yourself.

Grow a child’s confidence in gardening by setting them up for early successes with easy edibles. Fast-growing plants like radishes start growing in cooler weather and take only 30 to 60 days to mature. Spectacular plants, such as bright yellow sunflowers, sprout in only seven days and can grow 2 feet in a month. Better yet, they produce delicious snack food that kids can feel proud of growing and sharing. Loose-leaf lettuce, another fast-maturing plant, can be harvested and eaten when it’s only a few inches tall.

Make a plan … it is a fun way to engage your children. Pull out the markers, rulers and pencils and draw a garden plan. Walk into the backyard and measure out your garden with string and some wooden sticks. Choose a spot that receives the most sun and is relatively close to a source of water. Design your garden for specific purposes. For example, design a pizza garden. Get together with your children and brainstorm all the things they’d like to try on pizza. A pizza garden is fun to plan and provides fresh toppings for family pizza night. Make a list of your favorite toppings; garlic, spring onions, peppers, broccoli, spinach, herbs like basil and oregano — even tomatoes for the sauce — are easy to grow and great on pizza. Schedule so ripening times let you gradually build home-grown ingredients — herbs first, then greens, until the end of summer when you can add tomatoes and peppers to the mix.

Children will love knowing they’re eating food they helped grow. It’s a great way to get them involved in understanding growth cycles of food.

Once you have decided on a sunny location for your garden it’s time to prepare the soil. Children love to get their hands dirty. Remove sod if necessary and let them break up soil clumps and pick rocks from the garden. When they’re done, help them blend 3 inches of good potting soil or compost into the top 6 inches of your garden bed to boost nutrient levels. Plant seeds according to directions on the packets or containers, leaving room between plants. Straight rows are not critical; plant in a spiral if you would like, but spacing between plants is crucial for optimal growth and production. Give each of your kids their own plot to plant in, preferably in the center of the action where you do your gardening, so they don’t feel left out. Don’t be surprised if your children get distracted by interesting bugs, earthworms or the occasional toad. These encounters will expand their knowledge and excite their curiosity about nature.

These simple and fun-to-grow seed and young plant selections are favorites of young gardeners. These varieties are terrific in containers as well as in the ground. Flowers: alyssum, cosmos, marigolds, zinnias and sunflowers. Herbs: chives, dill, cilantro, oregano, basil and mint (always plant mint in a container not in the garden where it will spread). Choose quick maturing vegetables for spring gardens and sustaining interest, while waiting for slower-maturing plants such as tomatoes, peppers and pumpkins. Vegetables: bush beans, pole beans, beets, greens, lettuce, peas, radishes, carrots, Swiss chard, spinach and zucchini.

Choose plants and seeds that are appropriate for your site. For example, plant sun-loving plants in sunny areas and shade-loving plants for shade like herbs and lettuce. In general, tomatoes need more water than the other plants and you will want easy access to water. Choosing plants and making a shopping list is all part of the fun. Children love to come to my family’s greenhouse, pull around the wagons, and pick out their own plants. Ask for help at your local garden center or greenhouse before you buy plants; read instructions on the seed packet before purchasing. To help your young plants grow vigorously, be sure to feed with a liquid fertilizer of your choice every two weeks. To reduce the chance of foliar and other leaf diseases, water in the morning and apply water to the base of plants to avoid getting water on the leaves.

Once your plants are established, set a bounty on weeds (my Dad used to pay 25 cents per 50 foot row) and turn the kids loose in the garden. Teach your children to weed when the soil is moist and to pull at the base of the weed to pull the entire weed and root. Protect your plant from further weed growth — and help keep your soil moist — by putting down a 3-inch layer of a mulch of your choice. Mulching will help keep weeds from popping up and help your garden retain moisture. Children will enjoy lifting the mulch and examining the various beneficial earthworms and bugs that will establish themselves under the mulch.

The moment you’ve been waiting for. Pick vegetables and herbs with your kids and encourage them to talk about how good fresh food tastes while you enjoy the meal. Add herbs and spices for some zing. You can even try making pizza sauce with your own tomatoes. Growing their own food expands a children’s choice of foods, a key to good nutrition.

Make your children proud and show off their gardening accomplishments by taking photos and videos you can share with friends and relatives. Bring the fruits of their labor into the kitchen. Show them the benefit of their hard work by cooking and baking treats using ingredients fresh from their garden. Encourage them to give vegetables and flowers they grow to loved ones to let them experience the joy of giving a beautiful homegrown gift. Celebrate wonder.

The key to success and sustained interest in gardening lies within in you and the children with whom you spend garden time planting seeds of hope. Hope — this is, of course, what a seed is and what a garden is — a promise of what will come.

Brian Hallett is an art teacher at South Jefferson Central School in Adams. His family owns Halletts’ Florist and Greenhouse in Adams, which celebrates 33 years in business this season.