Introduce Kids to Gardening - 27 East

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Introduce Kids to Gardening

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Teach your children well and the lessons will last forever. BRENDAN J. O'REILLY

Teach your children well and the lessons will last forever. BRENDAN J. O'REILLY

Not specifically intended for children, this “mini shovel,

Not specifically intended for children, this “mini shovel," which was about $20, woulid be a perfect garden tool for children over the age of 5, and they won’t be able to break it. ANDREW MESSINGER

These kids' tools are for the younger children, say 4 to 6 years old, but I’d never give a young child a rake like the yellow one or a tine cultivator (green right of center) unless you are directly supervising and watching.
ANDREW MESSINGER

These kids' tools are for the younger children, say 4 to 6 years old, but I’d never give a young child a rake like the yellow one or a tine cultivator (green right of center) unless you are directly supervising and watching. ANDREW MESSINGER

Pansies, which are now in garden centers in pots and packs, are great for kids to plant outdoors. New flowers appear almost every day and will continue until the heat of summer.
ANDREW MESSINGER

Pansies, which are now in garden centers in pots and packs, are great for kids to plant outdoors. New flowers appear almost every day and will continue until the heat of summer. ANDREW MESSINGER

Seeds of marigolds, zinnias, pumpkins and sunflowers are large enough for most kids to handle one at a time. The marigolds may be the most challenging to handle while the pumpkin and sunflower seeds are the largest and easiest for small finger.   The quarter is for size reference. ANDREW MESSINGER

Seeds of marigolds, zinnias, pumpkins and sunflowers are large enough for most kids to handle one at a time. The marigolds may be the most challenging to handle while the pumpkin and sunflower seeds are the largest and easiest for small finger. The quarter is for size reference. ANDREW MESSINGER

Seeds of marigolds, zinnias, pumpkins and sunflowers are large enough for most kids to handle one at a time. The marigolds may be the most challenging to handle while the pumpkin and sunflower seeds are the largest and easiest for small finger.   The quarter is for size reference. ANDREW MESSINGER

Seeds of marigolds, zinnias, pumpkins and sunflowers are large enough for most kids to handle one at a time. The marigolds may be the most challenging to handle while the pumpkin and sunflower seeds are the largest and easiest for small finger. The quarter is for size reference. ANDREW MESSINGER

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Hampton Gardener®

  • Publication: Residence
  • Published on: Mar 15, 2024
  • Columnist: Andrew Messinger

This is my annual appeal to parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends, families, teachers and mentors to get your kids, our children, involved in gardening.

The fact that my father was a devoted gardener certainly influenced my life even though he never encouraged me to take up his avocation. It was actually my fourth grade teacher who found the switch to my horticultural genes, and a classroom with tall bright windows helped as well. And while you might think seeds would have been a great place to start, those lessons, inadvertent but subliminal, taught me the basics of plant propagation. I think I was hooked. Or was I well rooted?

Gardening teaches all kinds of lessons. As we all know, it encourages patience and organizational skills. There are lessons in diversity as a child learns that one plant, say a sunflower, comes in sizes from a couple of feet tall to 10 feet tall in colors from white to brown to yellow, red and all the hues in between. There are lessons in failure and trying again, lessons in unintended consequences like the cutworm that depends on its survival by eating the short new stem of an emerging seedling. And of course there are the lessons of artistic form, color and myriad scents that emerge from flowers.

Children can learn at an early age that some bugs are bad, some bugs are good and that one bug in its lifetime can be both bad and good as it morphs through its various stages of life and the resulting metamorphosis. Indeed, gardening gives us many of the tools that we can use later in life from math and science to our relationship with our environment and our sustainability.

But never forget they are kids. Make this magical tour an adventure that’s exciting and fun. Also remember that we don’t all become gardeners and that some turn to the garden later in life. There should always be the opportunity though.

For the youngest of children, temper your expectations and goals. Let them watch you, answer their questions and whenever possible let them help. They may not plant the radish seeds in as straight a row as you’d like and may not get the idea of why and how you thin the radish seedlings. If a task like that seems too daunting, then buy a strip of radish seed tape. There’s no thinning needed, and it’s pretty simple as long as seeds in a tape isn’t too confusing a concept.

It’s my nature to be a teacher. Admittedly, though, I’ve never taught younger children with my teaching experience being limited to seventh-graders through college. But many schools and teachers have formal and informal gardening programs which you should ask about and encourage. There are grants, lesson plans and a host of resources available to teachers and parents through the organization Kidsgardening.org, which you should check out as well.

One thing I do remember is the frustration of cheap and nearly useless gardening tools I was given as a child. Yes, I remember my first “real” shovel that wasn’t made of plastic. It had a metal blade that was thin but looked real. The memory must have been a traumatic one because it’s still so vivid more than half a century later.

I put the shovel to the ground, put my foot on the beveled edge at the top of the blade to help me push the blade into the ground and with my foot I pushed down and as the blade sank into the rich north shore soil. I began to push back on the handle so the blade would bring up a clod of dirt. Instead, the blade bent and broke. Even at that young age I think my brain said, ‘How stupid is this?” Not a great start and avoidable by an attentive parent. There are good gardening tools available for kids, but they aren’t easy to find. Try a local garden center like Marders or Fowler’s as I’ve seen good quality kids’ tools in both places in the past.

And how to start? At this time of the year a simple potted pansy can be the key to the gate. For younger children the sight of a large, smiling pansy flower does the trick. These plants flower early and continue flowering for many months in a range of colors that includes solid colors, splotched colors, and many variations. They’re easy to plant, the flowers have stems long enough to make them easy to pick and they can survive for a day or so in a small vase and more become available daily on the plant outside. Cut the pansy back to just a bunch of leaves as it gets hot out and in all probability the plant will reflower in the fall.

The pansy will rot if overwatered so there’s a lesson in watering and overwatering. In the right location the plant may overwinter, but probably not so here’s a lesson in annual plants versus perennial plants, however you want to make the explanation.

While the pansies are busy putting on their show it may be time to move on to some projects that involve seeds. The younger the child the bigger the seed should be for ease of handling. And here we get a lesson in patience as well. Some seeds germinate in just a few days and these are also good to start with. Maybe start with sunflowers? The largest sunflowers, like the Russian mammoth, have the largest seeds but also take the longest to flower and tend to be the tallest.

This is where a lesson, even if inadvertent, in diversity can take place. The shorter, more colorful sunflowers have smaller seeds, and you may need to offer help — but offer it, don’t insist on it. Any of the sunflower seeds can be directly sown in the garden or can be started in cells or pots.

As things begin and as they unfold, if your children are old enough encourage them to take notes on what’s happening. First label the planting spot with a wooden to plastic tag with the name of the plant (not “John” or “Mary,” but “Sunflower” and maybe the variety) as well as the date seeded or planted. This can also be put in a notebook as saved notes allow a young gardener to learn from the mistakes made based on the notes that are saved. These notes become a guide for next year’s plantings.

Other garden seeds that are large and that can be options are zinnias and marigolds where there is also a great deal of diversity in colors and heights. However, these directly seeded flowers will take longer and may require a bit more of an ability to work with a project that may take a few months to show flowering results. Nonetheless, once germination takes place a child quickly takes ownership.

In the vegetable garden you can now plant radish seeds and peas. Radishes only take four to five weeks to mature so here there’s an opportunity for nearly instant satisfaction. Seeded in rows the seedlings will need to be thinned (and explain why) as they emerge but if that’s too much for the young ones try to find a seed tape that eliminates the need for thinning.

For a longer project it’s hard to go wrong with pumpkins. The seeds are large and easy to handle. The downside is that pumpkins take several months to grow and most varieties need lots of space as the vines are sprawlers. Again, an opportunity to teach diversity in nature as all pumpkins aren’t orange and not all pumpkins are humongous — though that’s often the goal. Just for kicks, show them all the pumpkins available in Johnny’s catalog or online, and that will get their brains in high gear. There are smaller pumpkins like Jack of Hearts all the way up to the 40-pound Early Giant.

Watermelons are also a kid’s favorite, and again the seeds are large enough for them to work with. These too need a long growing season and can be sprawlers like the pumpkins, but there are a few bush varieties that are much smaller and easier to grow. The downside is that half the fun is the seeds that kids love to play with and many of the new varieties are seedless. Sugar Baby, a smaller variety and a favorite is almost seedless but still has enough seeds to be fun.

Some kids may ask for corn. I loved it, still do, but it makes no sense to try to grow it at home unless you have lots and lots of space. However, you can try ornamental corn that matures late in the season but is used for fall decorations as opposed to eating. That won’t deter the raccoons from wanting to eat it though but even there is a great lesson.

As I recall most kids are not fans of tomatoes, but they may really turn on to a nice, sweet cherry tomato that you can grow in a large (as in 3- or 4-gallon) pot. Peas can be fun but need something to climb on. Kids don’t seem to be fond of cucumbers but smaller varieties like Kirby can be turned into pickles. Carrots take time and can be very frustrating, but some kids really love them. Try spaghetti squash for a switch on the pasta routine. Got tons of patience and an older child who goes wild for raspberries? They come in several colors, and the flavor can vary by color but a great long-term project that will include planting, pruning, fertilizing and waiting at least a year, maybe two, for the delicious fruit.

Don’t forget the attendant lessons on fertilizer and pollination for older kids and, who knows, someday your son or daughter may be writing this column. Oh, I only hope. Good luck and hope you and your kids: Keep growing.

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