Growing flowers and vegetables in a home or school garden teaches hands-on lessons about science, introduces young people to the cycles of life and death, and provides ways for families to spend time together. Even if you don’t have a green thumb, adults can guide children for a real growth experience right in your own back yard.
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Choose a sunny space with good drainage or reuse some 5-gallon plastic pails for your first-ever garden. If working directly with the earth, work a small patch of ground with a hoe and rake to remove grass, roots, weeds, and rocks to a depth of several inches.
To enrich the soil, try adding some organic compost matter. Cornell University’s Nutrient Analysis Laboratory tests soil fertility in home gardens for $15. Visit the Cornell Web site at http://cnal.cals.cornell.edu/forms/soiltestkit.aspx to order your test kit and allow about a week for the analysis.
Gardening in plastic pails works great if you can’t do a lot of digging. Planters save space, require less soil and water, and can turn any porch or balcony into a portable veggie patch. Use good-quality bagged potting soils and make sure holes drilled in the bottom of the pail allow water to drain well.
Making baby plants
Central New York’s lengthy winter means that you won’t be able to put baby plants outside until all danger of frost is past. Usually by mid- to late-May, temperatures are warm enough for seedlings to survive nighttime lows. Start seedlings indoors near a sunny window six to eight weeks before you plan to transplant them outdoors. First-time gardeners may want to purchase a variety of seedling six-packs to make the most of the days to harvest and ensure strong and healthy seedlings.
Choose plants wisely
Some plants are so easy to grow that they are sure to produce results. Marigolds and cosmos make colorful flowers that are bouquet-ready in just a few weeks. Kids love extremes in size; try growing towering sunflowers or teeny cherry tomatoes. Beans are fast growers and can be harvested a bit at a time. Tomatoes, summer squash and herbs also do well in sunny spots. Try planting a colorful garden with purple carrots, striped beets and rainbow chard. By placing the emphasis on growing and not harvesting, the journey becomes the adventure.
A little time each day
Once the plants are in the ground, the weeds will multiply as well, so apply organic mulch like crushed leaves, shredded bark, or lay down pieces of newspaper. Mulching will keep the weeds under control and help the soil retain moisture. Container gardens will not require much mulching, but they do need to be kept watered and allowed to drain.
If pests become a problem, dust plants with diatomaceous earth (finely ground fossils of prehistoric fresh water diatoms), which is organic and safe for little hands to touch. Be sure to buy the variety made specifically for pest control. Invest in nature’s pest control: Buy ladybugs for your garden!
Capture the moment
Encourage your child to describe the experience in words or drawings. These reflections on the growing process will teach through analysis of the experience and capturing impressions along the way.
Ages and stages
Preschoolers (ages 3 to 4) enjoy digging in dirt, looking for wildlife, pulling weeds, planting seeds from fruits they’ve eaten like watermelon, or starting a potato plant from one of the “eyes” of an overdeveloped potato. Just cut the potato into chunks with an eye or two already sprouting, then let the chunks sit a few days until the cut side dries out. Plant the chunk in a small pot with the eye facing up and water when the soil is dry. Soon you’ll have leafy green shoots coming up! Plant outdoors and keep the soil mounded up around the plant so the tubers will grow beneath the soil.
Early school-agers (5 to 7) love play and discovery, and gardens are great places to explore and learn about the wonders of the natural world. Make troll and fairy houses out of pieces of wood, sticks and leaves in addition to planting easy-to-grow flowers like marigolds and zinnias. Grow a pizza garden with tomatoes, sweet peppers, basil and oregano in a round. Crunchy root vegetables like carrots or radishes are wonderful fresh and go great with creamy dips for an afternoon snack.
Elementary schoolers (8 and up) can improve math and reading skills by reading seed packets, planning what to plant and making plant markers. They can also help design the garden on graph paper, incorporating plant heights and spacing. Build a trellis or support for tomatoes and beans to climb. Summer squash like zucchini and yellow crookneck and pumpkin do well with horizontal space for vines to travel.
In addition to learning valuable skills, gardening helps young people understand nutrition. Gardening helps young ones practice patience as they watch their plants grow, and exercise responsibility in caring for their very own garden. They even learn to deal with loss when plants or flowers die. You may be surprised when the baby spinach, carrots or beans they’ve grown are no longer “eww” vegetables. Best of all is learning the rewards of a job well done when harvest time comes.
Projects to Try
Planting Initials. Spread lettuce, radish or other fast-sprouting seeds in the shape of your child’s initials. Flats of annual flowers, which are featured at garden centers this time of year, can be arranged in patterns of color.
Cuke in a Bottle. Try growing a cucumber inside an empty plastic soda bottle. Poke several ventilation holes in the bottle and wait for tiny cucumbers to develop on the vine. Carefully insert the baby cuke inside the opening of the bottle, leaving them attached to the vine. Shade the bottle with some leaves to keep it from getting too hot. You may have to try this several times before you get one to grow to full size.
Make a Scarecrow. Hammer together two narrow boards in a cross. Use old pants, shirt, shoes and mittens for the body. Form a head by stuffing an old T-shirt and fastening it with a rubber band. Decorate and stuff with straw or plastic grocery bags.
Bean Pole Races. Using the fairy tale “Jack and the Beanstalk” for inspiration, build an A-frame trellis out of long straight branches and twine. Tie two sets of branches together on each end to form two long-legged Xs and sink the legs into the ground. Add another branch as a horizontal crossbeam and tie branches vertically from the crossbeam to the ground. Attach names to each of the branches and plant bean seeds at the base. Watch the beans sprout, and train the plants to grow onto the trellis. Mark daily growth and see which one reaches the top first. You can even enjoy eating the resulting green beans.
Wildlife Observation. Plant flowers that attract birds and butterflies. Younger children can draw pictures to keep track of the types that visit your garden. Sunflowers are fast-growers that produce seed for wild birds to find.