Sprouting Young Gardeners
January 20th, 2019 by Pamela A. Keene

Elementary school students and a Captain Planet Foundation Project Learning Garden employee harvest peppers grown in the school garden. Photo courtesy of Captain Planet Foundation

Introducing children to gardening helps plant healthy habits for a lifetime

Gardening is a great way for parents and kids to spend quality time outdoors. Whether the goal is to grow flowers, herbs and vegetables; have an activity to share; learn about nature and the environment; or just break away from the pull of technology, it pays off with a bumper crop of fun and some life lessons.

“Gardening can be a wonderful bonding opportunity for parents and their children,” says Jane Taylor, nationally recognized youth gardening advocate and founding curator of the 4-H Children’s Garden at Michigan State University. “Children are too attached to their electronics, and they need to be outside more. They’re not eating healthy foods, and they’re not getting enough exercise. That’s resulting in greater incidence of childhood obesity and early childhood diabetes.

“Getting them to unplug from technology and learn to garden has so many benefits, both short term and for their lifetimes—from learning about nature to developing good nutrition habits.”

Teachers, schools and gardeners across the country have found that encouraging youngsters to grow their own vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers addresses myriad challenges and expands their curiosity.

“They’re more interested in trying new foods if they’ve helped grow them,” Jane says. “They get a chance to participate in fun, social activities outdoors, and they can spend time with adults, including parents and grandparents, as they learn about gardening, nature and the world we live in.”

Thanks to the American Horticultural Society, National Garden Clubs, Master Gardeners and 4-H, youngsters from preschool to high school are being introduced to the wonders of gardening.

In-school and community gardens allow kids to play in the dirt and see the results of their work.

Formalized junior master gardening programs are offered from Alaska to Florida. Some are community-based organizations, sponsored by garden clubs or other groups. Many programs are offered in tandem with 4-H.

“Whether kids are learning to grow beans and carrots, to make compost and recycle or solve a math problem using gardening as the basis, the benefits of engaging young people in gardening are more far-reaching than simply producing more fresh foods,” Jane says. “Beyond the obvious, we’re finding that students are becoming the teachers as they share what they’ve learned with their parents and siblings. The kids are asking their parents to create home gardens, and their enthusiasm is spreading.”

Whether you have a place for a backyard garden or need to start with containers on a deck or patio, gardening offers unlimited possibilities. Colorful catalogs and websites provide the inspiration to research plants and put a garden together.

“It’s exciting to create a sense of wonder with children as you plant seeds together,” says Kathy Lovett, who—along with her husband, Lee—received the American Horticultural Society’s Jane L. Taylor Award in 2016 for their work with children and youth gardening. “You can share the magic and a true scientific understanding of what happens to seeds that grow into plants and produce more seeds.”

If you live in a colder climate, start seeds indoors in cups on sunny windowsills. Seed packaging describes the planting depth, light and water requirements. Remember to turn the cups periodically so the plants will grow straight stems.

For container gardens, buy larger pots with drainage holes, and use good-quality potting soil. Place your plants in a sunny spot on your deck or patio.

Outside, stake out a sunny spot. Most vegetables and many flowers require at least six hours of sunlight a day. Start with a small plot to keep it manageable. Select three or fewer crops the first year.

“Gardening is a time to play outside and get your hands dirty,” Kathy says. “Wear older clothes that can be thrown in the washer when you’re finished. This is about having fun together, so don’t worry about getting a little muddy.”

You will need trowels, shovels and rakes. Make the shopping trip a family outing. Look for smaller tools that will fit kids’ hands, buying real tools rather than ineffective plastic ones prone to breaking.

Select fast-growing vegetables such as radishes, baby carrots, bush beans or cucumbers. Plant according to package instructions. Buying seedlings gives you a head start.

“Flowers like marigolds, nasturtiums and zinnias can offer quick color, and brightly colored blooms attract pollinators to further ensure the success of your vegetable crops,” Kathy says.

Herbs are an excellent way to introduce kids and their families to gardening.

“As the gateway to gardening, herbs can be harvested right away and, with the proper care and requirements, they’ll keep on producing all season long,” says Joan Casanova of Bonnie Plants.

She suggests growing basics such as basil, parsley and rosemary, and branching out with novelty herbs such as Thai basil, cinnamon basil or lemon thyme.

“Add to your growing experience by picking out simple recipes that use these herbs,” Joan says. “Consider freezing them in water in ice-cube trays so you can use extra harvest all winter long. Freezing herbs retains more of the nutrients and flavor than drying.”

To engage third-graders in gardening, Bonnie Plants delivers more than 1 million free 2-inch oversized Cross cabbage transplants to schools in the lower 48 states each season. Students take the plants home and, with their families, tend to the cabbage plants.

“Within 10 to 12 weeks, the cabbages have reached maturity, some tipping the scales at more than 40 pounds,” says Joan. “The kids are just amazed, not to mention engaged.”

The Bonnie Plants cabbage program sparks children’s interest in agriculture while teaching them not only the basics of gardening, but the importance of growing their own food, says Stan Cope, president of Bonnie Plants.

“This unique, innovative program exposes children to agriculture and demonstrates—through hands-on experience—where food comes from,” Stan says. “The program also affords our youth valuable life lessons in nurturing, nature, responsibility, self-confidence and accomplishment.”

Let children explore the dirt for earthworms, dig holes to plant seedlings and place them in the ground.

“This is a shared activity, and it’s a chance for kids—and adults—to learn,” Kathy says. “Younger ones can also help water the garden and look for insects as the crops grow.”

Take time to explain what is happening in the garden. Find age-appropriate books such as “Green Thumbs: A Kid’s Activity Guide to Indoor and Outdoor Gardening” by Laurie Winn Carlson, “Square Food Gardening with Kids” by Mel Bartholomew and “Seed, Sun, Soil: Earth’s Recipe for Food” by Cris Peterson. “Kid’s First Gardening” by Jenny Hendy includes step-by-step activities and crafts for kids ages 5 to 12. “Gardening Lab for Kids” by Renata Fossen Brown offers more than 50 experiments related to gardening.

To introduce children to gardening on a larger scale, schedule a trip to a nearby farm. Many offer U-pick activities so your family can harvest fruits and vegetables. Find a simple recipe you and your kids can prepare together.

“Getting kids engaged in gardening can have lifelong benefits,” Jane says. “Not only are you helping children learn about nature and health, you’re starting them off on a hobby they can enjoy for a lifetime.”