Small garden, big rewards

Kids learn life lessons in the loam

Kids learn life lessons in the loam

June 02, 2003|by ANDREA ROWLAND

The experienced gardener might prefer drinking fish fertilizer to placing pumpkins next to petunias in the well-planned plot - but youngsters' gardening tastes are likely to run to more extreme.

And that's just fine, gardening experts say.

Letting kids plan and plant their own small flower and vegetable gardens is a rewarding and educational experience that can nurture a lifelong love for the hobby, said Jason Hockensmith, greenhouse manager at Potomac Farms Nursery in Shepherdstown, W.Va.

"It gives kids a sense of responsibility and accomplishment," he said.

Elsie Rodriguez, greenhouse manager at Lovell's Nursery in Hagerstown, added that planting a garden "lets kids experience how life begins."

But it's important to keep kids' gardens small so they can easily care for them, said Jeff Semler, extension educator for the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension. He suggests "square-foot gardening." Start with a roughly 1-by-3-foot garden for kindergarten-aged children, Semler said, and let the garden expand with the age of the child.


He also suggested helping kids choose low-maintenance but high-return flowers and vegetables that they can grow from both seeds and plants. Marigolds are colorful, fragrant and long-lasting annuals that also help keep pests from vegetables planted nearby. Perennial chrysanthemums are also hardy and will flower from early fall until the first hard frost, Semler said.

Cosmos, snapdragons, salvia, coleus and celosia are brightly colored plants that produce even more vigorously after their blooms are cut for household vases, according to the Kids Gardening Web site at Other reliable growers include geraniums, morning glories, nasturtiums, petunias and strawflowers for full-sun gardens; begonias, forget-me-nots, impatiens, Johnny-jump-ups and pansies for partial-shade gardens; and ivies and ferns for full-shade gardens, the Web site states.

"And kids just love sunflowers," Semler said.

For a twist, plant sunflowers in a square to form a "room" in which young gardeners can play, suggests the Kids Gardening Web site.

Hockensmith said pumpkins and watermelons delight little gardeners - because of their size and taste.

"Grow things kids can pick and eat," including carrots, peas, beans, grape or cherry tomatoes, beets and radishes, Semler said. "Kids will eat things they might not normally eat if they grow them."

For fun and variety, build a bean tepee by binding five or more bamboo poles at the top and planting pole beans underneath. Plants that come in unusual colors - including purple carrots, striped beets, rainbow chard and "Easter egg" radishes - are also sure winners with kids, according to the Kids Gardening Web site.

Kids' gardening tips:

Nurture children's love of gardening by example. Spending time together in the garden will foster children's ownership of it, and encourage them to care for it.

Let kids choose what to plant, but offer guidance and make sure there are some sure-success plants among their picks.

Relax your standards. Crooked rows and weeds aren't that big a deal.

Leave room for kids to dig holes to look for worms and other critters.

Model the message that some insects are beneficial, and even destructive bugs are interesting.

Don't expect kids to do all the watering and pest patrol.

Sow two rows of the same seeds - radishes work well - to teach kids the importance of thinning their plants. In one row, leave whatever seeds germinate to grow as they will. In the other, have children thin plants to the proper spacing. Children can see the difference in the health and vigor of the plants that were thinned as compared to those that were left crowded.

Do a "finger test" to check for moisture. Gently poke a finger into the soil beside the plant. If it feels dry about an inch down, then it's time to water.

Give children small trowels and buckets to use for digging and moving dirt instead of full-size shovels and wheelbarrows.

Give kids free reign over their cutting gardens.

Keep chemical fertilizers, weed killers and insecticides away from children.

Always supervise children around water.

Keep an eye open for allergic reactions to certain plants.

Check a plant encyclopedia for plants with poisonous parts, including caladium, monkshood, oleander, rhododendron, bleeding heart leaves and roots, English ivy leaves and berries, foxglove leaves and seeds, hydrangea, iris stems, larkspur, lily of the valley leaves and flowers and such bulbs as daffodils, narcissus and hyacinths.

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