Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences
Hendry County Horticulture News
Children and the Joy of Gardening
There is something wonderful in introducing a child to the joys of gardening and instilling in them a love of plants and natural things. Many of us have fond memories of tagging along with a parent, favorite relative or neighbor, who got hooked us on gardening. To be able to witness the innocent wonder and excitement in young person's eyes, who has captured a caterpillar and followed it through metamorphosis to become a butterfly or who has planted a seed and reaped the flowers or vegetables that they have helped grow is truly miraculous. It generally happens sometime between the age of 2 and pre-adolescence -- when Mom and Dad aren't stupid yet -- that kids get the bug for gardening.
Kids love dirt and getting dirty is an integral part of growing up. Young kids have a very short attention span so make sure that you have lots of options available so they can get started immediately and stay busy. Digging holes is one thing that seems to hold endless fascination. Instant gratification helps a lot. Plant radishes even if you don't like them. They come up in three or four days. Kids need their own places, whether their domain is restricted to a few pots of flowers or a three-by-three-foot patch of earth, it should be just that -- their domain -- free of parental intrusion. Giving a child control of his or her own garden spot will provide them with a sense of independence and introduce the values of ownership and responsibility.
Gardening is something to do together at any age. When working with older kids, one-to-one works better than groups, since gardening (and anything else that could get you dirty) is a remarkably un-cool and disgusting way to spend time. Rest assured that if you give them a healthy respect for gardens and green things when they are young, it will stay with them throughout their lives.
Kid-size tools are available at hardware stores, but an old spoon or garden trowel is good enough. Plastic margarine containers or coffee cans make fine pots. Your child can collect sunflower and zinnia seeds, acorns, and avocado pits, or select from brightly colored seed packets at the store. There are neat, new seed packages directed toward kids, with cute names and lively images. A small bag of potting soil and plastic labels are all that's needed to convert a few hours into lots of fun.
Here are some ideas for gardening projects to share with your son or daughter, favorite niece or nephew or neighbor's child.
In grade school days, we all tried to grow a plant from an avocado pit. Here's how to do it right: Stick the pit with three toothpicks and suspend it over a glass of water so only the bottom is wet. Once the root sprouts it can be planted in soil. For a far easier project with quicker results, fill a glass or plastic bowl with soaked paper towels or similar padding and sprinkle with pre-soaked beans, wheat grain, or alfalfa seeds. Tie a plastic bag around the entire bowl until the seeds sprout in a few days. Remove the bag and snip and eat in a week It's fun to watch bushy plants grow from root vegetables like carrots, turnips, and parsnips. Just cut off the tops, including greens and two inches of the vegetable, and place them on moist perlite or vermiculite. Hide them in a warm, dark closet until they sprout, then them in the light to grow. Make sure the kids aren't expecting a new vegetable to be growing underground -- a leafy plant is all they will get! It's a thrill for youngsters to check the closet day by day for new growth.
Kids love rubbing leaves for scent and texture, so don't forget about planting herb seeds. Sage, rosemary, and thyme will do nicely. Scented geraniums have a myriad of smells, from chocolate mint to rose and lemon, and are easy for kids to grow from cuttings. For rainy day or sick day indoor activities - prepare pots for bulbs like agapanthus, amaryllis, paper whites, and refrigerated tulips or daffodils, or set them in fine pebbles, for a stunning floral display. Create dish gardens with cactus and succulents. Lush, humid terrariums are fun to put together and involve a visit to the garden center to pick out prospective candidates for the assortment. You'll have to monitor overzealous watering if your child takes the cactus route.
You can also encourage the little propagator in the family to take cuttings of favorite houseplants. Some easy ones to root are rex begonia, wandering Jew, and the plantlets at the ends of spider plant stems. Roots will grow in water (use a clear glass so the kids can watch the progress) or soil.
The best fun is to have a vegetable garden. Not only is the experience of planting and watching a thrill, but reaping the harvest and eating and cooking with one's very own vegetables is a real accomplishment. You might even get a finicky eater to try something new. Growing their own will generally get kids to try eating things they otherwise wouldn't walk into the same room with.
After an activity, do something to reinforce what was learned. Talk about what went on, who did what, who saw what. If you can, have them write things down or draw pictures. So don't be afraid to let the kids loose. Gardening is a therapeutic lifelong hobby -- for kids and parents alike -- that fosters appreciation for the world around us.
Gene McAvoy is the horticulture agent with the Hendry County Extension Service. Direct your horticulture questions to PO Box 68, LaBelle, FL 33975, e-mail - firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 863-674-4092 or 863-983-1598. You are also welcome to visit the Hendry County Extension Office at 225 Pratt Blvd., LaBelle. Office hours are from 8:00 - 5:00.
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