If you have children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews or small neighbours, consider planting a little patch of earth with them this spring.
Gardening is a fun and easy way to teach children about the Earth. It's easy to cultivate their curiosity by encouraging them to help you in the garden, but remember to keep it simple - no need to bore them with too much info! Kids love to imitate their parents, so dress them in worn clothes and pick up an inexpensive set of children’s gardening tools and gloves from the dollar store.
Be aware that wandering feet may inadvertently tread on prized tomatoes, and weeds may be watered while vegetables are pulled. Accidents like these are a part of the learning process and it’s important to ignore blunders and continue to encourage your kids to help in the garden.
Young children such as toddlers and preschoolers will love to dig holes, water seedlings and plant seeds. Choose annuals and vegetables with large seeds to make planting easier. Good choices include beans, peas, nasturtiums, cucumbers, pumpkins and sunflowers.
Older kids can tackle such projects as sunflower houses, pole-bean teepees or even making a ‘garden quilt’! For a quilt, mark out a rectangular area that measures about 3 feet by 5 feet and have the kids design their pattern by sprinkling the seed of quick growing annuals such as marigolds, alyssum, calendula and zinnias in stripes, swirls or patches. Choose different colours for each section and keep well watered until the seedlings are growing well. Try to pick plants that all grow to a similar size!
For a sunflower house, mark out a spot in a sunny patch of soil measuring four feet by four feet, or larger if you have the space. I usually excavate a 1-foot wide strip from the lawn for the perimeter of the house, leaving the inside of the house sodded, so the kids will have grass to sit on (keeps the clothes cleaner too!) Plant tall or dwarf varieties of sunflower seed in the 'now-unsodded' perimeter of the square, leaving a 2-foot space for a door on one side. Water the seeds and continue to water and fertilize as the plants grow. Kids will love playing inside and around their very own sunflower house. Add a few climbing nasturtiums or scarlet runner beans to climb the sunflowers - if you add some twigs or string across the 'roof' of the house, the beans will make a nice canopy!
Another favourite project is to construct a pole-bean teepee or tunnel. For a teepee, fasten five eight-foot tall bamboo stakes together at the top, sinking the bottoms into the soil. Plant several scarlet runner or pole bean seeds at the base of each pole and enjoy watching them cover the teepee, creating the perfect play fort for the kids.
A unique twist on the teepee is a tunnel. Make the frame with bamboo poles and cover with a mixture of pole beans, cucumbers, gourds and flowering vines.
Children will also have fun planning a theme garden. Interesting themes include a giant garden filled with huge flowers and vegetables (Mammoth sunflowers, Howard Dill pumpkins), a fairy garden filled with tiny plants (alyssum, baby boo pumpkins), a mono-coloured garden (pick their favourite colour!), a butterfly garden, a tea party garden with peppermint, chamomile and lemon balm, or a pizza garden with aromatic herbs and cherry tomatoes.
For budding veggie gardeners, select easy-to-grow vegetables such as beans, radishes, leaf lettuce, cherry tomatoes, baby pumpkins (Baby Boo is our favourite!) and peas. Let them scatter a few marigold, nasturtium or calendula seeds among the vegetables for colour.
Always supervise younger children to ensure that they don’t put seeds or plants in their mouths. Avoid poisonous plants, keeping in mind that even edible plants sometimes have poisonous parts. Although I garden organically, I never keep fertilizers, homemade sprays or manure within reach of my children. Even organic products should be stored away from curious hands.