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27 Mar, Monday
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Montreal Families

Gardening with kids

It is very tempting to lead off a story about children and gardening with tantalizing tales about our botanical successes: handfuls of juicy tomatoes, bunches of long, crunchy carrots or colourful sunflowers nodding their radiant heads toward our kitchen window.

But if the truth be told, our gardening efforts are far more modest. My three daughters and I have had as many failures as successes, many paltry yields of tiny tomatoes and shrunken strawberries. There were zucchinis that sprouted blossoms but no zucchinis, peonies that never flowered, perennial Chinese lanterns that disappeared forever and herbs that got swallowed up by the weeds in our wild garden. The neighbourhood squirrels seemed to get more out of our tulips than we did, since they ate the buds before they ever flowered.

The important thing is that we have remained undaunted by these humble harvests, determined each spring to forge ahead and try something new. And that is the main reason to get kids involved in gardening: they don’t have lofty ambitions of magazine-quality gardens. For a child, every seed that germinates is a miracle, every flower that buds a source of wonder.

“It’s important for kids to realize that carrots don’t come in a package from the supermarket,” says Dr. Ariel Fenster, of McGill University’s office for science and society. “It’s very important for them to realize where our food comes from. This develops a connection with the world around them, with the earth and the environment we live in.”

For many years, before we moved last spring, my girls and I faced challenges typical of many urban gardeners. We were lucky to have a plot of land, as our neighbours and their large trees left us with very small but highly treasured patches of afternoon sunlight. Shade gardening has its rewards, but these generally do not include the edible things high on a toddler or preschooler’s list of things to grow.

Each year we optimistically staked tomato plants, fed our carrot seeds, mixed compost to loosen clay soil and crammed as much as possible into the tiny plots that saw the sun. Our yields were less than bountiful. Admittedly, our springtime enthusiasm and efforts typically turned into laziness by midsummer, when it seemed too much effort to constantly feed, weed and water our plants. But that was alright, since a few of the hardier species flowered long enough for us to cut them for the vase on the kitchen table, and there were enough tiny tomatoes to be gobbled up by the kids as they played in the yard.

These days, with more sunny spaces to fill, we’ve been able to branch out a bit more. When we moved in, each child researched and chose a kind of tree to plant in our yard, so we could watch them grow over the years. We planted raspberries, blueberries and rhubarb, so they can snack as they play outside in late summer. This year, we are waiting to see what will become of the tulip, daffodil and crocus bulbs we planted in the fall.

Gardening teaches a lot of things aside from the science and magic of seed, sun and water. It teaches the value of hard work, of doing some research and reading before you choose what to plant. It helps us learn about our planet in very practical ways: where our food comes from, and what birds, worms and squirrels eat. Gardening shows us how to live in harmony with the bugs and pests that would very much like to eat the same lettuces and tomatoes we planted for ourselves. We learn from compost what happens to the parts of the plant we don’t eat, and about the cycle of life. Gardening is also a perfect example of the fruits of hard work and responsibility, such as digging, weeding and regular watering.

Plant some herbs

If you’ve never gardened before, you don’t have to take on anything complicated or expensive, explains Dr. Fenster. “A good place to start is with herbs, such as chives. You can grow them in a pot in a window. You can put them in your food. It’s not hard and doesn’t have to cost much.

“Being able to produce something, to create something new that you have fostered yourself is pretty special.”

The best part about gardening with kids is that you don’t have to have an actual garden to do it in. Wonderful things can be planted in containers on a balcony, or in pots on a sunny windowsill. A few small plants in a modest glass or plastic terrarium may need little light and infrequent watering. Gardeners with more ambition but no available land can look for a plot in a community garden project. Some schools and daycare centres might even be convinced to allocate a corner of a schoolyard to a class gardening project. You don’t need any particular skill or knowledge to begin. Everything you need can be found for a few dollars at any hardware store or garden centre.

There is a wonderful Chinese proverb that says the best time to plant a tree is 75 years ago; the second best time is today. What we plant today can bring colour, joy and knowledge for long stretches of time, both in our balcony containers and in the memories and growing green thumbs of our children. The true harvest comes many years down the line.

Tips for gardening with kids:

Start small: Kids love watching seeds germinate and become plants. Experiment with a variety of familiar things. Kids can plant their own grass seeds in a Styrofoam cup, beans in some wadded up wet paper towel, or individual packet seeds in the inexpensive starter trays found at hardware stores. Follow instructions on the packet to transplant the hardier seedlings into small pots, and then eventually into the garden after the danger of frost has passed.

Notice the little things: There are so many wonderful things we can all learn from plants, from the ways their roots soak up water and nutrients, to their scents, flavours, colours and shapes. Talk about why some flowers close up over night and then open up to the sun, how they move through their lifecycles, how they interact in a pot or garden.

Get dirty: What kid can resist plunging their hands into freshly dug earth? Dress appropriately. Offer gardening gloves (available at the dollar store) to those who want them. Make sure everyone has a spade to get their turn. Gardening with kids is more about the process than the end product!

Make some mistakes: There are good lessons to be learned from those seedlings that fail to sprout, or plants that really need more (or less) sun, water or food. Talk about why the plant didn’t make it, and try and figure out solutions for next time based on your shared experience.

Learn together: Take your kids with you to the garden centre and encourage them to ask questions. Get some books out from the library or peruse the Internet together to choose what you will plant, where and when.

Choose kid-friendly plants: Some plant species are hardier than others, and will tolerate a little rough handling from inexperienced hands. Start with ones that are familiar and produce quick results: carrots, tomatoes, Shasta daisies, impatiens, tuberous begonias. If you have toddlers or preschoolers, avoid plants that can be poisonous if ingested, such as lilies of the valley, irises or foxgloves. Warn your children that while tomatoes are edible, the green parts of the plant are poisonous.

Helpful websites:

Click on “how to” and then on Gardening with Kids. This gardening magazine offers helpful suggestions and tips for the littlest gardeners.

Lots of helpful tips, activities, articles and contest from the U.S. National Gardening Association.

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