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Gardening with Kids

by Bob Sampson

Madison and Black-eyed Susans.
Madison likes Black-eyed Susans.

Gardens can provide a "hands-on" learning experience for youngsters and teach them how to care for the environment, said a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

"Teaching kids the basics of gardening can be educational and a fun activity," said Ron Wolford.

To ensure that the experience is good for both the child and the adult, he recommended a few guidelines.

"Choose vegetables or flowers that grow quickly," he said. "Kids want to see something pop out of the ground almost as fast as they plant the seeds. So choose vegetables like lettuce, radishes, cucumbers, squash, and onions that can go from seed to harvest in anywhere from 30 to 60 days.

When gardening with kids, use big seeds and plants with colorful flowers.

"Flowers like marigolds, zinnias, and sunflowers are easy to grow. They germinate quickly and flower till frost. Sunflowers are especially fun since they seem to grow a few inches a day and can reach heights of 10 feet or more."

Wolford said it is important to let kids have their own garden space.

"A 6-by-6-foot space can accommodate several varieties of flowers and vegetables," he noted. "Kids will love showing their friends, 'My garden.'

"Make a small sign and let the kids name their garden space. Let them make decisions about what to plant, where to plant, etc. If they want to plant their seeds in a circle instead of the traditional straight rows, let them. The garden needs to become their garden, not your idea of what a garden should be."

It is important to move slowly and keep the garden simple.

"Tell the kids what you will be doing in the garden before going outside, but allow for flexibility with a teachable moment in case a ladybug or spider crosses your path in the garden," he said. "Do not overwhelm kids with too many things to do. Vary their gardening experiences and don't do the same repetitive gardening chores continuously."

"Let the kids do the work. Remember, it is their garden. Take frequent breaks between activities."

As all kids love water, Wolford recommended purchasing a small water can.

"Teach kids how to do the 'poke' test,' poking their fingers into the soil to see if it is dry," he said. "Let them fill up the watering can themselves. Show them how to make a little saucer around the plant to collect the water. Don't worry if they over water a bit."

Wolford said it is important to be patient and innovative.

"For example, use the garden to sneak in a little math," he explained. "Use a ruler to measure correct distances between plants or for the proper spacing of seeds in a row."

"If the kids are old enough, have them do a journal of their gardening experiences. In the journal they might record the day's weather, what insects or birds they saw, or what they did in the garden."

Wolford said more information about gardening with kids is available on U of I Extension's website My First Garden


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