Roots and Shoots: Raising a Future Gardener

By Pamela Doan

Now that I’m a parent, I’m wondering how to share my enjoyment of gardening with my daughter as she grows up. Vegetable gardening has a certain cachet for families these days. It’s become cool to take your kids to the farmers market and teach them about buying locally and seasonally. In both the Haldane and Garrison school districts, students spend time in greenhouses and learn about growing and preparing vegetables. There is increasing awareness of the value of vegetable gardens and recognition that it can help instill good eating habits in childhood.

Carolyn Llewellyn, a farm and nature educator who works with Glynwood, Manitou School and the Haldane “Farmer in the Classroom” program, and Dianne Olsen, who led the “Families Growing Together” program for the Cornell Cooperative Extension in Putnam County for many years, shared ways that parents can get kids off the iPad and into the garden. The most important part is to make it fun, they both emphasized.

Even a baby can have a good time in a garden. (Photo by P. Doan)
Even a baby can have a good time in a garden. (Photo by P. Doan)

Llewellyn suggested starting by talking to your kids about what they like to eat and getting them involved in planning a garden. Olsen agreed with that. She said, “Give them paper and crayons or pencils and have them draw a garden. Ask them what they think they would like to do in a garden — walk around, sit and listen, attract birds, watch flowers grow, cut flowers for the house?”

Llewellyn had lots of creative ideas for engaging children in planting and harvesting vegetables. She said, “Kids like to pick things. Cherry tomatoes, beans, sugar snap peas, and johnny-jump-ups are all fun to pick and last a while in the garden.”

To capture short attention spans, she listed things that grow quickly like radishes or micro greens as being satisfying, because kids can watch them grow day by day and eat them in about three weeks. Beets, which are bigger than most seeds, are easy for small hands to manage sowing.

Llewellyn has also used making teepees for climbing and vining vegetables like beans, gourds and cucumbers as a kid’s activity in the garden. It puts the harvest in easy reach and can still be planted this spring. Another suggestion was to plant a pizza garden with all of your child’s favorite toppings and to include wheat, too, to see how it grows. At Manitou School, Llewellyn is building a sunflower house with the students using a 4-by-4-foot plot. Plant the sunflowers in rows to create a play space.

Llewellyn cautioned that as your kids get used to eating plants directly from the garden, it’s important to teach them not to eat anything outside of your home garden without checking with an adult first. There are also concerns about lead paint and soil contamination for edible plants. Never plant edibles within 7 feet of a house foundation because of the danger of leaching from lead paint, and in general, raised beds were her preference to avoid soil contamination. Soil contaminants are dangerous at any level, but especially so for developing children.

“The garden is one of the best classrooms for children (adults, too). Kids learn science in the garden: math by measuring, engineering by planning, biology by learning how plants grow, ecology by learning about the interaction of plants, air, water, insects, and pollinators,” said Olsen. “It isn’t just concrete skills, though. Olsen said: “Kids learn patience. They have to wait for seeds to sprout and for vegetables to ripen. When kids work together in a garden, they learn cooperation, teamwork, acceptance and respect. They learn how awesome and talented and creative they are.”

Olsen said watching the families in her program showed her that families bond when they share the achievement of sitting down to dinner and eating a salad they grew together. Llewellyn said that watching plants grow and then die in the fall helped kids understand the cycle of life. “Kids learn by osmosis when gardening. When a sunflower dies, its seeds become ready to sprout new sunflowers and make food for birds; even the plants that die will become part of new life ready to happen.”

Here are some resource suggestions if you want to get started growing with kids.

  • Get child-size plastic rakes, hoes and small watering cans so kids have their own tools.
  • Check out the garden sections in the children’s area of our local libraries for good books.
  • Visit the Haldane school garden, which is open to the public, and see the theme beds — dinosaurs, sensory experiences, and more.