Starting a Garden with Children
by Ruth S. Foster

Our love of gardening oftern begins in childhood. Share your passion for gardening with your child or grandchild and plant the seed for generations to come.

Why garden with kids? What's the first memory you have of a garden? If you are reading this you are probably a gardener, but did you ever think where or why you got interested in this fascinating pastime? When children are just discovering the world and how it works, each and every mother's garden (and father's garden too) is a source of wonder and sharing. The trick is to share something that grows easily and well to become a memory cherished forever.

For the smallest child start with sure things that sprout fast. Consider a flowerpot or clear plastic cake container planted with rye grass (not blue grass or fescue) seeds which will sprout in 5 or 6 days if the soil is warm. They can be "mowed" with a scissors. After one or two shearings, juvenile boredom will set in and mercifully you'll be able to throw it out onto the mulch pile.

For a real garden experience that can be shared all summer long, consider vegetables and the joy of the harvest. The two old reliable standbys are bush beans and tomatoes. If you'd rather do flowers, nothing can beat dwarf marigolds for fast sprouting, fast flowering and no dead heading. Sunflowers, though not as easy, grow so fast they are memorable, and even more so if and when they bloom.

Though we buy flower and vegetable seedlings these days, I think watching the seeds sprout is part of childhood. Start with beans. These can be sowed outdoors when all chance of frost is gone, but for children it's more fun and more reliable to start some seedlings indoors on a sunny windowsill.

For inexpensive planters use paper milk cartons with the top and bottom cut off. If run through the dishwasher the chlorine will semi-sterilize them. Plant 2 beans per container. To hasten germination, soak the seeds overnight. If they don't sprout in a week, plant some more. If too many grow, cut off the weakest ones with a scissors. Works for marigolds and sunflowers too.

When it's warm enough plant the beans outdoors, in a prepared vegetable bed. Beans do not like their roots jostled so carefully cut away the paper container. At the same time plant a whole row of beans in the ground and two weeks later plant another row for a season long supply.

Tomatoes should be bought as seedlings and planted out a week after the beans. Pick varieties that fruit early, are disease resistant, and always include at least one cherry tomato like Sweet l00. If you have no suitable outdoors spot, a window box, or a big planter, regularly fertilized, can produce a nice harvest. Incidentally just two cooked beans make a memorable feast for the child who has watched them grow.

Lead in the Soil When growing vegetables, it's wise to test the soil for lead, particularly if you have a house built before the mid 1960's or your land had old fruit trees or you are next to a heavily traveled roadway. (Call your local state Agricultural Service and send a cupful in a zip lock bag.) If you have lead, grow flowers and be happy. To grow vegetables, you should make a new raised bed at least 8 inches high. Line it with black plastic perforated for drainage, and bring in either new clean loam or bagged soil. Fertilize regularly and add manure too if you want things to grow really well. Or grow in large flowerpots filled with bought soil. Lead is heavily absorbed by leaf crops like lettuce, moderately absorbed by root crops like radishes and carrots, and least by fruiting crops like tomatoes. The ancient Romans had lots of lead poisoning from their lead-lined wine amphora and lead water pipes. We know better.

Why garden with children? It teaches many things like responsibility, patience, and that everything isn't as simple as on TV or the web. Some things live and some don't, so face calamities with quiet acceptance and move on. Plant some more seeds if chipmunks eat the seedlings. Best of all it's a life long hobby with happy memories of Mom or Dad or grandparents in a magical place in childhood.