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When you think of gardening with kids, you probably conjure up images of rural farms or tidy suburban vegetable gardens, but even urban families can enjoy the benefits of gardening. A day spent outdoors in the garden offers a host of benefits for kids. Gardening activities boost physical fitness, strengthen family bonds and foster an understanding of plant and water cycles.
Whether your garden is a modest urban garden or even a few pots on the balcony, there’s a gardening activity to fit your family’s lifestyle. So, grab some garden gloves, find your trowel and get gardening!
- Grow “zombie” plants. Kids love the idea of dead plants coming back to life and this experiment from Katie Johnson, primary teacher at Eco Kids Preschool in Austin, Texas, is sure to peak your little scientist’s gardening interest. When you’re working in the kitchen, save carrot and pineapple tops or even the white parts of scallions. Plant them in the garden and watch them come back to life!
- Adopt a pet plant. Kids want to do more than just pull a few weeds or plant some seeds. Let your child pick one special gardening project and turn over the reins. Grow a giant pumpkin for Halloween or host a neighborhood watermelon growing contest. How about planting a pizza garden with tomatoes, basil and onions? Invite some friends over to make pizza with the garden harvest.
- Plant sunflowers. Sunflowers are great plants for kids because they have so many interesting traits. Watch young sunflower plants as their buds follow the path of the sun across the sky. In the morning, the buds face east. In the evening, they face west. Kids are fascinated by this process, known as heliotropism. Harvest and roast sunflower seeds when they are brown and slightly dry. Place cut sunflower heads in a brown bag and store in a cool, dry location for two weeks. Remove the seeds from the heads and place them in a cookie sheet. Roast them at 200 degrees for up to three hours. Another option is to leave the sunflower heads for birds and squirrels. Cut mature flower heads and place them on the ground or a fence to attract wildlife.
- Sprout veggies. The process of seed germination is fascinating, but hard to observe in a garden setting. Try this simple experiment to get a bird’s eye view of plant reproduction: Place a moistened paper towel in a plastic bag. Spread a few fast-sprouting seeds on the paper towel, such as radish, lettuce or carrot seeds. Seal the plastic bag and tape it in a sunny window. Open it every day or so and mist it to keep the paper towel moist. Within 5 to 7 days, most of the seeds will begin to sprout. Make a chart detailing which seeds sprout the fastest. Note the differences in leaves and growth.
- Spice it up. Herbs are a great introductory plant for kids because they tolerate more neglect than most vegetables and they grow quickly. Try growing a kitchen herb garden that includes basil, thyme, oregano and cilantro. Let kids add these herbs to salads, soups and other dishes. Grow mint in its own container for flavoring lemonade. Or, plant fragrant herbs, such as chamomile, lavender and lemon balm for fragrant teas. You can even add dried chamomile or lavender buds to a warm bath.
- Try vermicomposting. Worms might make you squirm, but your kids probably love them, right? Harness this natural interest as you teach your kid about soil amendments and composting with a worm composting project, suggests Kristin Arrigo, environmental writer and author of “Seasonal Home Repair Checklist: Eco-Alternatives for Maintaining Your Home.” To start a worm composter, all you need is a shallow plastic box with a loose-fitting lid or piece of plastic. Drill a few drainage holes in the bottom of the box and place a shallow tray underneath. Lay torn newspaper or cardboard in the bottom of the box and mist it well for worm bedding. Now, add a half-pound of red worms, available at farmer’s markets or nurseries. Each week you can add up to 3 pounds of kitchen scraps, such as vegetable and fruit peels, coffee grounds, egg shells and stale bread. Place more torn newspaper over the kitchen scraps and mist well to keep the bedding moist. In six months, you’ll have rich dark humus for your garden.
- Think small. So you don’t have the space for an orchard or a full-fledged vegetable garden. No problem! Even urban gardeners with tiny plots can grow an amazing amount of food, says Cathy Rehmeyer, a master gardener and mom who grows over a ton of food on one-tenth of an acre each summer. “First, focus on soil health,” she says, to ensure an abundant harvest. Let your kids help you dig compost into the soil. Plant green manures in the fall and till them under in the spring. Choose compact plant varieties, such as determinate cherry tomatoes, over sprawling heirlooms if space is limited. Try growing citrus fruits and even dwarf apple or cherry trees in large pots. And don’t forget to take advantage of vertical space. Plant pole beans instead of bush beans and train them up a bamboo teepee, suggests Rehmeyer. Your kids will love playing in the teepee and they’ll gain a lifelong love of gardening.
- Find a purpose. Keep kids motivated all season long by setting some goals for your vegetable garden. At Lone Tree Elementary School in Lone Tree, Colorado, kids grow vegetables in raised beds behind the school. The produce harvested from these beds is donated to local food banks. Or, how about selling vegetables from your garden at a vegetable stand to raise money for a family vacation or special project?
Kids and gardening naturally go together. To get the most from your gardening experiences, forget perfection and view mistakes as learning experiences, advises Rehmeyer. “My oldest daughter once picked a bunch of tomato blossoms, which turned into an opportunity to teach her that blossoms turn into the fruits we eat.”
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