On Mother’s Day, is there anything sweeter than receiving a hand-picked bouquet of flowers from a favorite little one?
Well, maybe teaching that youngster how to bring those flowers to life in the first place.
At least if you’re Kay Musgrave of Fort Wayne, who this spring is taking about a dozen toddlers under her mother-hen-like wing at Salomon Farm.
Last week, she was showing 4-year-old Clara Lewis of Fort Wayne how to put lettuce seeds in soil and leading a duck-like line of children not much taller than daffodils through the dandelions to a garden plot.
There, the kids got to sniff onion stalks and lavender and peppermint leaves straight from the plant.
At Gardening for Tots, six weekly classes with Musgrave and her helpers, it’s never too early to engage children with gardening.
We’re just trying to get parents and kids back to growing things, Musgrave says.
Rebecca Canales, supervisor of public programming for the Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory in Fort Wayne, says gardening can be taught to children as soon as they can walk and talk.
The biggest thing for gardening with kids is to appreciate the sense of wonder they have and fostering it, Canales says.
Children are born loving to learn, and if you can continue together to foster that love of learning and the excitement of discovery, you’ll naturally progress.
The main thing, if you love gardening, is to share it.
In other words, there’s mystery in a seed, and delight in a carrot – whether you’re 2 or 200.
We asked some local experts about how to interest even the littlest sprouts in gardening.
Start small. Teresa Rody, a naturalist who teaches preschool programs at Salamonie Lake in Andrews, says it’s not too small to start with a single, easy-to-grow plant such as a marigold or a radish in a container. You can work up to a window box or larger containers with several plants or even a plot in the ground. A 4-by-4-foot plot is plenty, she says. Surround the space with bricks or blocks or even edging so children have a sense of ownership.
Go big. There’s nothing like something big and flashy to capture a child’s imagination, Rody says. One of the major attractions for kids at her nature center is a sunflower house that’s made of these giants planted close together and staked so they form walls and a roof. Kids can walk in and be surrounded by flowers and they love that, she says. Rody suggests sunflowers as a good teaching tool because they have big seeds which are easy for little hands to handle, and the plant can illustrate plants’ ecological role – even a 3 or 4-year-old will be interested to see the seeds providing food for birds – and eager to chow down on muffins made with some.
Eat it up. Indeed, planting edibles seems sure-fire to Musgrave. Vegetables, generally when kids grow them, they’ll eat them, she says. Kids might not be wild over arugula, but quick- and early-sprouting lettuce even spinach in a salad will likely get kids to the table. So will easy-to-grow, sweet cherry tomatoes, sweet peppers or strawberries in a strawberry pot. There are even edible flowers, such as nasturtiums. Kids like to show off what they’ve grown, says Rody, so it’s fun to take things to family gatherings. My daughter likes to cut the melons she grew into interesting shapes.
Get a theme. A pizza garden has been suggested by a lot of gardening organizations, Canales says. HGTV.com’s online Family Garden Club has this, and lots of other ideas. The site recommends shaping the pizza garden as a circle with tomatoes, sweet peppers, basil, oregano and possibly chives or onions and thyme and parsley planted in the slices. Other possibilities – a salsa garden (tomatoes, cilantro, onion or chives and jalapeño), a pet garden (catnip and cat grass for cats, Lucerne grass for dogs, timothy for guinea pigs and barley, oats and wheat for rabbits). Or try creating a songbird or butterfly garden or a flower garden around a color scheme, such as red, white and blue. Check www.hgtv.com/gardening-club/package/index.htm for ideas.
Engage the senses. Adults tend to garden with our eyes first, but one pleasure of a garden is the scents and textures of plants, as Musgrave pointed out to her class of toddlers last week. Vanessa Lewis, mom to Clara, said her daughter and son Seth, 21 months, have already discovered one of scent-ual pleasure. We mostly planted herbs at home because the kids like to crush the leaves and smell them, especially chocolate mint, she says.
Chart progress. Kids love projects, and they are myriad in the garden. They can learn a lot just by marking down how much water they give their plants and how often, how big the plants get, how many days to flowers or fruit and so on. Charting or taking pictures can help to maintain interest – Rody calls it suspense of what’s next – over the course of a long growing season. What’s fun is to space out the ripening times, she adds, so there’s always something going on.
Try tools. The chance to work with a trowel or garden fork and dig in the dirt is fun for younger kids – the tools are like toys to them, Rody says. Older children may enjoy building the box in which they plant or trellises. Rody suggests peas and pole beans as being great plants for kids to grow because they can also build the structures on which their vines climb.
Tell a story. Every plant has one, Canales says. Whether it’s about how the plant was used in medicines by the pioneers or how your grandma prepared zucchini or your grandpa, when harvesting potatoes, used to feel for them with his bare feet, the stories are worth repeating to the next generation. You demonstrate your love of gardening simply by doing it – that’s a story, she says. You show how fun and exciting it is, and kids will be attracted to things that are fun and exciting.