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cucumber, tomatoes, peppers, green onions

New Vegetable Gardener — Gardening with Kids

When did your love of gardening begin? It was probably when you were a kid and a parent or grandparent shared their love of gardening with you. Vegetable gardens offer numerous benefits to a kid. Vegetable gardening can be fun for the entire family. Let’s look at the research ….
Vegetable gardening enhances young people’s lives: Vegetable gardening has been shown to increase self-esteem, help youth develop a sense of ownership and responsibility, help foster relationships with family members, and increase parental involvement (Alexander & Hendren 1998). Vegetable gardening promotes higher quality learning: Young people tend to learn more and better when they are actively involved in the learning process (McCormick et al. 1989). Vegetable gardening enhances learning for all youth: Children with learning disabilities, who participated in gardening activities, had enhanced nonverbal communication skills, developed awareness of the advantages of order, learned how to participate in a cooperative effort, and formed relationships with adults (Sarver 1985). Vegetable gardening fosters parental involvement: Parents who are highly involved at school are more likely to be involved in educational activities with their children at home (National Center for Educational Statistics 1997).

A quick visit to Florida Ag in the Classroom website and you will see that vegetable gardening can meet Florida Learning Standards in math, science, technology, English language arts, social studies, and more…..

When you start bringing a kid into the vegetable garden, keep it simple. Choose a small space in the garden that will be theirs. This could be a small plot of ground or a container but something that will be fun. Get pictures of vegetables and ask the kid what he or she wants to grow. Don’t expect perfection; have fun. If you want to keep a kid out of the garden when they get older, let weed pulling be their only chore.

Ask yourself “Why do I want my kid in the garden?” Here are some answers you may want to consider: to teach him or her how to enjoy the outdoors, to teach him or her about where food comes from, to enjoy time together as a family without technology, learning – planning, math, science, English (keep a journal) …. And don’t expect your kid to be clean, plant vegetables in a straight line, grow a lot of vegetables or become a future Master Gardener.

Safety in the garden is extremely important. This is Florida and it is sunny, so wear a hat. Make sure the tools are appropriate for the age of the kid, and the kid will need his or her own tools. Sunscreen is important when outdoors as is bug repellent. Supervise the kid in the garden but don’t boss him or her around. It would be a good idea to have special cloths to wear in the garden, something that can get really, really dirty without being too concerned. Teach the kid not to eat anything in the garden without checking with you and then only after it has been washed in clean water. The days of picking a cherry tomato off the vine and popping it into your mouth right from the plant are no longer, and it is not considered a safe food practice.

Let the kid choose the plants from selections of miniature or dwarf vegetables. Depending on the age of your kid, you may want to give him or her a “budget” to purchase seeds. Sit down together and browse the pages of seed catalogs when making selections. Consider a combination of seeds and transplants. Don’t forget that flowers add interest and beauty to the garden even if you can’t eat them. Choose seeds that germinate quickly. Beans, radishes, peas and squash germinate quickly, usually in a few days to less than a week.

When your kid is old enough, assign responsibilities in the garden. Yes, the kid can pull weeds but he or she can water too, so get a watering can he or she can carry. Teach your kid that only adults should help with pesticides to control diseases and insects. Other duties that kids can be assigned include scouting (looking for worms or bugs) and harvesting. The kids may actually eat the vegetable they grew in their own garden plot or container.

Learn about the insects in the garden. How you react to insects will set the stage for how your kid will view and react to insects. Give the kid a jar to collect bugs. Take this a step further and have the kid identify the bugs; can he or she determine if it is an insect that is good for the garden? Talk about beneficial insects.

More about the garden — plan the garden. Draw a sketch of the garden area. Start small and maybe consider a theme garden; pizza garden with vegetables that would be used on a pizza or an alphabet garden with vegetables that start with A, B, C, etc. You will have plenty of time to choose the plants. Don’t forget to include the kid in the planning stage and show him or her on the sketch where his or her garden will be.

Consider growing pole bean tee pees so your kid will have a safe place to play. You will need strong supports to hold the plants up. Sunflower houses are fun. Plant tall sunflowers like ‘Mammoth’ in a circle with an opening where children can crawl inside and “hide.”

Kids will love strange and ugly vegetables. Let some of your squash plants mature a little longer in the garden. Grow white eggplant, green and yellow ‘Zephyr’ zucchini, ‘Hansel’ and ‘Gretel’ eggplants, ‘Eight ball’ zucchini and maybe popcorn if you have enough space.

Don’t forget that you need to be in the garden with your kid. Always be together and create those magic moments that will sustain you when they “leave the nest” several years from the days you gardened together. Share in the chores and don’t take over. Work together on the harvest and aftercare in the garden to get it ready for the next gardening season.

Always be careful in the garden. Do not count on natural controls or home remedies to help you with pest management in the garden. If you must use a pesticide in the garden, always read and follow label directions for best results and your kid’s safety. Organic pesticides are not any safer that synthetic pesticides; both are meant to kill a pest. If you use either one inappropriately in the garden, plants, animals and people may suffer.

When gardening with a kid, the goal is to enjoy your time together in the garden. There is no need for perfection. And if you can grow weeds, you can grow vegetables.