Your kids can probably help you find the baby carrots or frozen French fries in the grocery store, but do they know where carrots and potatoes really come from? How about onions or strawberries?
Gardening expert and author Sharon Lovejoy recalls standing in front of a group of schoolchildren with a raw carrot in her hand as the children tried to guess where it had come from. One said the market. Another guessed a truck. Then Lovejoy, whose books include "Sunflower Houses: Garden Discoveries for Children of All Age" and "Roots, Shoots, Buckets & Boots: Gardening Together with Children," pulled a packet of seeds out of her pocket and told them that the carrot had been grown from the seeds. "A little boy yelled, 'That's a miracle,'" Lovejoy recalls.
Rose Judd-Murray, an education specialist with the National Garden Association, says that stories like Lovejoy's are not surprising. "There is a disconnect [in kids] when it comes to understanding where our food comes from," she says. "Kids will pull something so basic out of the ground and they are unsure—'Do we eat the top or eat the bottom?'"
By teaching children not just where the food comes from but also how to grow it, we can increase their awareness of the world around them—and make them more likely to eat, say, tomatoes in their native form instead of just ketchup: "As kids touch and feel where the food comes from, they have a greater desire to eat fruits and vegetables," adds Judd-Murray.
More than that, gardening is a way to reconnect our kids with the wonder of the earth, the miracle that a seed the size of a fingernail clipping could grow into a big orange carrot. "Kids really feel that this is a magical experience," says Lovejoy. Gardening can also be used to teach science and to reinforce positive character traits like respect, responsibility, the value of work and cooperation with others, notes Judd-Murray.
Now that we've established what fun it can be, are you ready to dig in? Here are some tips to get you started.
Start small. A common mistake beginners make is being too ambitious with their garden plans, only to be discouraged when weeds or pests take over the plot. "Make it so small that your child can water it and see everything," recommends Lovejoy. Rather than tilling a section of your yard, consider planting in containers, which will help keep weeds at bay and give your child a focus for watering. You can buy pots at a garden store or even use an old beach bucket—just be sure to poke holes for drainage. "Containers are great for herbs or patio-type tomatoes," says Susan Heidebrecht, a horticulturalist and garden designer who lives in Reisterstown, Maryland. But be warned: If you're using containers, you may have to water your plants more frequently than if you had planted in the ground. "Things can dry out really quickly [in containers]," says Heidebrecht.
Follow your child's lead. Not sure what to plant? Take your child to a garden store and let her pick the out the seeds. Your best bet will be flowers or vegetables with relatively fast germination periods (the better for short attention spans!). When it comes to flowers, Judd-Murray likes shasta daisies, cosmos and zinnia, while Heidebrecht recommends nasturtiums, which are an easy-to-grow edible flower. For vegetables, Judd-Murray, Lovejoy and Heidebrecht all recommend cherry tomatoes and, for a quick, three-to-seven-day germination, radishes. Lovejoy swears that kids will eat radishes when they grow them.
Buy kid-sized tools. A well-meaning child with a garden hose can blast a baby seedling away in a matter of seconds, but you can avoid garden floods by equipping your little helper with a kid-sized watering can. "You're rarely going to have an accident if the child has a tool that's the proper size," says Judd-Murray. In addition to a watering can, consider purchasing a child-sized clipper, trowel and shovel, as well as a magnifying glass, so you can get up close and personal with your plants.
Don't be afraid to experiment. Some of your plants might grow like weeds, others might be stifled by weeds. The key is to figure out—with your child—what works and what doesn't. A garden can become a living science experiment, in which you can compare what happens when one seedling receives fertilizer (or water or sunlight) and one doesn't. Not everything will grow in the way you expect, and that's okay. "Don't be afraid to fail," says Judd-Murray.
Make it fun. Gardening shouldn't feel like a chore, so don't treat it like one. Instead of inviting your child to "go work in the garden" with you, consider asking him if he wants to go peek under the leaves to see what he might find. Then grab the magnifying glass and start exploring!
No outdoors? No problem! Not everyone has access to an outdoor garden space, but apartment dwellers and others with limited outdoor space can also develop green thumbs by focusing on indoor plants. Judd-Murray recommends snipping off a piece of a spider plant and setting it in water to watch it grow new roots. Or plant aloe vera, which grows easily and can be used to treat household burns.
Heidebrecht adds that if all else fails, a visit to a local pick-your-own farm provides kids without extensive gardens the chance to see foods "in their natural habitat."