Planting a Garden with your Child

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By Jo R. Frederiksen, Colorado State University Cooperative Extension Master Gardener, Denver County

School's out -- yea. But, hey! What do the kids do for the next three months before school bells ring again?

How about helping your child plan and plant a garden? From preparing the soil, selecting the plants, planting seeds or transplants, watching them grow to finally harvesting the "crops," gardening is great family entertainment.

Keep two steps in mind: How much space is available for the garden and what is the age of the child? For a 2 - 4 year old, planting 1/2 packets of seeds and 1 to 2 plants each of tomato and pepper creates a big garden world even though it seems like a small space to you.

It's wise to intensively care for a small space rather than overwhelming both you and the child with the weeds that will grow in a big area. Miniature vegetable varieties also may be more accessible and understandable to small children.

For younger children, soil preparation may be the most fun part of gardening. My two year old loves to dig with a large spoon and help get the garden spot ready. After letting your child help you till the soil, you may want to amend with an organic mixture such as compost or sphagnum peat at a ratio of 3 - 4 cubic yards per 1,000 square feet.

If you have almost no space at all or perhaps you live in a townhouse or apartment, a small corner or balcony can provide adequate space for a child's container garden. It's surprising what you can grow and amazing how attractive the red leaves of `Red Sails' lettuce or `Ruby' Swiss Chard look in combination with other greens in containers. You'll find special varieties of tomatoes just for this purpose, such as `Tiny Tim' and `Patio.' Sweet and chili peppers, bush beans and other vegetables also do well in containers.

You can help children 5 to 8 years old, grow a larger sized garden with a greater variety of full-sized plants, such as tomatoes, peppers, lettuce or other greens, radishes, carrots, squash and your favorite herbs. And don't forget the sunflowers and multi-colored flowering kale, always favorites with children of any age.

Choose plants that appeal to sight, feel and smell. Give children ownership of their garden. Mark off a section of your big garden just for your child.

Children 5 to 8 can begin to grasp plants' differing needs as well as the insects that live around and on them. A little later, they'll begin to understand the natural environment and will be able to tell beneficial insect predators from harmful "bugs."

To broaden appreciation for children of other cultures, you also can grow vegetable and herb plants for use in different ethnic dishes such as Asian, Mexican, American Indian, African American and European.

It's fun to go to the nursery and select one or two items you've not seen grow, but like to eat. Experiment with growing something new. I had particularly good luck with globe artichokes last year. They are decorative, and appear similar to an exotic thistle. Globe artichokes are sturdy and do well with low maintenance and a sunny location.

Look for disease-and-pest-resistant plants for a child's garden. Children love to touch, and fingers often end up in their mouths, so organic and pesticide-free plants are safest. Vegetables that are fairly problem-free include beets, carrots, cucumbers, onions, peas, radishes, spinach and rhubarb.

After watching, watering and weeding this summer, you and your child will have shared hours of fun and learning together.