Get those little hands busy: Tips for raising young gardeners

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Just as you enjoy attracting pollinators to your garden, are you also looking to attract children — your own, or otherwise?

I've thought about this "kids in the garden" question for quite some time, and I feel that compiling a list of tips isn't the proper solution. Instead of following a script, ask yourself this: What are you doing in your garden, and how do you envision involving the younger set?

Let's say your garden is meticulous, with perfect rows of beets, or properly dispersed mums among your sunflowers: Beautiful to look at, but not places you want to encourage little feet. Still, you want to encourage gardening with your young protege.

The answer: plant a separate kid garden.

If you have space, plant a mini-me version of your plot; if you don't, a few pots planted with flowers or vegetables will do the trick.

Either way, the goal is to educate and encourage your child. From this point, there are indeed many tips and tricks online and elsewhere to help send you on your way. Your child will flourish in his or her own space, under your expertise, while staying out of your delicate garden areas.

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Maybe you want a more mutually supported relationship between a child and your garden. In that case, consider children as young partners and give them tasks they can accomplish and feel good about. Plant a smattering of lettuce (outdoors in summer, potted indoors in winter) and encourage your child to cut and wash the leaves, then serve as a salad. Planted this way — individually — is useful because hesitant children will know exactly where the lettuce is and will not be worried they are trimming something they shouldn't be; zealous children will know the boundaries of where they may freely harvest.

The side by side approach works well if you have an energetic young one and a space in which to distribute that energy. Natural places to start (if done in tandem) are weeding and watering. When you go to harvest some basil for dinner, bring your child along and allow him or her to do the snipping. Same goes for flowers: if you are filling a vase, encourage your child to also fill a vase with flowers or greens as a weekly centerpiece to your table. It jazzes up dinner, gives your child something to take pride in and teaches him or her about what flowers in your yard may — and may not — be cut. Trust the process, and soon you will have a little home decorator.

Do you know a picky eater to whom you want to teach the virtues of a vegetable? Work with the child to determine produce of interest to him or her. A good place to start is the grocery store: buy small quantities of a wide variety of vegetables and take notes together on the results of your taste tests. Do they prefer them raw, or cooked? In soups, or saut ed with garlic? If you're not an adventurous cook, that's fine. Try a new vegetable dish together next time you eat out. In my experimenting, I have found that my guests say they do not like Brussels sprouts, but when I place them on the table roasted with bacon, garlic and brown sugar, they go like hotcakes. Presentation helps, too: Carrot sticks chucked at my sons as an after-school snack are not half as much a hit as when served on a "fancy" crystal dish with a side of hummus. The picky eater should be encouraged to grow produce they like. You don't need me to tell you that it's a lot harder to turn down something we have a vested interest in. Suddenly, those dull old salad greens taste a lot better when blood, sweat and tears get involved.

Young dirt devils flourish with garden work. Buy them gloves and an appropriately sized shovel, then point them in the direction of where you need soil or compost overturned. Involve them in the foundations of gardening. Squat close to the ground, and teach them how to take soil samples. Encourage them to build rock cairns as garden markers. We need more of these kinds of kids in our gardens! They are experts in soil management and willing laborers when boulders need rolling: Workers who, at the end of the day, are hungry enough to eat any variety of produce.

Some families raise their children in the garden. Babies in colorful slings begin their garden education on a parent's back, cleverly swiping sugar snap peas off the vine. These babies grow into toddlers who might slow the pace of planting seeds, but who are taking it all in. Children will give back tenfold if time is spent teaching them in their formative years. They will be eager to help with garden chores — or at least as eager as the adults, for no one truly likes to weed. These children have grown up among the cucumbers and the roses, are able to identify a multitude of plants and know the process of how that plant's life came to be. They, without a whiff of clich , know where their food comes from.

Pollinators are indeed crucial in gardens, but so, too, are children, and it's up to us to help them find their way through the garden gate.

Tina Weikert contributes to Southern Vermont Landscapes from Bondville.


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