Gardening with Kids Gardening with Kids

Everyone knows it's hard to keep kids indoors in springtime, so why bother trying? Instead of talking about how to store spring sports gear or how to tidy up at the end of the school year, this month we're taking interior design for kids outdoors, where it rightfully belongs in the merry month of May.

Having the kids make their own garden is a fun springtime project that can last into autumn, depending on your own climate. Teaching the kids how to garden will give them a skill that will last their lifetimes, and it may even encourage them to eat their vegetables this summer.

Start by talking with your kids about what kind of flowers they'd like to grow. Looking through seed and bulb catalogs, or browsing through a greenhouse, can be great ways to generate ideas.

Next, plot out the garden in your yard, taking into account sunlight, soil, and drainage. Help the kids find the best spot for the plants they want to grow. Let yourself play around with the shape of the garden; it doesn't have to fall within strict boundaries of a rectangle or square.

Depending on the age of the kids, you may want to start with easy-to-grow plants. One of the challenges in gardening with kids is that kids are notorious for wanting immediate gratification, and plants are notorious for taking their own sweet time to produce flowers.

Two of the plants we like best for kids will offer variety in many ways: the radish and the sunflower.

The radish is known for being the fastest-growing vegetable in the garden, and it's easy to meet with success. Just dig the garden dirt up, and then add fertilizer such as 10-20-10 , and rake. It's never too early in the spring to plant the radish seeds, as long as the soil can be worked. Just plant the seeds about 1/2 inch deep, and wait about three or four days. Each morning, you can take the kids outside to see if they can see signs of life, and then on about the third or fourth morning, you'll be rewarded with a squeal of delight.

For an on-going summer of excitement, plant another set of radishes every four days or so; this will keep your supply going.

When the roots start expanding, thin the radishes by pulling every other one; the larger ones can be eaten, but remember that the smaller the radish, the sweeter the taste.

Radishes are particularly delicious spread with a little butter, and then sprinkled with salt. Few children will be able to resist a garden-side radish fest: bring some wet paper towels for washing the radishes, and the butter and salt out to the garden so the radishes can be eaten just seconds after being picked.

But to make a garden that really feels like a room to which the kids can escape will take more than radishes. Enter the sunflower. These towering beauties will last all summer, and will create a living wall around the garden, so the kids can practically have a flower playhouse in which to whisper their summer secrets.

To get started on growing sunflowers, fill a small pot with potting soil, and moisten it. Then plant a few seeds in the pot, cover with water, and place in the bright light from a sunny window. Keep misting or lightly watering until seeds appear.

Weed out the scrawniest plants, and keep watering the stronger ones. When all danger of frost has past, and the plants are about four or five inches high, transplant them to a sunny spot in the garden. Make sure the plants won't be subject to strong winds, or they'll get blown down. Plant a stake behind each plant, to which you'll tie the plant when it gets taller. You can plant them in a semi-circle for a more enclosed feeling of the kids having a little garden room of their own, or you can plant them in a row, or rows.

Some people think sunflowers get their name just because they look like flowering suns, but really they are heliotropes: they turn their faces to the sun throughout the day. They'll draw birds to them, which in itself can be a delight to kids and adults, or you can cover the seed-heavy heads with cheesecloth, saving the seeds for yourself. If you follow this route, when the backs of the flower heads start to brown, cut them, and hang the heads in a warm, dry place - make sure birds and rodents don't have access. Tie a paper bag around the sunflowers' heads, with a few holes in the top for ventilation, and in about two or three weeks, you can just brush out the seeds.

At summer's end, the kids will also be happy to help with roasting the seeds, which makes a great rainy-day project. Just put the seeds in a pan, and cover with water and salt. Bring to a boil, and simmer two hours, or soak in the salted water overnight. Drain and dry, and then bake at 300 degrees Fahrenheit for about 30 minutes until golden brown. After removing from the oven, coat with melted butter or margarine.

By the time it's cool enough for planting bulbs, your kids will have experienced the immediate gratification of easy gardening, so they should be happy to invest in planting bulbs in their garden, even though they won't see the blooms until spring.

Reprinted with permission by the Sheffield School of Interior Design.

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