Gardening as a child literally changed my life. It gave me a lifelong connection with nature, the outdoors, science, hard work, and healthy nutrition. Unfortunately, today most children are disconnected from the outdoor environment. Children are like dry sponges when they are young, soaking up new ideas, concepts, knowledge, and habits. Why not start them on the road to a physically and mentally healthy life by encouraging them to garden?
An entire school curriculum could be taught from an outdoor gardening environment, including history, biology, chemistry, math, literature, art, and more. It’s all there. Unlike classroom learning, it’s hands-on and interactive. It’s hard not to be interested and learn when something’s growing before your very eyes, thanks to your own input. And, for sure, the beauty of the whole setup is you get to eat your homework!
For childrens’ gardens, it’s best to start small. If experienced adults will be helping, an open patch with tilled rows will work. However, in most cases a raised bed, as small as 4 x 4 feet, is a good place to start. It can easily be filled with a professional-grade potting soil or a composted vegetable garden mix from a local landscape supply company or home-improvement store. If drip irrigation is installed along with a generous mulch of straw or dried grass clippings, watering and weeding will be much simplified.
It’s important to choose crops that are easy to grow so that children will feel successful. That’s why radishes always end up in children’s gardens. Unfortunately, most kids won’t eat radishes! So, it’s better to plant some things they are more likely to eat. Salad gardens—complete with assorted lettuces, cabbage, broccoli, kale, carrots, and so forth—are popular during the fall at many schools. The kids all enjoy both making and eating the salads they’ve produced. Irish potatoes are a perfect fit for spring gardens. And sweet potatoes are great for filling the beds during the summer recess with something to harvest when the kids return in the fall. It’s extremely important to have volunteers helping who will ensure the crops produce, since the kids will be beginners and won’t know how. Many school gardens end up full of starving, stunted plants surrounded by weeds. Try to make sure to provide success and a model of what a good garden should look like. And make sure there’s a good cook around to show them how they can eat them. Most children will say they don’t like tomatoes but don’t have any idea that there wouldn’t be ketchup, pizza, or spaghetti sauce without them. Heck, most of them don’t have a clue that McDonald’s French fries started out in the dirt somewhere.
Tell them stories, take them on farm or garden field trips, show them things, let them touch and feel, scratch, and sniff. When I was teaching horticulture at LSU, I taught a weekly first grade gardening class at the local lab school on campus. Those kids loved parading around behind me. We planted stuff, picked stuff, ate stuff, climbed trees, played in the mud, drew pictures, sang songs, and learned all kinds of things. Learning should be interesting and fun. All folks have to eat vegetables to live a healthy disease-free life. The earlier we learn it, the better off we are.
Greg Grant is the Smith County Horticulturist for the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service and author of Texas Fruit and Vegetable Gardening. You can read his “Greg’s Ramblings” blog at arborgate.com, follow him on Facebook at “Greg Grant Gardens,” or read his “In Greg’s Garden” in each issue of Texas Gardener magazine (texasgardener.com). More research-based gardening information from the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service can be found at aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu.