Encourage children to dig in to nature
By Bev Bennett
It’s no wonder children love to join you in the garden. And planting has benefits beyond the immediate crops you’re growing: Children who get involved in gardening are more willing to eat fruit and vegetables.
“My daughter eats vegetables because she gardened,” says Nancy Clifton, who recalls her daughter Jodie, age 10, “outside all the time picking and eating peas.”
Everything about gardening—from picking potato beetle pests off plants to watching tender lettuce leaves break through the soil—fascinates children. Most of all they’re eager to taste what they’ve been nurturing. Cultivating—-yes, I had to say it—-your children’s interest is easy if you don’t get overly ambitious.
Wait until your child is at least 3, Clifton says. Then, give them their own plot to tend.
“And if you really want to give kids ownership, let them plant what they like. They can arrange seeds or plants in a circle or smiley face shape,” says Clifton, horticultural specialist with the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe.
If your children don’t weed or water plants with your degree of thoroughness, don’t worry, says Clifton. “Don’t be a perfectionist. You can’t be when you’re working with nature.”
Encourage your child to plant a garden that can be tended in 15 minutes or less a day. If it requires more time, he or she may become resentful.
You can buy plants or seeds, but plants are preferable. They’re easier to manage and mature sooner, says Beth Benjamin with Renee’s Garden, a seed company headquartered in Felton, Calif.
Tomato plants are a favorite. Varieties such as Sweet 100s or the tiny clusters of red currant tomatoes are so high in sugar, children love them.
If you prefer seeds, select vegetables such as lettuces or sugar snap peas that grow quickly, says Benjamin. She also recommends pumpkins, sunflowers and zinnias that start from large seeds that are easy for children to handle.
Think about what your child would like to harvest. Green beans and sugar snap peas are fun to pull from the vines. Children enjoy seeing the first hint of an orange carrot.
Benjamin suggests visiting the garden daily, but don’t turn it into a lesson. “You don’t want to be the one who decides what’s interesting in the garden. Kids get interested in bugs and soil and things you may not be interested in,” she says.
At some point your child may lose enthusiasm for gardening. You may be tempted to teach your child a lesson in responsibility by letting the crops die. Benjamin advises you to take over instead.
“When you garden you want to pass along and share something you enjoy. Ideally your children will get the lesson of gardening by having their crops thrive,” she says.
Clifton suggests two activities kids enjoy: • Pumpkin in a bottle. Plant pumpkin seeds according to the package directions. When the plant bears a small fruit, gently ease it into a large glass bottle, such as a gallon wine jug. Leave the pumpkin in the garden, watering the plant regularly. The pumpkin will assume the shape of the bottle, but will eventually break the bottle as it continues to grow. Condensation builds up in the bottle, causing some pumpkins to rot.
• Pumpkin carving. Don’t wait until you harvest your pumpkin to carve it. Scratch your name or design on the surface of a green pumpkin. The skin will scar creating thick lettering.
Spinach and Strawberry Salad 3 cups baby spinach leaves, loosely packed
2 cups sliced strawberries, about 1 pint
1 small bunch fresh mint leaves, optional
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
3 tablespoons orange juice
2 teaspoons honey
1 1/2 teaspoons canola oil
Place the spinach leaves on a large platter, spreading to cover the platter.
Arrange the strawberries over the spinach and sprinkle with mint leaves if desired.
Stir together the vinegar, orange juice, honey and oil in a cup for the dressing. Just before serving pour the dressing over the salad. Serve immediately so the greens don’t wilt. Makes 4 generous servings.Bev Bennett, the mother of two, is a food and nutrition writer living in Evanston. Her latest book Cooking Out of the Box was released by Prima Publishing in October.