Let’s grow!

Do your kids like to spend time outside and dig in the dirt? Most of our little ones are natural-born gardeners. Gardening offers children a variety of benefits, including an understanding of the environment, physical activity and an opportunity to make the connection between plants in the ground and food on their plates. Now is the time for gardeners (big and small) to make their plans for the upcoming growing season.

Here are a few ways to introduce your child to gardening no matter how much outdoor space or experience you have:

A plot of their own

If you have a backyard garden, consider setting aside some portion as your child’s plot. Kids are more likely to be interested in helping with the work of gardening if they have ownership of the project. Work together to choose what types of flowers or vegetables to plant, based on the soil and sun conditions in your yard. Try to pick a variety of plants that will produce throughout the growing season so your kids will see continual results. For example, start with lettuce or radishes in the spring, tomatoes or herbs for midsummer and pumpkins or squash for the fall. Consult a gardening book, such as Guide to Illinois Vegetable Gardening by James A. Fizzell, to decide which plants will work best in your space and get tips on how to best care for them. Encourage your child to choose plants that have a high success rate in our region so she is able to see the"fruits” of her labor.

Contain it

Even if you don’t have the space or inclination to plant a backyard garden, you can still give your child the opportunity to learn some basic gardening skills by planting one or two carefully planned containers. Plants such as tomatoes, herbs and peppers are good choices for container gardens. Grow vegetables your child likes to eat so she can enjoy the end result of her hard work.

Container gardening is easy and successful if you follow some simple guidelines: Choose a container with good drainage and be sure to use a soil mix specifically intended for containers, mixed with compost. Fill the container two-thirds full with soil and plant your seedlings, following the instructions for spacing. Water generously and regularly because containers dry out quickly.

Community gardens

If you don’t have access to any outdoor space to grow a garden, take advantage of one of the many local community gardens. A community garden is a space (often a former vacant lot) where individuals pay a small fee to work their own plot of land throughout the season. Chicago boasts more than 700 different community gardens where a diverse group of gardeners plant, water and weed their own crops.

Begin your search for a community garden in your area by visiting Neighbor Spaces (www.neighbor-space.org) or Green Net Chicago (www.greennetchicago.org). Green Net Chicago lists community gardens by neighborhood. Find out who the head gardener or steward is and check for plot availability. Early spring is the time to start your search for a plot.

If you aren’t ready to make any of these gardening commitments this summer, your child can still get his hands dirty and learn a thing or two about how plants grow. Contact Friends of the Park (www.fotp.org) for information on parks and schools that need volunteers to help maintain gardens, or spend a morning at the Edible Garden at the Farm in the Zoo sponsored by the Green City Market (www.chicagogreencitymarket.org) where kids can learn about organic gardening techniques.

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