In the play area outside of Old Town Co-op Preschool in Tacoma’s North End, a dozen little kids are staring at a pile of dirt, straw and daffodils. As their teacher Anne Jones juggles a tub of soil, a trowel and several packets of seeds, she points to the flowers in the little garden bed, asking “Who put these there?”
“I did!” cries a triumphant voice, and the little boy beams from ear to ear. Then, as Jones helps each child sprinkle carrot and radish seeds between the flowers, another takes a running jump onto the big pile of fresh compost, shouting gleefully, “Watch this!”
Welcome to gardening with kids. It’s a world where science discoveries happen, where future gardeners and farmers are made, where life-lessons are learned, and where kids joyously realize that yes, they put those flowers there. It’s also a place where everyone gets wet and muddy, and rules are constantly broken.
In other words, it’s a world all kids should visit, say local gardeners, teachers and parents.
KIDS ‘LOVE DIRT’
The biggest reason to garden with kids is the sheer fun of it.
“They’re naturally inclined to love dirt,” says Jones, who along with parent-helpers, gets her preschool classes gardening twice a year: bulbs in fall, veggies in spring.
But, fun sometimes takes a bit of adult planning. Ed Hume, the Puyallup-based garden writer and owner of Hume Seeds, has an educational garden open for group tours that he’s put a lot of thought into to optimize both learning and enjoyment. Around nine different areas offer children an imaginative handle on plant life: the Butterfly and Hummingbird garden attracts insects with bright, nectar-full flowers; the Blind Garden combines feel (fuzzy lamb’s ears), taste (strawberries), sound (a quaking aspen) and smell (lilac). There’s an art-strewn Puzzle Garden and fantastical sculptures, a dry stream with stone fish, an arborvitae maze and – a perennial favorite – insect-eating plants. At the end of the tour Hume helps kids plant a seed and shows them the seed warehouse, giving them a free packet.
“We try and make gardening easy and fun,” he says.
Among the hints to make it easy are picking things that show quick results like radishes, or varieties that appeal to kids such as watermelon radishes, knee-high sweet peas or giant sunflowers.
It also helps to give kids freedom and choice. Old Town Co-op parent-helper Angela Trinen says she’s learned from Jones that asking her kids what they want to plant and if they would like to do necessary chores such as weeding and watering is the best approach.
“It’s not so much about rules,” Trinen says.
As well as being fun, gardening also is a great place to learn about science and nutrition hands-on. Plant life-cycles, insect life, experimentation and even physics all are learned in an outdoor classroom. As little Asa Chamberlin solemnly squeezes dirt, and watches it cling then fall apart again in the Old Town Co-op garden, his classmates are also learning about how food starts from tiny seeds, and what conditions make it possible. Older children can learn about photosynthesis, energy and basic chemistry like the carbon and nitrogen that combine in a compost heap.
There’s also plain old nutrition science.
“What better way to learn about where food comes from than growing your own?” asks Linda Mathews. A scientist with the Washington State University Pierce County Extension, Mathews runs the Square Foot Nutrition project, which sends WSU students into Tacoma and Clover Park elementary schools to teach nutrition through gardening. By planting salad greens, potatoes, garlic and fava beans students learn about nutrient-dense foods, says Mathews, as well as how to prepare them.
“It shows kids that if they want a healthy snack they can make it themselves, and help their families,” she adds. “It also involves physical activity ... and a lot of science and math.”
GARDENING FOR LIFE
Gardening also teaches life-skills. Growing food, cooking, collaboration and teamwork are all things humans need to know. And then there’s another thing: patience.
“One of the things I love about gardening is something that’s so rare these days – it takes time,” says Jones. “It doesn’t happen at the push of a button, unlike most things kids do now.”
Before the outdoor lesson, Jones preps her kids by naming produce, introducing the seeds and so on, and always asks students when they think they’ll see any results. The answers vary enormously, and get the preschoolers thinking about the whole concept.
“Having to wait for something is important,” Jones says. “I don’t think kids have that many opportunities to grow something, taste it, smell it. It’s a great process.”
And it doesn’t really matter if, after the wait, the harvest isn’t exactly going as planned.
“We’re not going for a finished product, a perfect-looking garden,” says Trinen, so long as her kids can get out there and just do it. “Kids don’t mind what doesn’t happen. They just like what does. They often forget about what they originally planted anyway.”
As Jones’ class finish sprinkling, covering and watering their seeds, she calls them back from where they’ve scattered to play and ranges them around their newly-planted garden. After explaining that the seeds will need sun and rain to grow, Jones starts her class in a rising chant of “Grow, seeds, grow!” with loud clapping at the end. If it’s true that plants appreciate human interaction, they’ll probably love this as much as the children do.
And while for the Tacoma preschoolers it’s just another fun activity in another day, a different seed has been sown: the love of gardening.
“The most significant reason for gardening with kids is that they’re our next generation of gardeners,” explains Hume. “With so much time being spent in other activities they’re not getting outside as often as we did. With gardening, they can see how wonderful Mother Nature is.”
Trinen’s 4-year-old daughter Rainey sums it up: “I like planting seeds,” she says. “It’s good to put dirt on them.”What to plant with kids? You’ll want to tailor your project to the child’s age and capabilities, but some things are true of all children: They love color, growing food that they like to eat, and quick results. Choose a bed or container that’s in at least six hours of sun and in an accessible part of the garden, and choose one of these garden plans – or combine them.
Bee and butterfly garden. Wildflowers, and flowering herbs such as borage, fennel and thyme; flowers such as alyssum, zinnias, marigolds and pinks all attract beneficial (and pretty) insects.
Pea and bean tepees. Tie tall bamboo poles together in a wide tepee-shape and plant quick-growing snap peas or scarlet runner beans at the base. Once it’s grown, kids will love hiding out inside.
Salsa garden. This one’s for summer: Plant tomatoes, chili peppers, green onions and cilantro. Kids can make this themselves in the blender with supervision. Or turn it into a pizza garden by adding oregano.
Pesto garden. Another summer idea: Plant lots of green basil and chives, and turn them into a yummy pasta sauce with Parmesan, pine nuts and olive oil. This is something else the kids can make in a blender.
Salad garden. This is one of the easiest to grow right now, with quick-growing edibles such as snap peas, radishes (try the watermelon variety), lettuce and spinach. Throw in some edible flowers too for the fun of it: violas, nasturtiums, marigolds, calendula, borage and bachelor’s buttons are all edible and look pretty in salads.
Sunflower house. This takes some prep, but is worth it. Dig the outline of a square large enough to enclose several kids (say, 5 x 5 feet). Plant the outline with giant sunflowers (for the “walls”) and annual morning glory (to twine over as a “roof”). Leave a gap for the door. Support with poles as necessary.
Coleslaw garden. Cabbages (or kale), multicolored carrots and green onions can be combined into the kind of coleslaw that kids will realize is much different from the bought kind.
Easy flower garden. Ed Hume suggests no-fault winners such as cosmos, godetia and nasturtiums.
Theme gardens. Take a leaf out of the experts’ gardens and make yours kid-friendly with whimsical plants, art and imagination. The master gardeners in Puyallup have a Giant’s Garden (enormous pumpkins and sunflowers), a Rainbow Garden (colorful edibles planted in the shape of a rainbow) and Peter Rabbit’s Garden (vegetables found in the Beatrix Potter book). Ed Hume has a Puzzle Garden (using odd objects to make visual puns, such as a rosebush in an old toilet for ‘Rose Bowl’), a vine tunnel (clematis, akebia, morning glory and kiwi are all good for this), a pond of insect-eating plants (native cobra lilies) and more.
TO LEARN MORE
Need inspiration to get gardening with your kids? Try these places.
Ed Hume Educational Garden
11504 58th Ave. E, Puyallup; 253-435-4414, humeseeds.com/edgarden.htm
• Open for free, group tours (booked in advance) of children or adults, Tuesdays–Thursdays, May 22-Sept. 15. Includes tour of gardens, greenhouse, seed warehouse, refreshments and free seed packet.
Master Gardeners’ Jack and the Beanstalk Garden
2499 W. Pioneer Ave., Puyallup; 253-798-7170, county.wsu.edu/pierce/mg
• Open to visitors Tuesday and Thursday mornings, April-November and during workshops (1 p.m. May 5, 19; June 2, 23; July 14, 28; August 11, 25; September 8, 22). Includes garden tour, workshops and advice from master gardeners.
WSU Pierce County Extension Square Foot Nutrition Project
Linda Mathews, coordinator: 253-798-7154
• Offers nutrition-based garden classes to elementary schools in Tacoma and Clover Park districts.
• growlocaltacoma.com is a Tacoma-based garden help website
• kidsgardening.org is a national organization with tips for gardening with children
• gardening-with-kids.com is a helpful, non-commercial site with lots of ideas