How to Start a Garden with Your Grandchild

Gardening is a great activity to enjoy with grandchildren of any age

By Timothy Middleton

In February, when most people are knee-deep in snow, gardeners are in glory as they submerge themselves in seed catalogs. It's a time when experienced grandparent gardeners are taking a little extra time to study the subtle differences between a plot that will satisfy an adult palate and one that will delight a 3-feet-tall novice.

There are all sorts of differences between the two types of gardening. You may think organic gardening is an elitist fad, but it prevents your grandchild toddler from being exposed to pesticides. And while natural fertilizers are a soil-building bonanza, you wouldn't want to suck them off your thumb.

Tailoring a garden to a grandchild is a lot easier than grappling with aphids. Still, if you're a serious horticulturist, there is one detail to sort out: Kids need their own corner. This way, you can keep them away from your prize-winning stock while allowing them to grow the produce they like best.

You might be inclined to get them started on your darkest, least-productive patch of soil. But really, you should do the opposite. Remember, this is their first experience growing things, and you want them to succeed.

If you yourself are a beginner, consider this: If kids can do this, it can't be that hard. You can Google your way through the basics in an hour or two. And, spading up a child-size plot will require just a tad more effort.

There's nothing like growing what you eat, so plan accordingly. I don't much care for cherry tomatoes, but miniature vegetables are just right for miniature people.

And, sure, in your grown-up garden, you can shuck an early ear of sweet corn and eat it right off the cob. Nothing so delicious ever sat on a plate! But, grandkids can't chow down on produce that's not ripe or chomp into fruit that's covered in bug-killer dust.

Plus, your grandchild may be allergic to your favorite fruit. And, while you may prefer the taste of heirloom vegetables, modern hybrids tend to be more durable in clumsy little hands.


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"Look for disease- and pest-resistant plants for a child's garden," advises Jo R. Frederiksen of the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension.

"Children love to touch, and fingers often end up in their mouths, so organic and pesticide-free plants are safest," says Frederiksen. "Vegetables that are fairly problem-free include beets, carrots, cucumbers, onions, peas, radishes, spinach, and rhubarb."

In the garden, the lessons are as many as your imagination is wide. Delight in the dirt, by all means. But after, wash thoroughly. Plant marigolds around your tomatoes — they deter bugs — and then let the kids discover why. Break one off and wave it under their noses so they can inhale its distinctly unpleasant odor. Nature was dealing with pests before it was dealing with us.

As your grandkids and you tend the garden, and watch it grow, they will see firsthand: Food results from effort, and this work is not without its rewards. Top off your chores with a treat -- which at harvest time, is the ripe, hanging fruit you just picked.

Every season brings forth a fresh crop of lessons. Older grandkids will take pride in growing the vegetables they particularly enjoy. Tip: If you've got the space, get them growing their own jack-o'-lanterns.

One battle I have yet to win: Raising tomatoes on my heavily-shaded New Jersey lot. But, I'm not alone in the struggle. My next-door neighbors haven't been picking tomatoes from the vine, either. At 10, their son Brendan was already an avid gardener, digging into the dirt alongside his dad most summer afternoons.

He and I often exchanged tips over the back fence. I introduced him to a part of our shared Irish heritage: basil, and the taste explosion it sets off when paired with tomatoes.

I picked up the tip years ago when reading what I consider the best gardening book ever written by a professor, Angelo's Pelligrini's The Food Lover's Garden (The Lyons Press, 1989). As Brendan prepares to graduate from Notre Dame, his family continues to grow mounds of those emerald-green, aromatic leaves.

This year, I will leave the shade behind. My son, also named Brendan, has moved into a new home where there just so happens to be a neglected vegetable garden behind the garage.

He and I are planning on bringing it back to life with my grandson. In the grown-up part of the plot, I'll grow heirloom tomatoes. The oldest varieties are often the best ... another lesson it wouldn't hurt grandkids to learn.

 

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