Growing a Crop of New Gardeners

4/20/2013 7:00 AM
By Sue Bowman Southeastern Pa. Correspondent

Grown-Ups Learn Ways to Entice Young Growers

What better legacy can a parent or grandparent leave to the next generation than sharing a treasured hobby like gardening? This joint pastime creates fun opportunities for intergenerational interaction, but with today’s youngsters having busy schedules and gadgets galore, how does an adult beat out competing interests to get onto a child’s radar screen?

That seemed to be the question on the minds of 36 adults who recently attended the “Gardening with Kids” class offered by Lebanon County’s Penn State Extension master gardeners. Fortunately, the evening’s presenters had plenty of good suggestions to offer.

Larry and KayAnn Major have had plenty of experience teaching their children and grandchildren to grow vegetables. The Majors offered ways to get the younger generation interested in gardening so that they will know “food doesn’t come from McDonald’s or the grocery store,” and also learn healthier eating habits fostered by growing their own favorites.

Something as simple as a child-friendly watering can — like the Majors’ pink plastic one in the shape of a pig — can be a first step to grabbing a little one’s interest. The Majors also encouraged the use of child-sized rakes, hoes and shovels to build a sense of ownership in the child and enable a youngster to work the ground more comfortably. The children in their lives have enjoyed “pizza gardening,” which involves a circular garden plot planted with tomatoes, peppers and spices.

To make gardening a year-round activity, Rogie Fureman touted terrariums for kids aged five and older. She recommended yard sales as economical resources for finding interestingly shaped clear containers with sides, as well as figurines to accent these little winter gardens that grow in moss-topped potting soil.

She said that adding small-scale decorations such as a bird house, bark, a rock and miniature fairies to these inviting little green spaces make them great gifts for shut-ins, because they take little space, and there’s no irritating pollen to worry about, and a mini-garden adds cheer to a room.

Fureman’s easy recipe for terrarium success involves pouring an inch of gravel into a container, adding potting soil and then inserting any small plants before lightly watering and covering the soil with moss. After misting, it’s time to add any figurines or other decor items.

Books in the Garden

Joan Rowlands demonstrated how books are an excellent way to connect children and gardening, as well as to connect a gardener to their children and/or grandchildren. Toddlers love large colorful picture books that shows flowers, trees, birds and insects, so Joan recommended her grandson’s favorite, “Diary of a Worm,” by Doreen Cronin and Harry Bliss; she called this work “funny, cute and accurate” in its description about the role worms play in gardening. “Linnea’s Windowsill Garden,” by Christina Bjork and Lena Anderson, is a book for youngsters ages seven and older who want to garden indoors. Those in grades 5 through 8 will find 41 stories and pictures about gardening in “Down to Earth,” by Michael J. Rosen. Jane Bull’s “The Gardening Book” is another fine choice for kids age 7 and older because it lists 50 “green activities” for the younger set to try.

“Grow your own Halloween pumpkin” was the good advice offered by Jayne Ditzler, who also advocated sharing books in their settings — such as reading the story, “The Great Pumpkin,” aloud while seated in a pumpkin patch. Ditzler pointed out that pumpkin carving is an especially fun fall activity when a child has grown the pumpkin himself or herself.

With an average 90-day growing season, pumpkins are generally planted between June 1 and June 10 in order to mature by mid-October. Ditzler advocated planting five pumpkin seeds in a two-foot mound of soil in full sun. After germination, each mound should be thinned to the two hardiest plants. Pumpkins require about three gallons of water per week, whether by rain or supplemental watering; the amount of water will ultimately help determine the pumpkin’s size. An easy and fun project is scratching a name or design into a green pumpkin, which will produce a visible tan “scar” on the mature pumpkin. Ditzler also suggested growing an edible pumpkin variety, so that one can be cooked for a Thanksgiving pie.

Fun with Sprouting

Linda Toth spoke about “grocery gardening,” which uses everyday produce to give children a satisfying growing experience in short order. For example, a carrot top placed in a shallow dish of water will start to sprout greenery in just two days. Suspending the bottom one-third of a sweet potato on toothpicks over water will yield a pretty vine. Other veggies and fruits that can be sprouted this way include avocado seeds, onions, the top of a pineapple and mango seeds.

Toth suggested using radish seeds as a fast sprouter. Placed between damp paper towel layers, sprouts emerge within a day or two, and inquisitive youngsters will find that even these sprouts taste like radishes. Pinto beans can be grown briefly in a plastic sandwich bag containing a damp cotton ball. Alfalfa seeds also produce edible sprouts. Sprouted lentils can be potted and grown, as can peach pits.

Linda Siegel favors the use of colorful seed catalogues as a fun and attractive way to grab the attention of young would-be gardeners. Kid-friendly veggie varieties to grow include purple green beans, showy Romanesco, kohlrabi, various tomatoes, sugar snap peas and self-blanching cauliflower.

Siegel’s demonstration of an inexpensive “paper pot maker” that uses strips of newspaper to make seedling pots caught the interest of many of the adult class members.

Growing “sunflowers in a tube” was demonstrated by Marty and Kathy Boltz. This simple project calls for placing a toilet paper tube into an empty individual-size yogurt container, filling the tube 3/4 with potting soil, adding a sunflower seed and then topping off the tube with more potting soil. Watering the soil and keeping the tube in a sunny location will soon lead to germination, at which point the tube can be removed from the yogurt cup and planted outside.

Watching the sunflower grow is only part of the fun. When the back of the sunflower head turns light yellow, it can be harvested, soaked in a mixture of 1/4 cup salt in one cup water overnight, and then baked in a 200-degree oven for 2 to 3 hours for a tasty snack. Another option is to wait until mid-September to cut off the sunflower’s head, put it into a paper bag, punch holes in the bag and hang it upside down to dry. These dry seeds can be used to create a bird feeder by tying a string to a pine cone, gently applying peanut butter over the cone, spreading on sunflower seeds and hanging this pine cone feeder onto a tree with the string.

“Plant an herb, get a butterfly!” was Jane Yocum’s advice. Having a child plant dill is likely to attract black swallowtail butterflies to lay their eggs on that plant, especially if there are plenty of nectar-producing plants such as coreopsis, lantana or black-eyed Susans located nearby. The other necessity to get butterflies to take up residence in a backyard is a “mud pie.” This can be made by placing a mixture of soil and sand into a terra cotta saucer, adding a little perch with some maple syrup on it and then positioning it in a sunny spot. A child’s role in all this can include the duty of keeping the mud damp by watering it once or twice per day.

On Cabbages?

Siegel introduced the audience to a fun science project for older kids in grades 4 through 8 which gets its start with cabbage from the garden. Red cabbage can be used to create homemade litmus paper that tests other substances and determines if they’re acids, bases or neutrals. The cut-up red cabbage should be boiled for 10-15 minutes in enough distilled water to cover the cabbage, and then the resulting juice should be strained and cooled. Create litmus paper by cutting strips from the unprinted margins of a newspaper, soaking them in the cabbage juice and laying them flat to dry on paper towels or a cookie sheet. The litmus paper can then be dipped into various solutions such as alcohol, water, salt water, vinegar and baking soda water to classify them by the color which they turn the litmus paper.

Another fun cabbage project is using the cabbage juice to dye hard-boiled eggs. Lemon juice can then be used to magically paint designs onto these eggs. (To learn more about these and other cabbage projects, see the book, “Of Cabbages and Chemistry: Great Explorations in Math and Chemistry.”)

With so many fun projects to do, what child wouldn’t want to become a gardener?!

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