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Food + Cooking

Gardening 101: Playing in the Dirt

Give a kid a garden, and let the games begin.
gardening with kids

Maybe it was because my parents both came from farm families, where growing vegetables wasn’t a hobby, it was work—a lot of work. When they were able to have a garden of their own, they wanted to grow flowers, which served no other purpose than to be beautiful—unfussy marigolds and daisies and six-foot-tall sunflowers, which, with their dinner-plate-size heads, gave my sister the creeps. In the fall we’d shake the seeds from the sunflowers, wash them and let them dry, then brush them with a little oil, sprinkle them with salt, and bake them on a cookie sheet, eating them hot from the oven. That’s about as close as this kid got to growing her own food, but that patch of soil, those looming sunflowers, and time spent there with my dad still resonate.

Stephen was also a kid in the garden. If it were possible to time-travel, he would, I think, immediately head back to an August morning in the mid-’70s, and his grandmother’s cottage garden full of tomatoes, and that ubiquitous salt shaker. Well, that or 18th-century Sicily, to track down an ancestor or two.

Show me a kid who doesn’t like digging in the dirt and I’ll show you an android child. So if you have kids in your life, open up your garden to them, leave any perfectionistic streaks at the gate, and make it fun. Here, some words on gardening with children, from the pros as well as from the gang around the Gourmet offices (a group that, it must be said, knows how to have a good time with their edibles).

Kids Gardening (through the National Gardening Association’s website) may be the most comprehensive place for ideas on games, tips, resources, and how-to’s for parents and teachers. Among recent posts were one on how to make a “lasagna garden” (which is a method of layering compost, earth, and newspaper to create good soil), and another on how to grow carrots by lopping off their heads and rooting them in a saucer of pebbles and water. Who knew? Apparently, our associate art director Kevin Demaria, who remembers learning the carrot-top method from the TV show Mr. Wizard, and whose mother, he says, was “perplexed about why I did it, but kind of impressed with my curious nature.”

Curiosity is, in fact, one of the best motivators for kids, and it can be tapped in activities like checking out the bugs that live in the soil, watching the butterflies and insects that feed on plant flowers, and doing Mr. Wizard–type experiments with seeds. Rodale’s Ultimate Encylopedia of Organic Gardening suggests sprouting seeds in clear glass containers, so kids can see the sprouting process from the roots up. Gourmet multimedia producer Azon Juan tells me her sister Ate and niece Isa do this with beans, as did executive food editor Kemp Minifie and her daughter Haden during summers spent in New Hampshire. Since Haden loved green beans, it was an obvious tactic. “And because beans sprout rapidly in the ground, we got to see some action pretty quickly,” Kemp explains. “When we came back later in the summer, she sat and ate them right in the garden.”

“Give a child a small plot of his own,” says my 73-year-old Garden Encyclopedia; let him put in easy-to-grow vegetables such as lettuces, cucumbers, squash, tomatoes, and onions. An early success keeps the motivation going. Mostly sound advice—but onions? (See android comment, above.)

If you want to kill any instinct a kid has for gardening, call it “yard work,” says research editor Leah Price, whose parents did just that. But associate art director Flavia Schepmans says her Belgian grandfather somehow made their labor together an adventure. “Bonpapa grew tons of stuff, from cherries to artichokes. He would tell me to be careful not to cut the earthworms in half as I turned the soil around the strawberries with my child’s-size spade. ‘They are the dirt’s natural air-hole makers,’ he would say. And I remember washing and cutting those strawberries, then putting confectioners sugar on them and eating them for dessert.”

Cooking together with the produce you grow is, of course, the real deal. Keep it simple, says food editor/stylist and self-confessed “worm-o-phobe” Maggie Ruggiero, who adds that her family’s Queens backyard “consisted entirely of a tomato plot. I was the picker/gatherer. To this day, I like nothing more than the smell of a tomato plant. My mom just sliced and dressed the tomatoes with a little oil and vinegar. She never wasted time thinking of new ways to serve them. Life was good. The tomatoes were even better.”

Resources for Gardening With Kids
Gardening With Children, a guide published by the Brooklyn Botanic Garden
A Child's Garden: 60 Ideas to Make Any Garden Come Alive for Children by Molly Dannenmaier (Archetype Press Books)
• High-quality tool sets made especially for kids, available from the National Gardening Association