Spring has sprung, and Melanie Anzaldua and her youngest daughter, 11-year-old Isabella, are busy bees. Now is the season to grow broccoli, carrots, rosemary and mint. Isabella helps select seeds at the nursery, mix the soil and water the garden. Playing with ladybugs, snails and rocks is a bonus.
“To me, gardening is the first level of science for young children,” says Anzaldua, who is also a preschool teacher. “Getting them interested in gardening helps them to be aware of their environment and teaches them so many different skills.”
While Anzaldua has shared gardening with her two daughters for 10 years, other families are just discovering its benefits. A survey by the National Gardening Association estimates a 20 percent increase in home gardening in 2009 over the previous year.
Some people say the economy is sprouting renewed interest in gardening, while others say it’s a concern for naturally grown foods, better nutrition or increasing family time. Whatever the reason, more children and their parents are realizing the advantages of growing something beautiful, and sometimes tasty, with their own hands.
The Three Ps
The optimum spring gardening season ranges from mid-March to early May. Before turning any dirt, David Rodriguez, Bexar County horticulturist with the Texas AgriLife Extension Service, says gardeners should practice the steps of planning and preparation before planting.
Planning what to plant and when is as easy as going to www.bexar-tx.tamu.edu where a recommendation list is available on the horticulture and gardening link.
“We have both a spring and fall planting chart that gives the home gardener guidance on when to put seeds and transplants in the ground, as well as the varieties of plants that have been locally tested for many years,” he says.
And just like real estate, “location, location, location” can determine gardening success.
Rodriguez says vegetables with seeds such as tomatoes, peppers and squash need eight to 10 hours of full sun, while leafy vegetables such as spinach and lettuce could thrive on four to six hours of sunlight. For herbs such as parsley, basil and oregano, he suggests growing them in a separate location with at least six hours of sun.
“Make sure plants are properly spaced so that they get the ideal air circulation and sunlight,” he says.
For the second P, preparation, Rodriguez recommends six to 12 inches of rich soil. For every 100-square-foot area, he says to work into the soil two inches of enriched compost and a 3 pound bag of 50 percent slow-release nitrogen fertilizer with a nutrients compound of 19-5-9.
With planning and preparation complete, finally, it’s time to plant.
Involving Little Sprouts
Rodriguez coordinates the Children’s Vegetable Garden Program at the San Antonio Botanical Garden where, from February through May, children plant vegetables, herbs and flowers in their own assigned garden plot. From this experience, he has noted the following ways grown-ups can get children excited about gardening.
Give them ownership
The responsibility of taking care of a garden is similar to that of taking care of a pet, Rodriguez says, so kids need to have a sense of ownership in what they grow. He recommends each child be given an area in the garden that is theirs to tend.
“Getting them involved in part of the planting teaches them leadership and work skills,” he says. “It also gives them pride, so remind them at the end of their gardening chores, they need to clean up.”
Pick for success
When visiting the nursery, help them choose seeds and plants that will grow in the current season, Rodriguez says.
“Let them select what they want, but guide them to make sure they are choosing the right vegetables for the right time,” he says. “Also, help them grow something they will enjoy picking in the garden.”
Teach them science
Besides principles such as patience and an appreciation for nature, gardening teaches life-long knowledge. Measuring square footage, the process of photosynthesis and how bees and butterflies pollinate are just a few gardening lessons. A journal with word descriptions and sketches will help kids retain what they learn, Rodriguez says.
“Have them write down the things they did that day and what they saw,” he says. “If they plant a bean seed, they can draw the shape, color and size of it. When the seed germinates, they can draw a picture of the seed coming off.”
When possible, eat what is grown
When it’s harvest time, have kids pick the produce, bring it into the kitchen and use it to help cook dinner, Rodriguez says.
“Eating something that grows in your own garden tastes so much better,” he says. “If kids can help prepare Sunday or evening dinner, they have so much pride. When they sit down with the family and everyone says they have eaten the best broccoli they have ever tasted, that’s an amazing gift.”
Anzaldua and her two daughters use rosemary, oregano and thyme to bake focaccia bread. Carrots, cilantro and Meyer lemons are also favorites on the dinner table.
“Gardening is a great way to get kids to eat their vegetables,” she says. “My daughters have tried different veggies such as eggplant just because they’ve grown it. They also love to go outside and collect herbs for dinner.”
Gardening can be fun, but it does require work and dedication, so Rodriguez cautions parents not to get overly ambitious.
“Always start small, enjoy what you’re growing and grow what you eat,” he says.
For more information on the Children’s Vegetable Garden Program, call Rodriguez at 210-467-6575.
Lisa Y. Taylor is a San Antonio-based freelance writer and mother of three wonderful daughters. They will be growing their first garden this spring.