Agri Leader

Get them to eat their veggies by first getting their hands dirty

As you prepare your garden for planting winter vegetables, you might want to set aside a section for your children to plant their own.

Inspiring children to work in the garden offers them an opportunity to develop a sense of responsibility, a time to connect with nature and chance expand their taste buds. As any gardener knows, gardening is also great exercise. Plus, it can make for a fun family activity.

One way to instill children's love of gardening is to make the gardens thematic. For example, you can create a pizza garden with herbs like oregano and vegetables like tomatoes. Once ripe you can use the fresh pickings to make a homemade pizza. Or you can make an Asian salad garden with favorites like snow peas and carrots. These are all great winter vegetables that can be planted from seed now, along with beans, cantaloupes, corn, cucumbers, eggplant, lettuce, squash and radishes.

If you prefer seedlings over seeds, a selection will soon be available at your local nurseries. Robbins Nursery will have tomatoes and peppers, and The Lords Farm & Nursery will have tomatoes, peppers, okra and herbs.

"When it comes to children and gardening, the important thing to do is to let them get their hands dirty," said Charlie Reynolds, Master Gardener, UF Extension, Highlands County, who worked with children at the Lake Placid Montessori Academy in developing their own garden.

"The children planted carrots, spinach, tomatoes and peppers," said Reynolds who explained that by allowing them to experience gardening by planting, watering and weeding, motivated them to eat their vegetables.

While vegetables are fun to grow and eat, herbs are also good to incorporate. Herbs can also be used in many dishes that children like, such as cilantro topped on tacos and basil cooked in a spaghetti sauce. Besides herbs, flowers such as vinca, sunflower and iris, add bright color and fresh scent and can also attract butterflies.

What is important with children's gardens is to allow them to help choose what can be planted, and to allow them to add their own imagination. At Lake Placid Montessori Academy, the children brought in their old toys and incorporated them into the garden. "They removed the wheels of an old wagon and added it in," said Reynolds who explained that the wagon then became a garden bed. A little slide was also added to the garden for a splash of color and whimsy.

Other items that can be considered are windmills, scarecrows, birdbaths and even hand-painted rocks. These items add interest to a garden and can oftentimes be a craft item that children make themselves, which can enhance the overall gardening experience for them. "Even an old pair of boots can make fun planters," added Reynolds who said that the children often come up with interesting ideas on their own.

If the space is large enough, you can also add a walking path or a park bench. Keep in mind that some plants can stay in colorful planters right in the garden bed.

Decorated markers and signs can personalize a garden even more. Children love to feel a sense of ownership and adding a sign like "Sally's Spot," or "Marco's Magical Garden," can sway them to spend more time in the garden and offer them a sense of pride and accomplishment. These can be hand-lettered, painted and decorated as a craft project.

One final thing to keep in mind with children's gardens is stay away from pesticides as the chemicals can pose a danger to the little ones' hands. "Bugs can be kept off with insecticidal soap and/or horticulture oil," said Reynolds. These are safe to use and environmentally-friendly.

For those who are interested in setting up a school garden or a community garden, contact Highlands County Extension for assistance. UF Extension also has a help desk available from Monday-Friday, 9:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. The help desk is available to answer questions about gardening and assist with issues like pests and disease.

For More Information:

Highlands County Extension

Bert J. Harris Jr. Agricultural Center 4509 George Blvd