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Getting Little Hands into Dirt

You’re never too young to garden

Sohaila and Shaunti Smith plant a holly tree at Forested, an outdoor forest-gardening classroom in Bowie.

As a child in west central Florida, I was lucky to have a father and grandmother who were into plants. Dad introduced me to the bottlebrush shrub that lived beside our neighbor’s constructed pond. The sharp scent of its leaves, its fuzzy, flouncy red flowers and the way its seedpods all clustered together like rock candy on a stick fascinated me.
    When my grandmother gave me a spade sized just for my hands, I spent hours digging in the soil blackened and made fragrant by all the slash pine needles that fell season after season. I wouldn’t trade these early experiences for anything, and I wish every child got to be so engaged with the natural world.
    In these times of nature-deficit disorder, it can be a challenge to let children just be. One of the best ways to do this is by allowing them space to play in a garden. Gardens have the potential to engage sight, sound, smell, taste and touch.

Starting to Grow
    With an eye toward play and engagement, Annapolis daycare owner and mother Jen Minor encourages her daughters to develop green thumbs by exploring the plants at garden centers.
    “Every spring about this time of year, since they were little-little, we let them pick flowers they wanted to plant, then helped place them where they were likely to live,” says Minor.
    If you’re a parent with brown thumbs, go to a nursery or farmers market. Check the plant tags, so you’ll know how much sun is needed and where to plant.
    “Some plants won’t make it,” Minor says, “but you can say, ‘Here’s $3. Try something else.’”
    Starting small and choosing plants that are ready to go gives children instant gratification, Minor says. They can see growth every day and give care by watering and keeping weeds at bay.
    “The fun thing about planting is seeing things grow that you are taking care of,” says Minor’s daughter Anna. Her advice to young gardeners: Plant what you are excited about. “If flowers are your favorite, plant those.”
    For children heading into preschool or kindergarten, plant seeds. Minor prefers small, transparent Dixie cups. The kids’ fingers are just the right size to make tiny depressions and put in the seeds. Set the cups on a windowsill. As the seeds sprout and roots grow, the kids can see what’s happening.
    Anna Minor had grown strawberries and beans. But she had never tried to grow a brassica when she entered the National Bonnie Plants Third Grade Cabbage Program last year through her school, Saint John the Evangelist. Bonnie Plants provides third-grade students with cabbage seedlings to grow at home. In Maryland, 7,562 third-graders grew giant cabbages. In all of the lower 48, about 1.5 million third-graders took part.

Anna Minor grew a 10-pound cabbage in the National Bonnie Plants Third Grade Cabbage Program, winning state honors and a $1,000 savings bond.

    Anna grew the largest cabbage at her school: two and a half feet in diameter and just under 10 pounds, which made her the state winner and earned her a $1,000 education savings bond.
    Maybe the second-best part for Anna, after tending that cabbage, was making coleslaw with her mother and sister. The cabbage fed more than 40 people, including grandparents and friends.
    This year, Anna is growing strawberries and beans, carrots, sugar peas and squash — all in containers, where they’ll grow better than in the natural heavy clay soil where she lives. She’ll also try another brassica — broccoli — as a fall crop.

The Forested Garden
    Watch any documentary on young mammals, and what do you see? The young are hard at play.
    Research is documenting the benefits of nature play for children. Benefits include not only engagement of a child’s senses but also development of motor skills and psychological wellness. A garden, with its mixture of human-imposed limits and wildness, offers a safe place for children to play and explore.
    Father of three Lincoln Smith designs forest gardens and runs Forested, a 10-acre outdoor classroom in Bowie, where he researches plants and teaches classes about forest gardening.
    Forest gardens mostly comprise diverse perennials that mutually support one another. The easy aesthetic of forest gardening — which may include a weeping mulberry-turned playhouse — lends itself to children’s preferences for play.
    “Kids want to be able to mess around,” Smith says. They “love digging holes, making fairy houses and forts.” By making their own habitat, kids “can learn things on their own terms and learn some things you want them to learn along the way.”
    Annuals help children understand the life cycle of a plant through a single season; perennials allow them to observe a plant through all seasons. Smith has found his own children are especially attracted to berry-producing plants. When he’s teaching a class at Forested and berries are coming in, the children help harvest, eating as they go.

School in the Garden
    For parents who don’t have space to garden, there’s a movement to bring gardens to schools. More than 10,000 schools nationwide include gardening in their curriculum to help cross-pollinate subjects, including science, social studies, history and English.
    At Beach Elementary in Chesapeake Beach, the courtyard features two raised beds plus an herb garden. Herb gardens engage children through at least four of their senses. Many culinary herbs are in the mint family. These aromatics, including basil, rosemary, sage, hyssop and thyme, respond when brushed or nibbled.
    Fifth-grade science teacher and Master Gardener Mary Butz says her students’ awareness of gardens has shifted since studying gardening. Before, they thought a garden meant plants had to be in the ground. Now, they’ve come to see that a garden can be containers on a porch or pots on a windowsill.
    Her fifth-graders transplant seedlings, document the progress with a drawing pad or camera and track expected harvest times on the calendar. Students keep watching after the harvest, monitoring a pumpkin that was left to rot. Will the seeds sprout new life? They watch and wait and will be able to track the progress next year.
    If your child’s school does not have a garden, help start one. Check into your local Green Schools endeavors and visit the National Gardening Association’s children’s site at
    Whatever you do to get your children involved in gardening, Butz and Smith agree: Don’t make it into a chore. Let your children do what interests them. Watering, weeding, digging, mulching or sitting in the garden and watching insects at work. Most plants are very forgiving, and there is always another season in which to play.