How to get kids excited about gardening

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Trying to get your kids interested in gardening? There are a few plants that might just do the trick.

Imagine a house made out of towering sunflowers in your backyard. Sound like a dream come true for your little ones? With the right amount of space and a little planning, you can grow your own this summer as a way to get the kids excited about gardening.

Kid friendly Plants larosa WThe LaRosa kids of Annapolis help in the garden.All you have to do is plant sunflower seeds in a rectangle, leave space for the door, add water and sunshine and — in a couple of months — a house will emerge from the ground.

“The flower stalks become the walls of the house,” says Jenny Houghton, youth program coordinator at Adkins Arboretum in Ridgely.

When it comes to gardening with kids, it’s important to choose plants that are visually appealing, grow quickly, and are not poisonous or harmful with thorns or other hazards, says Jenni Biondi, annual and nursery sales associate at Homestead Gardens in Severna Park. Growing edible plants is also a good idea because children will learn more about their food and, hopefully, learn to appreciate the gardening process, she says.

Laura LaRosa of Annapolis loves to grow fruits and vegetables with her children — Thomas, 14, Isabel, 11, Ana, 6 and Alex, 5 — and they have helped in the garden since they were toddlers. The family's backyard isn’t huge, but there’s plenty of room for their garden of potted plants, fruits and vegetables.

LaRosa believes gardening helps her children in many different aspects of life, from responsibility to healthy eating.

“They are much more likely to eat something if they had a hand in growing it,” she says.

Biondi agrees. “Children get a great sense of accomplishment when they learn to plant, water and care for a plant that they will see grow and produce a beautiful flower or fruit,” she says.

From flowers and bushes to melons and potatoes, gardening experts weigh in on the best plants to help get children interested in the garden.

Sunflowers

The sunflower earns top billing because it’s awe-inspiring to kids. Plant it from a seed or small plant and see it grow fast and tall. Some varieties can grow as tall as 10 feet.

“This plant is great for kids because it germinates easily, grows quickly, has big showy flowers and grows tall,” Biondi says.

About two weeks after the last frost (usually the first week in May in Maryland), seeds can be planted directly into the ground. They should be planted in full sun and watered if the soil is dry, Biondi says. The flowers should show two months after planting, and the plants will continue to flower until the end of Sunflower girl Wsummer. One downfall is that birds love to eat the seeds of the flower.

For extra appeal, plant a species of sunflower native to Maryland called Helianthus tuberosus. These have edible tubers that taste like artichokes but are crunchy like radishes, says Jenny Houghton, youth program coordinator at Adkins Arboretum.

And, of course, don’t forget about the sunflower house. Check out one in the children’s garden at Adkins Arboretum.

Milkweed

Children will fall in love with milkweeds, which they will probably call a “butterfly bush” because it naturally attracts monarch butterflies.

“Milkweed is the only food source for monarch butterfly caterpillars,” Houghton says.

Plant seeds in the fall after the first frost. Milkweed plants, however, can be planted in early spring in sunny areas of the yard.

In the spring, monarch butterflies lay eggs on the leaves. The plant flowers around July and the caterpillars feed off the flowers before forming a chrysalis on the leaves. When the butterflies emerge, they feed off the plant as well.
As with most plants, water as needed when the soil is dry.

Melons

Pumpkins, watermelons, cantaloupes — these are all plants with big payoffs for kids. They can see the fruit growing from seeds or tiny seedlings, and most kids enjoy melons — whether they’re eating or carving them, Biondi says.

“These seeds are also easy to germinate,” Biondi says. “The plants tend to sprawl and eventually can take up quite a bit of space.”

When planting seeds, choose a space with full sun and good drainage that can handle the vines, which can grow 20 or 30 feet long. May or June is a good time to plant pumpkins that will be ready by fall. Pumpkins usually take about 85 to125 days from seed to mature pumpkin.

Click on next below for more plants to get kids hooked on gardening.


More plants to get kids hooked on gardening

Plants kids WHoneysuckle

One visit to the honeysuckle tepee at Adkins Arboretum and kids will be sold on growing their own sweet-smelling plant that attracts hummingbirds and butterflies.

“Unusual planting methods are appealing to kids,” Houghton says. “Training vines around a tepee base makes a great hideout.”

She also says vines can be trained over a chicken-wire frame to form a tunnel.
Plant honeysuckle in early spring, in full sun or partial sun.

Cherry tomatoes

Cherry tomatoes are a favorite in the LaRosa family, simply because the kids love to pluck them right off the plant and pop them into their mouths.

The beginning of May is a good time to plant cherry tomatoes, although they won’t be ready to eat until June or July, LaRosa says. Tomatoes need plenty of sun, and only need to be watered when the soil seems dry. Cherry tomatoes are also great plants for container gardens, she says. Just remember plants in containers need more water than those in the ground.

“If you give kids an edible plant like a cherry tomato, they can watch it grow. It forms tomatoes. Then they ripen. Then they eat. They develop an understanding of how they grow,” says Nikki Phipps, author of “Growing up Green: Teaching Kids to Garden Naturally While Having Fun.”

Herbs

Cilantro and basil are staples in the LaRosa household. Fresh cilantro is perfect for homemade salsa, and Isabel LaRosa loves to top tomatoes with basil and mozzarella cheese.

Herbs are easy to grow and can be cultivated in containers or small pots, LaRosa says. Though they need sun, herbs should be shaded during the hottest part of the day.

Leafy greens

Planting greens is a perfect way to encourage kids to eat their vegetables, La Rosa says. There is something satisfying about pulling lettuce leaves and serving them for dinner as a salad, she explains.

Leafy greens can be planted in early spring and are ready to eat fairly quickly.

“If it looks like lettuce, it’s ready,” she says. “I just uproot it leaf by leaf.”

By the time the weather is hot, spinach and lettuce are usually done for the season. Kale, however, will last through the summer.

By Kristy MacKaben

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