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by Keith C. Hansen, County Extension Horticulturist - Smith County Tyler, Texas

Have you ever gotten your kids involved in a gardening project? I mean really involved? Most of the time we want to make sure youngsters don't step on the newly seeded carrots, pull off green tomatoes or the first blooms on the flowers. How about letting them have a garden spot they can call all their own?

Growing plants is very educational and therapeutic as anyone who is involved in gardening will quickly agree. Yes, we fight pestilence, are frustrated by uncooperative weather, and experience failures. But, that's a picture of life. A garden teaches us many things concerning life and is a wonderful tool for developing young minds. The immediate rewards come when the flowers bloom and the vegetables are ready to eat. In the long term, children can learn many important lessons which will help them mature into responsible adults.

Children are naturally inquisitive, and what better way to nurture their curiosity than in a healthy exploration of the plant world?

Youngsters can be taught an incredible number of lessons just by raising a few plants. Responsibility and patience are two virtues that quickly comes to mind as lessons we all learn from a garden. Let them have failures along side successes. They will open up much more to your guidance as they realize your advice can help them reach their gardening goals.

Of course, science can be taught in many enjoyable ways. The life cycle of a plant, from the germination of a seed to the production of fruit, to its eventual death, mirrors all events in life. How does a plant grow? What does it need? How do environmental events like heat, cold, drought and pollution affect the growth of plants. Hundreds of very simple experiments can be done in a garden. When a child asks a question, help them to suggest answers and design a simple experiment to test their theory.

Pests are a part of every garden and discovering the many insects, both good and bad, living in the garden will be an adventure. A magnifying glass will reveal many hidden things on leaves, flowers, in the soil, etc. Adults will need to assist in pest control.

Kids can learn to plan a garden based on what they (and the family) like to eat. There are many levels of math skills involved in planning and planting a garden such as measuring, counting, figuring rates of fertilizer based on the area of the garden. Help older kids figure out how much it costs to raise the plants and what the same produce costs at the market. Maybe they will even sell their surplus to the neighbors. This can help them learn financial responsibility. Giving the surplus to the food bank or a needy family will teach compassion.

Record keeping and organization is another lesson that can be learned in keeping a garden. I must confess that this is one area I always try to improve on and yet seem to fail miserably every year. Starting young may help develop good organizational skills that can last through their entire life.

The key to gardening success is to start small at first. There is nothing more discouraging than a garden plot out of control with weeds. A 4' by 4' or 3' by 6' raised bed enclosed by timbers can grow a lot of produce and flowers and can be reached from all sides. Their garden might be separate from the family garden or part of it, but should have definite borders and perhaps even a sign - like APRYL'S GARDEN.

Let the child do their own thing, with guidance. Don't insist on arrow straight rows or a weed-free garden.

Try to pick vegetables that are bush types rather than sprawling, running types. A trellis, fence or wire cage can be used to grow the plants up instead of out to conserve garden space and ease harvesting.

If you do not have a sunny patch of ground (6 hours of direct sun a day is needed for best results), then try gardening in containers. You can grow many things in all sorts of containers, and half the fun is finding odd and unusually shaped things to hold the soil. The container should be able to hold enough soil equivalent to a 2 to 5 gallon nursery container and have drainage holes which you can add. A good quality potting soil should be purchased for containers instead of using dirt from the yard. Since containers dry out much more quickly, the plants will be even more dependent on regular, daily care for survival and success. Regular feeding with liquid plant food will also be part of the routine.

Tools for children are available that are small and fit their size. Short handled shovels and rakes, hand tools and a small wheel barrow can make a child's gardening efforts more enjoyable and productive.

Some vegetables to plant for this growing season include tomatoes, green beans, cucumber, eggplants, peppers and squash. If you have room, sweet corn, watermelons, pumpkins and sweet potatoes. Odd or unusual vegetables can spark interest, like spaghetti squash, cherry tomatoes, birdhouse and other ornamental gourds. Flowers can be mixed in, or a whole plot devoted to bloomers. Flower gardening can be done in the shade or sun, depending on types used.

Be creative, be helpful, set guidelines, nurture curiosity and let the kids grow to love life.