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by Ted Fisher, County Extension Horticulturist, Emeritus Texas AgriLife Extension Extension

"What's best for the environment?" is often asked these days. Well, one thing we can do for the environment is teach our children respect and concern for nature. One way to do this and to have fun at the same time is a child's garden. The immediate and long-term benefits of encouraging children to plant and maintain their own garden are enormous.

Through school and the media, many youngsters, even preschoolers, are aware of nature and ecology. The garden is an excellent place to reinforce what they have heard and learned and to encourage their creativity and self-discipline. They will be exposed to the beauty of nature, and through growing vegetables they may learn a degree of self-sufficiency.

We can't run out and plant a rain forest in our back yards, but a childhood start on understanding and respecting the environment plants the "seeds" for future responsibilities. We all know it needs to be done, so let's do it and have fun.

A small garden, perhaps no more, than 4 feet by 4 feet and planted with a mix of flowers and vegetables, can instill an appreciation of nature and provide a place for these fun learning activities. Although a child's garden may not be as neatly tended as a parent's or grandparent's, give the choicest garden spot to the child. Lots of sun and good soil will aid in success.

Let your child help prepare the soil. Dirt can be turned over with a small shovel or trowel, and clumps can be broken up by hand or by "stomping" on them.

Choose easy-to-grow plants and as many different ones as you can get into the small space. Carrots, radishes and tomatoes are good vegetable choices.

For flowers, choose some that can be used as cut flowers or for special "gifts" for Mom, like zinnias, marigolds or salvia. For something spectacular to a child, plant a few sunflowers, which can range from 2 feet to 10 feet tall.

Starting from seed is a good learning experience. Small children will find large seeds such as corn, beans and sunflowers easy to handle and plant. Bedding plants, too, are an excellent choice for getting started.

Recycling is an important part of our environment, and few activities lend themselves to this as well as gardening does. Grass clippings, shredded leaves and vegetable matter can be put into a compost bin to be recycled into composted soil that is nutritious for plants.

Don't despair if you don't have a garden plot. You can garden anywhere in pots and containers. A container garden on a balcony, patio or deck can produce a lot of flowers and vegetables, and it often makes caring for your garden even simpler.

Children love something to be their "very own," so keep your child interested and aware of his or her garden by putting the child's name there on a sign. For real personalization, make plant stakes or labels that say "Mary's beans, "John's zinnias," etc.

If you start from seed, you can use the seed packet stapled to a stake with the child's name written on it. Bedding plants usually come with a plant tag you can use. Colorful pictures help children imagine what will grow.

Children love to water - particularly at full force of the hose. You will want to remind them that rain usually falls a little more gently and that they should imitate the rain. A personalized sprinkling can is a good idea for younger children.

Weeding is another matter. At first, even for adults, it can be difficult to tell small wanted plants from small unwanted weeds. You may want to let things grow a little before weeding too much.

"Patience is a virtue," goes an old saying, and the wait for flowers and vegetables to mature can begin to teach the rewards of patience. Watching a garden grow may not be easy: Children may want to pull up young carrots and radishes to see if they are "done." Even if children do pull up a few young plants, the vegetables may be mature enough to wash off and give a taste of bigger things to come.

Gardening provides an ideal time to talk to your child. Of course, you will want to talk a little about how plants grow, and talk about the birds and insects and worms and all that good gardening stuff. Ask them if they were a plant, what kind would they be and why? If they were a plant, what would they tell the gardener?

You'll be surprised what you can learn in your child's garden, and your opportunity to hear your child's thoughts will help you guide their personal growth as well as their gardening growth.