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Gardening with kids: Muddy knees a parent won’t mind

Norwalk Reflector Staff • Oct 29, 2015 at 12:13 PM

There’s something clearly amiss when a parent or two is puttering outside for hours in the glorious sunshine, while the kids are loafing indoors. It can be hard enough to get a kid outside — imagine trying to coax your Wii-addicted tween to help out in the garden.

While different tactics work for different ages and personality types, gardening experts say the key is starting small. And a new PBS cable TV show is taking that literally, trying to get the littlest toddlers hooked on growing gardens.

You read that right — a television show is trying to get kids outside. The animated “Fifi and the Flowertots” started airing in mid-January on the children’s channel PBS Kids Sprout. Fifi is a little girl-flower who lives in a tiny world. She has friends as tiny as she is, and they like to garden. (That’s organic gardening, mind you.)

“It’s very fresh, very gentle ... a very clean, healthy lifestyle with lots of laughter and some tears,” says the show’s London-based executive producer, Greg Lynn.

“Fifi” will teach young children a few particulars about gardening, although the show isn’t fixated exclusively on the subject. Fifi is supposedly an expert gardener, and one of her best friends is “Mo,” her compost-powered mower, who helps her tend and harvest her garden.

But let’s say you can drag your kid away from the TV. What’s next?

You’d think Julie Stricker’s daughter, Edie, 4 1/2, was born with a gardening “gene,” but really, Stricker simply has given Edie the freedom to gradually fall in love with the garden. And she has.

The little girl has followed her mother around the garden in Fairbanks, Alaska, since she was 18 months old. At that age, Edie dug small holes in the ground while Stricker worked nearby. This led to her own garden section, in which Stricker allowed the toddler to choose her own seeds and plants.

Last year, Edie grew a 10-foot-tall sunflower and a giant pumpkin in the family’s 20-foot-by-50-foot garden. (It’s near the family’s even larger, fenced pen that currently holds two dozen sled dogs.) She also planted all of the family’s broccoli and most of the zucchini, her mother says.

Stricker’s sunshiny view of gardening piqued Edie’s initial interest — and it has lasted.

“(Edie is) as proud of that garden as if she’d planted and done all the work herself,” Stricker says.

Allowing a child to make age-appropriate decisions and back off adult-sized expectations is the first part of the puzzle.

The National Gardening Association suggests keeping it fun and sharing your enthusiasm. Among its tips for teachers and parents:

n Start with easy-to-grow and interesting plants (annual flowers, sunflowers, beans, tomatoes and basil, to name a few).

n Set aside personal expectations about aesthetics and the end product.

n Allow kids in on the decision-making, even if it’s only to choose a few, pretty seeds.

n Give children ownership of a small part of the garden, or their own garden or container.

Sunnie Valentine’s children Goldia, 11, and Fritz, 8, followed her into the garden and have been gardening since they were big enough to hold a bean seed. Valentine thinks it’s easy to motivate children to garden.

“They can dig, play in the dirt, get their hands dirty,” says Valentine. “What could be more fun than that?”

With younger kids, Valentine recommends allowing them to use their sandbox toys in the garden, and forgetting about the final product. “So many times parents are so worried about what their landscape is going to look like,” she says. “You can blend things in ... it doesn’t take that much.”

Stricker, in Alaska, is proud that her young daughter knows where her food comes from: “She doesn’t associate peas (and other vegetables) with the store.”

Kids can learn — and do — so much in the garden, Valentine says. They can watch for birds, bugs and other creatures. They can watch the plants grow, and notice how some have long, trailing vines, such as pumpkins, while others, like tomatoes, are bushy. They can rake leaves for the compost bin.

* * *

    The National Gardening Association has lots of ideas for getting kids interested in gardening at its web site, www. kidsgardening.org. The web site’s editor, Barbara Richardson, dug up these helpful tips:

    1. Since kids are prone to instant gratification, start with a flat of annual flowers. The rewards are immediate.

    2. Gravitate toward unusual plants, such as pink potatoes, orange cauliflower or purple beans. Or focus on edible flowers and herbs, such as nasturtium and basil, and fragrant plants, such as lemon basil and orange thyme, to engage multiple senses.

    3. Kids, even older ones, like hiding places, so grow them one in the garden. Two ideas: Plant tall-growing (such as Mammoth) sunflower seeds in a circle, leaving a space for a “door” that kids can crawl through once the flowers have grown 10-feet-high.

Or build a simple teepee out of fallen tree branches or long, gardening stakes, and plant bean seeds around the outside of it. Beans grow fast, and soon the children will have a secret hiding space.

    4. A birdbath or, better yet, a small, shallow pond, will encourage critters, such as frogs, to enter your garden, which in turn might draw your children out there, too.

    5. If a tool attracts them, let them dig a hole.

    6. Notice the changes that take place in the garden, and track them on a calendar, in a journal or with photographs. Pay attention to the birds and insects in your garden, too.

    7. Build a scarecrow together. Build a birdhouse. Make personalized stepping stones to mark the pathway. Garden-related projects may lead to more time playing in the garden.

    8. Plant a garden based on a child’s favorite storybook. Richardson recommends “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” and “The Tale of Peter Rabbit.”

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