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A morning harvest of freshly grown vegetables fills the hands of garden helpers (left to right) Grace Brantley, Grant Bernard and Daniel Brantley of Summerville.
Photo by Andrew Haworth
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In the Berkeley Elementary School garden in Moncks Corner, Rose Fashion teaches her students to explore where their food comes from.
Photo by Leslie McKellar
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Folding a paper towel into squares and gluing a seed in the middle of each square is a good way to teach kids about seed spacing. The paper towel can be watered into the garden, where the seeds can grow.
Photo by Andrew Haworth
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Growing luffas is a fun project for kids, who get to see them grow into edible vegetables or dry out as sponges they can use. Daniel Brantley of Summerville peers through a dried luffa after the seeds have been removed.
Photo by Andrew Haworth
Rose Fashion fell in love with gardening at age 6. Growing cucumbers and tomatoes in her grandmother’s garden, she reveled in the feel of soil in her hands and the simple joy of harvesting her own food. At that young age, she started to appreciate where her food comes from.
Now an elementary school teacher in Berkeley County, Fashion was teaching a classroom lesson on nutrition in 2012 when she asked her students if they knew where their food came from.
“The grocery store,” they answered.
Right then, Fashion knew she had to find a way to show her kids how to grow their own food. She created a grant-funded school garden that shows her students “where food comes from and is helping students make healthier food choices.”
Many gardeners can trace their green thumbs back to a childhood memory of a family member, teacher or friend who shared a passion for gardening. Passing that love along to the next generation doesn’t require a huge garden or a lot of experience. Simple projects you can do with your young people, in garden plots or patio pots, are enough to sprout a child’s interest in gardening.
Sweet potatoes: Buried treasures
In their school garden, Fashion’s students’ favorite activity is planting and harvesting sweet potatoes. Just before school ends for the summer, they plant sweet potato slips. When they return to school in the fall, they have a harvest party, digging in the soil, unearthing loads of sweet potatoes and taking the potatoes home to enjoy with their families.
Sweet potatoes are an especially family-friendly crop, requiring minimal resources and simple tasks, says Sue Watts, a naturalist and garden educator at the South Carolina Botanical Garden at Clemson, where she shares her love of gardening with young children.
Watts’ grandfather’s garden enchanted her as a child. He grew prize chrysanthemums, she says, “with big, balloon-sized blossoms floating over my head.” By age 7, she was tending her own patch of garden, poring over seed catalogs for exotic and colorful plants.
“My favorite thing to do was to dig potatoes and pull carrots,” Watts says. “I loved the sense of a treasure hunt and the anticipation of revealing something secreted underground.”
Warm-season sweet potatoes are a great first crop for young gardeners, because they have few pest or disease issues.
They can be planted by busy families prior to summer vacation and harvested as school starts.
Start by taking your troops on a field trip to a local garden center or feed-and-seed store to purchase sweet potatoes sold either as rooted stem cuttings, known as slips, or transplants grown in cell packs. Pick a spot for their potato patch that has well-drained, warm soil, or plant in raised beds. Show kids how to dibble a small hole in the soil with their fingers or small trowel. After gently placing roots in the soil, they can firm the soil around the roots and water the plants in well.
In the weeks that follow, kid-sized chores for tending the potato patch will include watering the plants occasionally and scouting for insects among the foliage. A small hand lens or magnifying glass can transform even a reluctant gardener into an instant naturalist.
Then, finally, harvest time comes. Sweet potatoes are ready to dig up after about 120 days, prior to frost; cool soil will cause them to rot. Adults can help by cutting and removing vines to clear the way for digging and by encouraging kids to dig and lift carefully, because the potatoes will bruise easily.
- Give kids a calendar to use for counting down the days to harvest.
- If your garden is far from the house, gently place harvested potatoes in a wheelbarrow or wagon to tote them.
- Let kids help stash the potatoes in a warm, dry spot to cure for about two weeks, to maximize sweetness. The potatoes will keep up to six months in the pantry.
When Karen Latsbaugh was a little girl, she was always amazed, she says, “at how a tiny seed could grow and turn into lots of food for us to eat!” Latsbaugh owns Cities and Shovels, a garden-education business in Isle of Palms that teaches children at area schools to “explore, grow and learn about the different foods and plants that come from the gardens they help to cultivate.”
Her favorite gardening activity is paper-towel gardening. “It’s a great way to teach seed spacing,” Latsbaugh says. It’s also a project older children can do on their own, with minimal supplies.
You’ll need paper towels, seeds, school glue and a place to plant the seeds. First, determine the spacing your seeds require. Carrots, a kid-friendly favorite, have very small seeds that can be planted 1–2 inches apart, making them ideal for paper-towel gardening.
Have the kids fold a paper towel in half four times to create 16 equal squares. Unfold the towel, and glue one carrot seed in the center of each square. After the glue dries, kids can plant their paper towel on the surface of a garden row, raised bed or even a large flower pot. After lightly covering it with soil, water the towel and the soil around it well.
Early readers can study the seed packets to learn when their seeds will germinate and how long until harvest. Tell them to start looking for seedlings to sprout in 14 to 21 days with two long leaves that transform into lacy foliage, like ferns.
Seed starting is a basic step that often encourages young gardeners to want to experiment with growing other crops, Latsbaugh says. “When they come back and tell me they are starting to build gardens with their own families, I know that I am doing my job,” she says.
- Kid-sized watering cans make it easier for your little gardeners to water in their seeds.
- Young gardeners can document their progress by drawing or photographing plants as they grow.
Luffas: One plant, two products
Unusual plants with weird adaptations and unexpected uses have an almost magical appeal to kids. Exotic luffa gourds, also known as dishcloth gourds or vegetable sponges, are Chinese vegetables in the cucumber family that are both edible and useful. The fast-growing vines need some sturdy support to keep the luffas off the ground. They can cover an arbor or trellis within a few weeks, creating a perfect leafy hideout for young gardeners.
You can start the luffas from seeds. As they grow, these warm-season, annual vines delight young gardeners with pale-yellow flowers that develop into small squash-like fruit within a few days. When harvested young, they remain tender and are quite delicious. Eat them raw or cooked, much as you would squash or eggplant. Since the fruits can grow at a rate of an inch to an inch-and-a-half a day, kids can do a daily treasure hunt to find and harvest the fruit that are less than 4 inches long and still tender enough to eat.
If your young gardeners leave a few luffas on the vines, the fruit will grow larger and develop tough inner fibers that can be used as shower or kitchen sponges. Luffa sponges are ready to harvest when the skin feels loose and brittle around the hardened fibers inside. The sponges can be used to wash dishes, cars and even dirty gardeners!
Kids will love the process of preparing the luffas for use. Adults should cut off both ends of the gourd. After that, let the kids go to town shaking the seeds inside into a bucket. Peeling the skin away from the sponges can be tough, so adults can help by soaking several in a bucket of water with a tablespoon of chlorine bleach to remove dark spots. Then kids can easily peel off skins with their hands and rinse their luffas well.
- Save the seeds from your cleaned-out luffas to plant again next year.
- Budding entrepreneurs might try selling their cleaned luffas at a local farmers market.
Befriending garden critters
Insects in the garden help kids learn about the role pollinators play in growing food.
My 8-year-old son, Jackson, a budding scientist, discovered the life cycle of the swallowtail butterfly without leaving our back porch. We grow patio tomatoes, herbs and even potatoes in containers on our sunny porch. Several years ago, we discovered that when you plant parsley and a pack of zinnia seeds, unexpected garden guests arrive.
One Saturday morning, Jackson spied some fat, colorful caterpillars consuming our parsley. I knew they were swallowtails and decided it would be educational and fun to watch them as they transformed into butterflies. We wrapped an upended tomato cage in hardware cloth and secured it with a few clothespins to build a “hatchery.” Placing the hatchery over the container herb garden, we could observe our garden guests without disrupting them.
Within a week, amid shrieks of delight (mostly from me), we released our first adult swallowtails back into the garden. Now, when we see an adult swallowtail float through our yard, we both look to see if she’s laying eggs.
- Large pots situated in full sun are great for planting herbs and can be accessed easily by kids.
- Help kids choose both a nectar source and larval host plants to help attract butterflies to the garden. Nectar-producing plants include zinnias, cosmos and coneflowers, and visiting adults will lay their eggs on nearby host plants. Swallowtail caterpillars eat only plants in the carrot family, including herbs like parsley, dill and fennel.
- Make a DIY hatchery with a pop-up laundry hamper with mesh sides. Secure it over plants using bamboo stakes pushed through the mesh, so you can slide the hamper up and down as needed.
Clemson’s Home and Garden Information Center offers guides for planting a variety of vegetables and herbs. For details, visit clemson.edu/extension/hgic/plants/vegetables/crops/. The site also has tips for pollinator gardening at clemson.edu/extension/hgic/plants/other/landscaping/hgic1727.html.
For additional ideas, see the March 2015 South Carolina Living article “Gardening for pollinators."
Clemson Extension 4-H Youth Development hosts an annual Small Garden Project each summer to teach young people ages 5 to 19 about how their food is grown through hands-on, garden-based experiences. For details, visit clemson.edu/extension/4h/project_areas/natural_resources/small_garden/index.html.