If you have youngsters at home this summer, now is a great time for a kids’ gardening project. Not only can you create an ongoing family project that can last all summer, but you can also teach them an important lesson about where food comes from.
Recently, I visited a local elementary school as part of the Master Gardener Program and was asked to give a vegetable gardening presentation to a group of third-graders. I always start with an exercise in nutrition, and the results always surprise us.
I brought in a platter with a loaf of bread, a plate of French fries and a bottle of ketchup. When asked where these foods came from, one of the students answered, in this order. “Well, the bread comes from the grocery store, the fries are from McDonald’s and the ketchup is from Burger King.”
Then, I presented a new platter that included a raw potato, a bunch of oats on their stems, and raw tomatoes. The group was directed to work together to match the raw foods with the finished food products, and the process took quite a while.
“One of the best ways we have found to teach young people about the importance of agriculture is by having them grow food themselves,” says Nancy Schaff, former director of the Kids Growing Food Project at Cornell University in New York. “The students no longer take food for granted. With a garden, children learn that food doesn’t magically appear in the grocery store — the farmer has worked hard to get it there.”
Now is a great time of year to observe seeds in gardens and parks nearby, which can be the beginning of your kids’ gardening project. Take your child on a walk, equipped with a magnifying glass and collection bags or pails. Look for sunflowers or poppies that might be going to seed at this time of year.
If you have neighbors with vegetable gardens, ask if you can go on a seed hunt for peas or beans to pick and observe. Take a trip to the grocery store and have your child choose vegetables that might have seeds. Some suggestions might be peas, beans, winter squash, peppers and oranges.
Bring your goodies home and “dissect” the flowers and vegetables to find the seeds inside. Ask your child what they think the purpose of the seed might be, and dry and store the larger seeds for future planting. The drying process takes a few weeks, but many of the seeds will reproduce.
For an intensive introduction to seed production, check out the Cornell Cooperative website, at www.cce.cornell.edu or books such as “Beyond the Bean Seed,” (Jurenka & Blass, 1996) and “Park’s Success with Seeds” (Park Seed Co., 1990).
One of the most satisfying aspects of my job as Director of the Cornell Master Gardener Program in New York was developing gardening activities for children. “The Great Pole Bean Race” was a favorite among all the schools we visited and can easily be duplicated for your home gardening project.
GREAT POLE BEAN RACE
This project is best achieved with two or three children, or an adult and children. The supplies are minimal and can be purchased at most garden centers.
• Package of pole beans (not bush beans) or snap peas
• 8-10 large plastic cups with lids (recycled takeout cups work great)
• Small watering can
• Rulers to share
• Pencils and graph paper
• Large bag of potting soil (any potting soil, don’t use garden soil)
1. Give each child two cups and write name and date on cup. Poke holes in all cups beforehand and fill each three-quarters full with potting soil. Water until water comes out of bottom.
2. With a pencil, make three holes 1-inch deep, using rulers to measure.
3. Place two pole bean seeds in each hole. Cover gently. Do not re-water.
4. Cover cup tightly with plastic wrap or lid.
5. Place in a warm room indoors, not in direct sunlight.
6. Do not remove wrap until sprouts can be seen. Record each child’s date of sprout activity on graph paper. Water only when dry.
7. After sprouts emerge, have children measure the height each day with a ruler. Use the graph paper to record the days and height.
8. Each day, have children compare growth charts.
9. After all beans have sprouted, move to sunny window. When beans reach height of 4-6 inches, transplant outdoors.
This project is one of many that can start your family off into the world of discovery in the garden.
Feel free to contact me if you would like more lesson plans for your family or school project. Contact me at: [email protected].
Jano Nightingale is a Master Gardener and horticulturist and works on community gardens in North County. She previously served as director of the Cornell Master Gardener Program in Cooperstown, NY.