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Supposedly, gardening with kids is a learning process. I just haven't figured out who does the most learning.

I can't remember when I first started gardening. My mother probably could. She remembers all that stuff, like when I first cut a tooth, cut my lip and split open my head. But since I grew up on a farm, it was probably when I was three or four.

My main memories of gardening are shucking ears of sweet corn and eating them raw in the field. And mowing. And mowing. And mowing. And more mowing. Most farm kids have the same agonizing memory.

Watching a child garden is watching anticipation, eagerness and unashamed willingness. Who else willingly sticks his hands in a pile of soil, compost, or other earthy materials, and then wipes them on his pants before reaching for an apple? Who else can spend an hour watching ants, worms and caterpillars crawl across the ground or a plant?

Kids also have a "gee whiz" wonder that seems to escape adults when they hit puberty. Ask a child what the largest seed is, and then visualize the wheels turning in his brain as he says pumpkin and watermelon. (It's a coconut.)

Margaret Gaule, one of the people who hired me for my job decades ago, had a philosophy that she was always willing to share:

Teach the kid when he's young the joys of gardening, and he'll be hooked for his life. And then he'll teach his parents.

So, what can you do?

First, find some kids. This may be easier for some of you than others. I have to rely on the ones floating around the neighborhood, and most of them would rather plant themselves in a chair than plant something in the ground. Those between 3 and 8 years are the easiest to work with. Just make sure they don't actually pull all your plant labels out of the ground and hand them to you as a present.

Next, find something interesting for the kids to do.

It just takes a small plot of ground. Even a large flowerpot might suffice if there's nowhere to plant. Keep it simple. Don't dig up the entire back yard and hand a child a shovel and a packet of seeds. They'd get bored with it as soon as you would. Start small and gradually increase the amount of area and responsibility.

This next step is also important: Find some tools that will fit their hands. There's nothing as comical as watching a 3-year-old use a large spade. However, from the kid's point of view, there's nothing as frustrating. Frustration will win over the comedy, and the child will abandon any gardening aspirations.

There are some small tools available. (Some are even good for adults.) Or you can take a large handled rake, spade, shovel or hoe and cut the handle down to make it easier to wield. However, make sure the blade is in proportion to the child. Ultimately, you might find a small hand trowel is the best thing for small hands and bodies.

The last step: Have the child select something interesting to plant. If the youngster hates beets (which makes him really smart), why have him plant them? Try some easy things such as sunflowers, pumpkins (perfect for planting in June so they ripen by Halloween), marigolds or morning glories. Make sure the plant isn't plagued by insects or diseases, which should eliminate broccoli, eggplant, roses and most zinnias.

Seeds provide the most learning experiences. Many seeds are large enough that tiny fingers can easily handle them. There's something magical about the sleeping seed that slowly awakens and emerges from the ground.

Don't forget the after-care. Watering is important, and something the child can easily do. Just make sure the watering can isn't too heavy or too full. Hoses are fun, especially on a hot day.

Point out problems. Make it a learning opportunity. While the child is taking care of his own plant(s), get him or her involved with other aspects of gardening. It's never too early to learn how to pick strawberries or tomatoes. Deadheading the old blossoms on the marigolds is something little hands can accomplish. And who else gets thrills from stepping on big nasty caterpillars and bugs?

And when the plants die at the end of the season, take a moment to explain the value of the compost pile.

David Robson is an Extension Educator, Horticulture, at the Springfield Extension Center, University of Illinois Extension. You can write to Robson in care of Illinois Country Living, P.O. Box 3787, Springfield, IL 62708. Telephone: (217) 782-6515. E-Mail:


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