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Dig your hands in the dirt!

Tips for starting a garden with your kids

tips for starting a garden with your kids in the hudson valley

Every year, Michael Fanelli readies his fig trees for the spring planting season and he makes sure to include two little helpers – his daughters Emilia and Siena.

“They learn a lot when they garden,” says the Poughkeepsie father. “They watch the fig trees go from seedling to sapling to plant.”

Once Fanelli takes the plants from the garage to the yard, he teaches his girls how to care for and prune the trees. “They understand how life works while they watch the entire process,” he says. “We then make things like fig jam and cookies and other delicious things out of the figs.”

Gardening is a fun activity for all ages, but it also teaches children new skills. As they dig in the dirt, prune plants and find new ways to grow food, the activity becomes both physical and creative as well.

Benefits for all
Ed Watson, property maintenance manager of Neave Landscaping in Wappingers, has been gardening with his six children – ranging from just under two to twenty – for years.

 “We spend a significant amount of time in the garden,” he says. “The kids also see how nature works and they see the insects, so there [are] a lot of different things to talk about.”

“Children learn how nature works by observing the garden ecosystem,” says Diane Greenberg of the Catskill Nursery, explaining that a backyard habitat garden can enable children to watch as plants go through all their stages of growth. “Having a biodiverse garden allows children to observe how nature renews itself each season while imparting an understanding and appreciation of the natural world.”

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But whether you and your children are growing a floral garden or your own veggies, you’re not alone. According to the National Gardening Association, there has been a significant shift toward more Americans growing their own food in home and community gardens, increasing from 36 million households in 2008 to 42 million in 2013. In addition, the report also found that more households with children participated in food gardening, increasing participation during the same time period by 25 percent, up from 12 million to 15 million.

Getting started
It’s a good idea to research the types of plants or vegetables that you want to have in your garden. Parents can make an activity out of looking up the family’s favorite vegetables or fruits. It’s also a great learning opportunity for children to discover what types of colorful plants thrive in this area.

Families can also purchase seed plantings to start growing plants indoors, taking into consideration the growth rate and size of the plants. For example, most tomatoes and peppers take six to eight weeks of growing before they could be transplanted. Cool weather vegetables like carrots and cucumbers can be planted a little earlier because they can withstand the last frost days of March and April.

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“Make sure the conditions exist on your property to plant in sunlight,” Watson adds. “I also wouldn’t recommend planting before May. You may get frost and then the plants will be damaged.”

But a light winter is a perfect time to put garden supplies to good use. Parents can safely prune dormant plant material in garden beds or cut back any brush encroachments to get better light and the kids can help with the cleanup. Preparation is just as important as caring for the plants and imparts a sense of responsibility. 

To make it even more fun, when deciding what to do take cues from your children. “Observe the plants they like best and plant more,” Greenberg says.

Watson adds that children are never too young to learn. “My youngest can bring out a basket and pick tomatoes and green beans,” he says. “It sparks curiosity with her even if she eats more than she brings in.”

It’s important to make the area safe for children by selecting the correct-sized tools, keeping sprays and fertilizers out of their reach and securing the fences and gates around the property. If you are gardening in really hot weather, make sure to provide your children with some shade while they work and that they wear a hat and sunscreen. Keep drowning dangers to a minimum by not leaving buckets of water around very young children.

Projects to peruse
According to Greenberg, there are lots of projects you can do with your children to introduce them to gardening and wildlife.

“Plant dogwood, bayberry, hawthorn, blueberry and crabapple to watch adult birds flock to the berries,” she said. “Put up nesting boxes for bluebirds and tree swallows, but remember that that baby birds are fed insects so you don’t want to use toxic sprays in your garden,” she says.

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“You can also plant a variety of perennial flowers that will bloom at different times so there is always color for you and food for pollinators,” Greenberg adds. Sticking to “straight species” is a good idea as many fancy hybrids have been bred to have no pollen or nectar in favor of bigger, fancier flowers.

Keep it simple by giving young children their own gardening space and letting them choose what they want to plant. Watson suggests picking plant varieties that also work with your housing situation.

If you live in an apartment or do not have any extra land for gardening, consider joining a local farm project with your children. In addition to the planting he does at home, Fanelli says that his family is part of the Poughkeepsie Farm Project. Each year, they head over to Marist College to pick blueberries and raspberries off the trees.

“It gives the kids a sense of gratification,” he says. “Kids really learn so much from that.” 

Another project she suggests is planting a Buffet for Bees – because it can help little ones understand that both honeybees and bumblebees are important parts of our ecosystem.

For lists of butterfly, bird and bee-friendly plants, log onto the Catskill Nursery website.

Lisa Iannucci is a freelance writer who lives in Poughkeepsie and has written for Hudson Valley Parent before