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Garden as a Family for Fun Bonding Opportunities
New York Ag Connection - 06/12/2019

When Jennifer Lerner was a child, she spent nearly every evening after dinner weeding and playing in the garden with her family.

Those memories are some of her favorites.

"We were together," she says of her family. "And for children, that can be a wonderful time."

Now, Lerner works as a senior resource educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Putnam County, helping other families create those same kinds of memories for their children.

Now that spring has sprung in the Hudson Valley, the time is ripe for starting a garden. If the thought feels overwhelming or you're not sure how to begin, Lerner has a simple piece of advice: start small and keep it fun. "Pick a garden that matches the time and energy you have," she says. That might mean planting a vegetable patch, or it could mean tending to a few starter seeds.

If the idea of maintaining a vegetable garden is too much, that's okay - you can start with flowers. Diana Weiner, a Program Advisory Committee Member of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Sullivan County, and Cornell Cooperative Extension partner Adrianne "Dirt Diva" Picciano, recommend starting with sunflowers, zinnia, or Johnny jump up violas. Flowers are also a great option for families without fenced-in yards or garden areas because they're less appealing to the deer that can plague gardens.

Whether you're planting food or flowers, it's a great idea to involve your kids as early as possible. "I have a two-year-old, and she loves planting seeds," says Susan Ndiyae, the Community Horticulture Educator at the Orange County branch of Cornell Cooperative Extension. "She pokes a hole in the ground, puts the seed in, and thinks it's the greatest thing ever," she says.

Whatever you decide, the key to getting your kids engaged is to be prepared. Before you call your kids out to the garden, make sure you have what you need on hand so you can best capture the first minutes of engagement, Lerner advises. "Give them space for a kid-friendly activity or somewhere to run off to after their interest wanes," she says. "Watching worms and checking out ants disturbed by digging are valid gardening activities. Much of good gardening is learning to observe."

It also helps to fill your garden with food or plants that your child likes. "If your child really likes carrots, for example, she'll be more excited about gardening if you're planting carrots," says Ndiyae. "It's also a good way to get your child to eat more vegetables," she says. "If your kids are involved in the planting process, they're more likely to eat a food they've watched watched grow before their eyes than something their parents picked out at the store."

And if that's not enough, home-grown vegetables offer another advantage over their store-bought counterparts: they usually taste much better. "Do a taste test with your kids," Ndiyae says. "If you're growing tomatoes at home, buy a tomato at the store and taste it alongside the one you grew. Your kids will notice the difference, and they'll get excited about it."

Growing fresh veggies at home also allows you to tap into the massive variety of vegetable plants out in the world and experiment with colors and foods kids aren't used to seeing or eating. "There are yellow tomatoes, purple and yellow carrots and purple green beans," Ndiyae says. "There are even edible flowers. You can have a lot of fun with all the variety, and it always blows kids' minds."

For kids who are a little bit older, there are tons of opportunities for sneaky science, math, and art lessons while they're weeding and watering. From breaking the garden up into square feet, to studying the water cycle and soil to figure out an optimal growing environment, they'll always be thinking and learning.

"You can add in deliberate observation like measuring growth, and watching how buds form and open," says Lerner. "But keeping a garden journal, drawing, and collecting are good first steps in any naturalist's journey."

For families who live in apartment buildings or other types of homes without much yard space, or who are concerned about committing to a full-blown garden, containers are the perfect solution. Set up a container on a balcony or windowsill and tend to the plant the same way you would if it were out in the backyard.

"You can grow tomatoes, microgreens, or flowers," Ndiyae says. "Herbs are also a great option. They smell and taste really good, and your children can help you cook with them."

To recreate the experience of a full garden, Picciano and Weiner recommend buying large tubs, or food-grade barrels, to sit at the back door or on your balcony or deck. "Put basil at the base of a tomato plant, put cucumber up a trellis in the second barrel, and plant bush beans in the third barrel," they say. Soon, you'll practically have grown a full salad.

Whether you're growing a handful of herbs in a small container at the window or planning to harvest a yard full of crops, there's no doubt that gardening takes work, and there are key maintenance steps to be aware of. "Water deeply - an inch of water per week," Picciani and Weiner say. "Get a rain gauge to measure, and supplement rain water with a sprinkler or hose." Gardens planted in the ground need to be weeded regularly, and it's good to research how long your plants take to germinate and what they should look like. That way, you can ensure your plants are growing correctly and don't accidentally harvest a plant before it's ready.

Despite the work, if you involve your kids and let their interests guide your garden, you may discover a fun, delicious new hobby the whole family can enjoy together. "I think there can be a misconception that kids aren't interested in gardening," Ndiyae says. "Kids are fascinated by gardens. Checking on the plants, watering them, getting to eat foods that they planted and have watched grow, it's all really exciting to them."

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