If your child thinks carrots come from the grocery store and peanuts are manufactured in a factory and sealed in a can, perhaps it's time to consider a back-yard garden.
"We see a lot of youngsters here who have no idea how vegetables are grown," said Jim Bailey, a former agriculture teacher at Sunny Hills High School in Fullerton. He donates his time and expertise at the Youth Garden at the Orange County Fairgrounds.
The fairgrounds in Costa Mesa operates a youth garden at its year-round farm. Youngsters can see firsthand how carrots, lettuce, beans and tomatoes are grown. In addition, more unusual "crops" are also grown here--grapes, berries, peanuts and popcorn.
"Tour groups come by to see how these foods are grown as well as visit with the animals at the farm," Bailey said. "We started the garden about two years ago, and 16,000 children have come through since then."
Bailey stressed the importance of youngsters knowing about agriculture and where they get their food and what it takes to produce it.
"In Southern California, many children haven't seen gardens or fields of vegetables growing," he said. "It's hard for them to realize the time and effort it takes to grow what they eat."
That's unfortunate, according to Bailey, because a back-yard garden can be an educational experience for youngsters. And in Orange County, the weather provides opportunities for year-round growing. Even preschoolers can get involved on a limited basis. By the time children are 6 or 7, they can take further responsibility for a garden with some adult supervision.
"With youngsters, start by giving them a seed, like squash, and plant it in a cup," Bailey said. "When it's about two inches high, they can transplant it out in the yard."
Radishes are another good choice for first-time farmers, because they grow rapidly. In 28 days, they're ready to eat.
"With children, it's nice to grow something fairly quickly to maintain their interest," Bailey said. "With carrots, it can take a lot longer for the results. By that point, the child may have given up."
During the warmer spring and summer months, recommended fruits and vegetables for a back-yard garden include beans, tomatoes, melons, cucumbers, strawberries, peas and peppers. In the fall and winter, turn to the leafy members of the vegetable family: cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and different types of lettuce. Such vegetables as squash and zucchini are other garden favorites of children; they are easy to grow and produce multiple offerings from one plant.
But what if your yard is too small? Not to worry.
"You really don't need a lot of room to grow vegetables," Bailey said. "In fact, I have a planter at home that is four feet wide and about 15 feet long. In it I grow radishes, carrots, beets, cauliflower and several types of lettuce. In a space that size, about 60 square feet, there's plenty of room to grow enough vegetables to feed a whole family." Gardens can also be grown in containers.
A six-inch pot is all that's required to grow about four or five beet plants, although a tub is needed to grow honeydew. Herbs are another option for container gardening, and many nurseries and seed catalogues feature mini, dwarf and compact versions of different vegetables.
"With very little space, children can learn about the growing cycle and achieve hands-on learning," Bailey said. "They begin to understand concepts of germination and the effects of the seasons and the weather. Agriculture is a science and there's no end to the experiments you can try. You can water one area more than another and see what happens. Or fertilize one section and not another. Measure the plants as they grow to see how quickly they shoot up. Do they grow better in the sun or the shade?"
Children can also be taught the parts of a plant (roots, stem, seeds, leaves) and even "dissect" flowers to locate the stamen, petals, sepal and pistil.
Even garden "pests" can provide learning experiences. Bailey recommended turning ladybugs loose in the garden to eat the aphids that may appear. Earthworms can help aerate the soil and teach children lessons about how different life forms interact. Bailey also recommends using organic materials to control insects--especially if children are involved in tending the garden.
"At the youth garden, we work with integrated pest control," he said. "That means we use ladybugs as well as organic materials to control insects. You can purchase organic materials at most nurseries. Just check the bottle to make sure it says 'organic.' "
Another advantage of back-yard gardening is its minimal expense. Other than seeds, the only tools that are required are a can or hose for watering, a pointed-nose shovel for digging, a hoe for weeding and making furrows, and a rake to break up dirt and spread soil. An occasional feeding of fertilizer is recommended to enhance growth. But what you spend on the garden can be saved on the grocery bill.