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PARENTING : Growing Bit by Bit : Gardening nurtures family togetherness. It's best to start youngsters on small, manageable projects that won't overwhelm them.

March 26, 1993|BARBARA BRONSON GRAY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Barbara Bronson Gray writes regularly for The Times

When Laura and John Fisher's son Kevin was just 3 months old, Laura rented a $20-a-year plot at the Sepulveda Garden Center in Encino so she could get some light exercise and fresh air. "I used to take Kevin over to the garden in an infant seat and put him under a tomato bush for shade," says Laura.

Now that Kevin is 6, gardening has become a family affair, involving even Kevin's grandfather, Art Fisher, who lives in Van Nuys. Together, the adults have taught Kevin the basics of how plants grow and where food comes from. "He knows his vegetables," says Laura, "and he knows how to harvest the cucumbers, string beans and blackberries."

But beyond the produce itself, the Fishers say the best thing about gardening together is the camaraderie--the feeling that they are accomplishing something tangible and enjoying each others' company in the process.

According to Pamela Ingram, owner of Sassafras Nursery in Topanga, the most important part of gardening as a family is the togetherness. Ingram also believes that the urge to garden is instinctual and that children often don't need much encouragement to get started.

"It's a natural thing to do," she says. "On a fine spring morning, you want to go out. It's a question of nurturing."

But many parents aren't sure how to get started with gardening, and find themselves daunted by decisions about seed selection, soil amendments and pest control.

Ingram argues for simplicity. Rather than starting with a big plot of land, she advises, it's better to choose a more manageable planter box that can be well-fertilized and easily watered by even a young child.

When it comes to plant selection, families can look through seed catalogues together, an activity, Ingram says, that children enjoy. Seeing pictures of plants also helps them connect specific seeds with the end result.

Ingram suggests that parents select hardy seeds first for their children--those for sunflowers, for example, or nasturtiums--and those that sprout quickly. "It's hard for children to wait," she explains. She adds that the act of planting is important to a child and ranks it the garden job kids appreciate most.

"Children love to put their seed packets on the end of sticks," she says, "and they love to check the spot every day to look for signs of life."

While Laura Fisher agrees that planting is popular with children, she advocates starting with small, established plants rather than seeds. In her view, "the children like getting the results faster, and a lot of times the seeds will fail."

Whatever the planting method, Ingram's list of best bets for vegetable gardening includes scarlet runner beans and green peas, which youngsters typically enjoy eating. For parents more interested in growing fruit, she recommends starting hanging baskets with small strawberry plants. "They're edible all the time and almost every child likes them," she says.

One further benefit of gardening as a family is that it's likely to raise questions about the environment and the cosmos.

Ingram remembers being startled once by a child's question about whether or not it hurts a lettuce to be eaten.

"I finally said that it doesn't hurt," she recalls. After a bit more inner debate, she told the child that "the lettuce wants to be a part of everything--of the whole world." When it was eaten, she concluded, the vegetable got its wish.

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