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Growing a Gardener : Plants Teach Children About Patience, Nurturing, Accomplishment and Nature

March 29, 1997|JULIE BAWDEN DAVIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Every spring since she was 18 months old, my daughter, Sabrina, has planted a sunflower seed in our rose garden. After carefully burying the seed and watering it, she checks every few days for signs of growth. In a week or so, to her delight, a tiny seedling emerges. Before long, the sunflower grows to half her size, and almost before our eyes it shoots skyward, eventually reaching 9 or 10 feet tall.

Today, at 5 years old, Sabrina is an old pro in the garden.

She enjoys teaching her 2-year-old twin brothers how to garden and often surprises me with her keen insight and observation. This winter, as the sugar snap peas she planted from seed twined up their trellis, she told me they would soon be flowering. I was skeptical but pleasantly surprised four days later when the plant blossomed.

I introduced Sabrina to the garden because I wanted to share my passion. In the process, I found that the experience has given her a number of benefits, including patience, a sense of accomplishment, the ability to plan, respect for the environment and a nurturing spirit.

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Gardening is a great family activity that can be done right in your own backyard with just a few supplies. You don't need a lot of space for a kids garden or even land.

A child can grow flowers and vegetables in a container. Depending on the activities, you can start as young as 18 months, although kids become more adept at planting and other garden chores by age 3.

"Gardening gets children outdoors away from the TV set and opens their eyes to the wonders of nature," said Dena Tice, a Diamond Bar master gardener and kindergarten teacher, who will be teaching a children's gardening workshop at the Fullerton Arboretum on April 5, at 10 a.m. (Information: [714] 773-3404.)

"By planting a seed, nurturing the resulting plant and watching it grow and mature, children learn about the cycle of life and how they are a part of it," Tice said.

Gardening can be a great learning experience, agreed Susie Usrey, a spokeswoman at Monrovia Nursery, a wholesaler in Azusa that sells to nurseries throughout Orange County. Usrey regularly gardens with her 5-year-old grandson.

"In the garden, kids learn to nurture and get a sense of accomplishment and confidence when their plants grow," she said. "They learn that good things take time."

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Gardening is rarely a hard sell with kids, Usrey said. "Children love to be in the elements. Dirt, water, earthworms, insects, rain and wind are magnets for them."

For a successful gardening experience with your child, keep the following tips in mind:

* Designate a special gardening area just for your child. Depending on his or her age and the space available, this could be a small plot in the garden or a large container.

"Whatever space you provide your child, it's important that it's always accessible," suggested master gardener Mary Ann Mealey, who is one of the original docents at Centennial Farm in Costa Mesa. She is also putting in and overseeing children's gardens at two Tustin elementary schools with funding from federal and state grants.

"Letting them go out and check on their plants whenever they want keeps them enthused and connected to what's going on in the garden," Mealey said.

* Encourage children to choose what they want to grow. Take a trip to the nursery or browse through catalogs and let your child pick out what you'll plant.

There are many vegetables with cute names, including miniature carrots like Thumbelina, which are shaped like golf balls; Easter Egg radishes, which come in red, white, purple and rose; Jack Be Little pumpkins that fit in small hands; blue popcorn; and peanuts.

Kids also enjoy growing edible flowers like nasturtiums and violas. And berries like strawberries, grapes and raspberries are always a hit. The variety Rubus idaeus ("Canby Red") is a good thornless raspberry for this area.

* Break gardening tasks down into bite-sized pieces appropriate for young attention spans. If you bought eight plants at the nursery, start the first day by planting just two of them. Likewise, begin by planting just one or two seed packets.

* Choose a good mix of plants. Grow a variety, including those that bear quickly and those that take some time.

For a quick crop, try radishes and lettuce, which can be eaten within 20 to 40 days of planting. Also look for large seeds such as peas, beans, melons and pumpkins, which usually sprout quickly. And don't forget to mix in those plants that are popular, even though they take longer to grow, such as carrots, popcorn and peanuts.

* Don't exclude very young gardeners. If kids can walk and play with toys, they're old enough to work in the garden, even if it's simply filling pots with soil or digging holes. For added interest, put activities nearby such as a sandbox or easel for drawing pictures of the garden.

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