Growing Gardens and Minds

Growing Gardens and Minds

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Bond while gardening, and teach your child about the earth

I love watching things grow: As a little girl, I use to catch tadpoles at a local pond and wait for them to morph into frogs. One Christmas, my parents gave me a 1,000x microscope, and I stared at that same pond scum for hours hoping I would catch an amoeba or paramecium dividing. More recently, I harnessed the power of wild yeast and made sourdough starter for the first time; my brother likes to joke I’m the person he’s going to save during a zombie apocalypse because I know how to make bread without packaged yeast.

Then, of course, there’s gardening. Right now, my two windowsills are brimming with old egg cartons and homemade newspaper pots filled with flower and vegetable seedlings. And, yes, my daughter, Maya, has caught me more than once crooning a few bars of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” to our burgeoning sweet basil.

Thing is, gardening has the ability to catapult us to a place of wonder, making it the perfect activity to do with our children, which, next to parenting, is the ultimate “watch things grow” activity.

So here are a few reasons why every Solo Mom should grow something with her children this summer:

1. Gardening can be good fun on the cheap. All you really need is some seed starting soil mix, a couple of seed packets or small plants, something to grow everything in, and a modicum of patience. If you’ve never gardened before, start with just a couple of things—say one seed packet for you and one for each of your children. Some of the easiest things to grow from seeds include zinnias, marigolds, cosmos, herbs, and—if you have the room—even pumpkins! Plus, if you grow non-GMO (genetically modified organism) heirloom seeds, you can collect the seeds at the end of the growing season and plant them next year.

I don’t buy peat pots anymore to start seedlings. Instead, I save berry, milk, and egg cartons. Clear berry containers make amazing seedling pots for children because they can actually see how plants grow underneath the dirt. Hazel and Company gives a great example of how old egg cartons make great little greenhouses that are easy for children to use.

I also make biodegradable origami seed pots out of old newspaper. They’re very easy to make, and if your children are anything like my daughter, they’ll be faster at it than you. For Greenies has a very good visual guide on how to make these.

When it comes time to transplant your seedlings, clay pots are great, but don’t fret if you don’t have any. Just get online, and you’ll discover the ingenious things people are using to grow plants. Brit & Co has some pretty interesting ideas. Just make sure to use food-grade containers for your edibles.

You can also use kitchen ingredients to make plant food, and your older children can help you whip up concoctions. Chamomile tea sprayed on seedlings keeps fungus at bay. If you make your own cheese or Greek yogurt, you can dilute the leftover whey (I mix one cup of whey in a gallon of water) and feed it to your acid-loving plants once a month. Most plants enjoy an occasional sweet treat, and last year my tomato plants thrived off of a mixture of molasses and seaweed. It doesn’t smell great, but it keeps the garden pests away.

2. Growing vegetables teaches your children about where food comes from. I use to run a community arts center in Philadelphia, and one of our major projects was gardening. That’s when I learned many children don’t know where their food comes from. Sadly, some even believe it grows in the supermarket. This article from the Huffington Post provides some tips on ways you can educate your children about agriculture and food sourcing.

Although many of us don’t have the room or inclination to plant corn or tomatoes, a mini herb garden is something your children can create in a hanging basket or pot placed next to a sunny window. There’s nothing better than cooking with some fresh herbs you can just reach up and grab. Watch your children smile when you tell them you put some of their oregano in the pasta sauce.

For the truly adventurous, you don’t even need to buy seeds or plants. A fun project to do with your family is regrowing kitchen scraps before they hit the compost bin or garbage. Last summer, my daughter and I grew ginger from a knobby hunk I picked up in the grocery store. We were both a little skeptical, but in five months there was the sweetest pink ginger lingering at the bottom of a very happy plant. Over at DIY & Crafts, you can learn how to grow everything from green onions to sweet potatoes—even a pineapple!

3. Gardening can be part of a literary adventure. So many children’s books feature gardens. If you have room, you and your children can easily build a tent frame out of bamboo stakes and string. It’s the perfect contraption to grow pole beans. Once your makeshift trellis is filled with bean plants, you can read Jack and the Beanstalk and then write your own stories about the conversations you plan on having with the giant when he (or she) stops by for a chat. Check out this post by Jenny Harrington on eHow describing how to build one.

4. You can throw some science lessons into the mix. The foundation of all scientific inquiry is observation—and wonder. You can put your children’s keen powers of observation to work by having them create a garden journal. As your plants grow, your children can draw pictures that highlight each plant’s development.

5. A little effort can yield a lot of reward. Make a fairy garden. Alanna George shows how easy it is to create a miniature fairy garden fit for nymphs and pixies to make merry. You can also let your children be responsible for their own little garden patch.

If that feels like too much work, you can grow some nasturtiums. They’re great flowers for little children to grow because their seeds are large enough for tiny fingers to manipulate. They germinate quickly, are bright and colorful, and add a peppery zing to salads.

Hens and chicks are another child-friendly favorite. Though you can grow these succulents from seed, your children might be approaching adulthood before you ever see a plant. A better choice is to start with a mature plant. Your children can help you propagate the chicks to make new plants (hence the name), and an added bonus is that these plants are drought-resistant and actually thrive off of a little neglect.

6. Finally, gardening creates lasting bonds with your children. I recently transplanted some flowers with my twentysomething daughter and was amazed at how meticulously she placed the plants into the ground and surrounded them with mulch. Sadly, that is not this Solo Mom. I’m a bit more of a slap-it-in-the-dirt-and-hope-it-grows kind of gardener. When I commented on her great handiwork, she reminded me, “I’ve been planting things in the earth since like forever, Mom. It has to be perfect.”

Denise Kumani Gantt is an interdisciplinary theater artist and author of the poetry collection Conjuring the Dead. She lives in Maryland with her daughter. You can follow her on Twitter at @KumaniGantt.

Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.

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