Evelyn Mietlowski laughed as she recalled the January day when her 3-year-old grandson Oliver was visiting and asked her, “Can we plant tomatoes?”
“Ollie,” as he is sometimes called, has plenty of time to learn about seasonal planting. But one thing he already knows: Tomatoes grow on a vine, not in a bin at the supermarket.
He and his 5-year-old brother, Trever, are growing up gardening with their parents and both grandmothers.
When they are at her house, “we plant seeds, and they help me pull weeds in the flower beds. We plant tomatoes in pots so they can watch them grow. We are really big on this. We all work together,” said Mietlowski, a master gardener and member of the Amherst Garden Club.
Gardening can be a solitary activity, but it also can be a family affair. Whether it’s gardening with a child, spouse, partner, sibling, parent or grandparent, the lessons learned here can last a lifetime. So can the memories – muddy mishaps and all.
Some kids can experience gardening at school, as well as in local community gardens. The home garden presents another way to connect kids to nature by letting them dig, plant, explore, play, learn – and even eat better.
“Gardening is a wonderful hobby to do with your children. Not only does it provide some great physical exercise, but it also teaches them about where food comes from and inspires them to eat a more healthy and varied diet,” writes Simon Akeroyd in the new book, “Kitchen Gardening for Beginners: A Simple Guide to Growing Fruit and Vegetables” (DK, $19.95).
It also gets them away from the television or computer screen.
Locally, families definitely are getting into vegetable gardening, said Kathie DePan, from Zittel’s Country Market, 4415 Southwestern Blvd., Hamburg.
“People are so doing their own vegetables now. We’re getting a lot of kids coming in with their parents and picking out the seeds. It just teaches the kids so much. I am seeing more of an effort from parents to do gardening with their children, as a family,” she said.
There’s also growing interest in organic gardening, DePan noted. In fact, families can learn about gardening together – whether it’s going organic, attracting butterflies or growing beans on a handmade teepee made from poles.
A vegetable garden would likely be included in any garden Jennifer Lee Fedeson helped a family plan.
“It would be about the vegetable garden and the education of how things grow because a lot of times that’s lost. You go to the grocery store, and it’s just there,” said Fedeson, principal designer at F&S Design Studio, which specializes in exterior design.
With a garden, kids can actually experience how things are produced and incorporated into the kitchen for cooking, healthy eating and wellness, she said.
Also part of a welcoming family garden: Open spaces so kids can run around and play kickball. A safe place for kids to climb. Seating areas for conversation, relaxing, reading. Perhaps a little hideaway.
While this can be a playhouse or tree house, it doesn’t have to be.
“It can be all natural vegetation – a space that is a little more secluded so they can have their little space back there,” Fedeson said.
Fun stuff to plant
When planning a family garden, Akeroyd writes that kids like to see quick results so choose fast-growing crops such as “cut-and-come-again” salad greens, radishes and green onion.
“Also, get them involved with choosing food they will enjoy eating, such as strawberries, raspberries, carrots and potatoes,” he added.
Select plants that appeal to the senses. Among the flowers and vegetables kids find fun to grow: Big, bold sunflowers; pumpkins; fun-smelling herbs such as pineapple sage and lemon basil; heliotrope, which smells like vanilla; Shasta daisies; cosmos, which attracts butterflies; fuzzy lamb’s ear; ‘Bright Lights’ Swiss chard with colorful stems, and parsley, which attracts caterpillars.
“Snapdragons are fun because you can squeeze them, and they open and close. Kids are just so curious,” said Mietlowski, who works at Mischler’s Florist and Greenhouses in Williamsville.
Something else to check out: “The American Heart Association’s Teaching Gardens Starter Kit – by Burpee.” Each kit contains 12 Burpee vegetable seed packets and eight healthy gourmet recipes to enjoy from your bountiful family garden. It’s priced $9.95 per kit; you can learn more at www.burpee.com. As the website points out: “Kids who grow fruits and vegetables are more likely to eat them.”
A word on yard and garden safety: Make sure the yard is safe for children. Check for tripping hazards, including tools. Remove broken glass. Avoid sharp-ended stakes and other objects.
Some other ideas:
• You don’t have to go big. Keep the garden a manageable size so your child – and you – don’t feel overwhelmed. Plant tomatoes in a pot on the deck. Or sunflowers on the sunny side of the house.
• Fairy gardens are another option. Pure delight. Local greenhouses and nurseries offer fairy figurines and related accessories for these miniature gardens.
“It’s a wonderful way to get children into gardening. Maybe it’s because it’s tiny and more their size, but they do get excited about it. It’s just so fun. It even teaches kids responsibility and how to take care of things,” said Louise Badding, of the Badding Bros. Farm Market, 10820 Transit Road, East Amherst.
“Typically with fairy gardening, people come in and want to buy the succulents. But there is no reason why you can’t plant vegetables or herbs in your fairy garden. Use rosemary as a tree or thyme as a low-growing ground cover,” said Badding, who plans to create one with her 3½-year-old granddaughter, Brianna, when she visits in late June from Virginia. After the girl goes to bed, Badding will add a little fairy bunny or piece of furniture “to make it look like the fairies are moving in.”
Get creative. You can even set up a fairy garden in an empty bird bath or, as seen at Badding Bros., in a discarded drawer or broken terra-cotta pot. In one fairy garden, the pot’s broken chips were used to create a “path” to the rest of the garden.
• Plant a theme garden. It can be a garden featuring your child’s favorite colors. A red, white and blue garden. Or even a garden devoted to her favorite food, such as a pizza garden planted with tomatoes, green peppers, basil, etc.
• Remember that most kids love to get messy. Let them. The “Kitchen Gardening for Beginners” suggests setting up a worm compost.
• Don’t aim at perfection: The Burpee website offers this advice: “Choose a corner of the garden and let your child plant what she wishes, how she wishes. She might plant broccoli right next to a sunflower, too close and all crooked. Lighten up. It’s gardening.”