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Activities that inspire young gardeners

Try these easy, clean, and dirty gardening activities that support the concepts in “Gardening with young children: It’s easier than you think” on page 12.
Begin your garden study by observing the places plants grow. Let children dictate a list of the places they see plants growing. Talk about the kinds of plants they see. Ask whether they are used as food for animals or people or as decoration. Encourage the children to think of other reasons for gardens—soothing landscape, soil conservation, habitat for animals, snow and wind shield, or scientific investigation, for example.

• • •

Soil rainbow
Soil anchors plants and provides the water and nutrients plants need to grow. But all soils are different, each composed of different ingredients. The main ingredient is rock that has been broken down into tiny particles over time. Other ingredients include decomposing animal and plant parts and microorganisms, animals too small to see without a microscope.
Help children examine soil with a magnifying glass. They might be able to identify sand, rocks, clay, twigs, seeds, earthworms, dead and live insects, and trash like paper or plastic.
Make a soil rainbow comparing soils gathered from different locations.
Here’s what you need:
plastic, zipper-closed bags
self-stick labels
magnifying glass

1. Write each child’s name on a label.
2. Attach the label to a bag.
3. Instruct the children to place a few tablespoons of soil from their yards or a neighborhood park in their bags.
4. When the children bring the bags back to class, spread them out on a table top and compare the soils.
5. Help the children arrange the bags by color and then by composition.

Garden mural
Collect picture books, brochures, and photographs to share with children. Make a mural of unusual gardens.
Here’s what you need:
home and garden magazines
mural paper

1. Encourage the children to cut out pictures of unusual gardens.
2. Glue the pictures to the mural paper.
3. Talk with the children about how and why each kind of garden is important.
4. Try to include pictures of hanging gardens, desert landscapes, lawns, plants at shopping malls, water gardens, gardens along highways, forests, and produce farms.

Plant trash
Help children understand that some materials decompose when they die. When a plant dies, for example, the microorganisms in the soil turn it into compost. Other materials don’t decompose so readily.
Here’s what you need:
2 inorganic trash items like a soda can, a Styrofoam cup, or a coat hanger
2 organic or degradable items like eggshells, orange peel, or a slice of bread
plant markers

1. Determine a good place to dig four 12-inch-deep holes. Make the holes about 6 inches in diameter.
2. Bury four items: two that are degradable and two that are not.
3. Mark the holes and leave them undisturbed for about three weeks.
4. Return to the holes and dig the items up.
5. Compare the condition of the items. Which started to decompose? Could the children see worms or other insects that might have eaten the organic materials?

Garden plots and vessels
As the children discovered making the garden mural, gardens aren’t always large, neat rectangular plots. Take a neighborhood walk and track the kinds and shapes of gardens you pass. Watch for unusual plant pots and other vessels: hanging baskets, window boxes, large buckets, urns, ponds, and raised beds. In some neighborhoods gardens grow in old bathtubs!
Plant needs are generally simple: a vessel appropriate to the size of the plant, soil, water, and sun. Invite children (and their parents) to donate a container recycled from another use: microwave dishes, a cooking pot, a wire basket, or even an old shoe.
Use the containers to plant seeds or cuttings from existing plants. As the plants grow, have conversations with the children about their containers and plants.

Tire tower for potatoes
Potatoes require deep soil and a tower of old car tires provides the depth.
Here’s what you need:
4 to 6 old car tires
garden soil
sprouted seed potatoes
organic fertilizer

1. Prepare the seed potatoes. Cut sprouted potatoes so that there is an eye in each piece. Harden the potatoes by storing the pieces in a paper sack in a dry place for a couple of days. They are then ready to plant.
2. Pick a level garden area that gets full sun.
3. Mix the garden soil with the compost.
4. Set two of the tires on the ground, one on top of the other. Fill them with the garden mixture.
5. Plant the seed potatoes.
6. As the plants grow, carefully add another tire to the stack. Fill the area around the plants with more soil. You’ll bury some of the plant but make sure some of the leaves stay above the ground.
7. Add soil and as many as three more tires, one at a time, as the plants grow. If the plants stop making flowers, stop adding more tires.
8. After flowering, the plant will die back. When it looks dead, it’s time to harvest. Lift the tires off the stack and dig through the soil to find your potatoes.
Note: Fertilize regularly while the plants are flowering. Mix liquid organic fertilizer (like fish emulsion) in a watering can. Fertilize the tire tower at least every other week.

Vegetables of a different color
Plan regular tasting parties with unusual vegetables and their more familiar family members. Look for black lettuce, white pumpkins, blue corn and blue corn chips, white eggplant, lemon cucumbers, yellow pear tomatoes, and golden potatoes. Engage the senses—look, smell, and then taste. Make predictions about taste differences. Older children might even enjoy blindfold taste tests.

Tepees and trellises
Plants that climb as a vine, like beans and cucumbers, are space efficient and fun to grow. Make a frame to support this vertical growth.
Here’s what you need:
7-foot-long poles
measuring tape
heavy twine

1. Gather poles. Bamboo is often available either from a gardening store or a generous neighbor. Rustic tepees and trellises can also be built from saplings or fallen branches.
2. Use a shovel and tape measure to draw a large circle—about 7 feet in diameter—in the gardening area.
3. Prepare the soil along the line for planting.
4. Line up the poles side-by-side. Make sure the bottom ends are even.
5. Use twine to lash the poles together about 12 inches from the top.
6. Gather several children to lift the poles upright. Spread the loose ends apart evenly around the prepared circle.
7. When the poles are stable, weave horizontal lines with twine. Start by tying one end of the twine about 5 inches above the ground to the first pole. Wrap the twine around, move to the next pole and wrap once or twice. Continue wrapping until you get to the seventh pole.
8. At the seventh pole (the one next to the starting pole), turn around and start wrapping in the opposite direction, leaving a door into the tepee. Make the second line of twine about 10 inches above the first.
9. Continue weaving horizontal lines about 10 inches apart until you reach the top.
10. Plant bean seeds around the outside base of the tepee. Bean seeds are planted about 3 inches apart and 1/2 inch deep.
Variation: Use fallen limbs and twine to make a standing trellis. Make sure two of the limbs are sturdy enough to support cross branches. Dig the side frames into the ground or hang them from the eaves of a building.

Toad home
Welcome toads to your garden. They’ll eat garden pests in exchange for a bit of water and shelter.
Here’s what you need:
2 large clay pots
garden area with loose soil or mulch
shallow pan for water

1. Locate a quiet, shady area of the garden.
2. Turn the pots on their sides and place about 12 inches apart. Bury the lower half of each pot in loose soil.
3. Place a shallow water bowl near the pots. Make sure there is always water in the bowl; an empty bowl will send your toads looking for a new home.
4. Avoid disturbing these toad homes but watch for the toads in the early morning when they look for food and lap dew from leaves.

Elaborate and simple scarecrows add color and humor to gardens—and they may help keep bird pests away. A scarecrow must have a base—a length of wood that is anchored in the ground. Beyond that, building the scarecrow is an exercise in creativity.
Here’s what you need:
lumber or tree branches
drill and bits
wood screws
plastic bags or straw stuffing
safety pins
permanent markers

1. Find a 5- to 7-foot-long piece of lumber to be the scarecrow’s spine. The spine will be anchored in the ground and the scarecrow will hang from the spine.
2. Place the spine lumber on the ground.
3. Gather shorter lengths of lumber scrap or tree branches. Screw these in place along the spine. Place one about 10 inches from the top (shoulders) and another about 20 inches lower (hips).
4. Screw two legs from the ends of the hips.
5. Gather clothes for the scarecrow.
6. Put a shirt on the shoulder frame. Stuff the shirt—front, back, and arms—with plastic bags or straw.
7. Add pants or a skirt to the frame. Attach to the shirt with safety pins. If using pants, stuff the pant legs. If your scarecrow will wear a skirt, let it billow in the breeze.
8. Extra clothing can include boots, gloves, an apron, vest, or handkerchief.
9. Make the head from an old ball. Cut a slit in the ball to fit the lumber spine and slide the ball in place.
10. Use permanent markers to make a face on the ball. Or you could reuse an old Halloween mask.
11. Tie a hat, old wig, or scarf to the scarecrow’s head.
12. Decide where to place the scarecrow in the garden. Dig a hole and anchor the end of spine in the ground.
Alternative: Skip the lumber pieces and simply stuff old clothing with plastic bags, newspaper, or straw. Stuff an old sack to make the head, paint on a face, and pin all the clothes together. Let the scarecrow relax in an old lawn chair.

Toilet paper seed tape
If you plan to build an in-the-ground garden bed with children, let them help with the whole process. Provide appropriate tools for turning soil, fertilizing, and watering; containers for weeds and other garden wastes; and systems for sowing seeds.
Large seeds—beans and pumpkin, for example—can easily be spaced in the soil with fingers. Smaller seeds—like tomatoes, radishes, and lettuce—are hard to control. You can buy seed tape at gardening stores with seeds appropriately spaced on biodegradable tape. But making seed tape works just as well—and it’s fun.
Here’s what you need:
packets of gelatin
mixing bowl and spoon
white, unscented toilet paper
cardboard scrap
cotton swab or small paintbrush

1. Cover the work area with newspaper if it needs to be protected.
2. Measure the garden plot and determine the row length for the vegetable or flower you are planting.
3. Examine the seed packet to determine the appropriate spacing for that plant. Cut the cardboard to the length of the space recommended.
4. Unroll the toilet paper to the length of the garden row.
5. Using the cardboard spacer, make evenly spaced marks along the center of the toilet paper roll.
6. Mix the gelatin with enough water to make a soupy paste.
7. Dip the cotton swab or paintbrush into the gelatin and dab each spot on the toilet paper.
8. Place a seed onto each of the gelatin paste dots. Let the paste dry.
9. When it’s time to plant, make a trench in the soil at the recommended depth for the seed—1/2 inch for carrots, for example.
10. Set the toilet paper seed tape in the trench and cover with fine soil. A neat row of plants will sprout.