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Food For Thought (Just Grow With It!)

By Michael Ferraro

Like most young children living in urban surroundings, 6-year-old Gracie thought food came from the grocery store and a plant was just a plant. Then one spring day, her mom added some pepper seeds to a backyard container, and Gracie’s world began to grow.

As loving parents, we all want what’s best for our children, and we do everything we can to keep them healthy, happy and safe. With all of the grand lessons we want to teach our little ones before they grow up, it can be easy to overlook something as small as a seed. But that’s exactly where one of life’s best lessons we can teach our children comes from—because that one tiny seed holds the potential to change children’s lives for the better, and help them become healthier for it.

I grew vegetable plants for my dad’s garden center when I was a kid. All I had to do was put some seeds in a few soil pellets and keep them moist, and then voilà! A few days later, I had little plants! I still remember how cool I thought that was. Today, most kids don’t get such an awesome firsthand opportunity to watch things grow. Their typical introduction to “gardening” (if any) is watching Mom and Dad do yard work (keyword there: “work”). But “gardening” isn’t about pulling annoying weeds all spring and trying to keep the lawn green through summer. Gardening is meant to be an enjoyable, peaceful connection with nature. And for kids, it can be an awesome learning experience—not to mention downright fun!

Really, what can be more rewarding than showing children that delicious, healthy food comes from a seed—and that they have the power to make it grow? Answer: Having curious children eat more healthy foods because they’ve unlocked that power of gardening! Studies have shown that children tend to eat more vegetables and herbs when they’re the ones who help plant, pick and prepare the harvest. Of course, kids are still kids. Are they going to embrace every vegetable that’s put on their plate? No. But when you give youngsters the opportunity to grow their own food—no matter what kind it is—chances are they’ll at least try what you give them before they turn their noses up at it. And hey, you never know—they may just like what they eat!

Now, before you tell me that you don’t have a “green thumb” or that you’ve never grown a tomato in your life, here’s a pop quiz. If you get this right, you are officially qualified to teach your child about the amazing benefits of gardening.

What do plants need to grow?

A) Water, soil, sunlight, fertilizer

B) A dark room and a can of soda

C) Cheese

(See? You’ve got this!)

Your backyard is an amazing classroom to teach kids that growing plants is very important to keeping our planet green and healthy, and that growing food is even better, because vegetables, fruits and herbs help keep our bodies healthy, too.

Whether you grow a few plants in a container or plot out an entire planting bed, your children can grow a firsthand love for gardening and nature, as well as gain a new appreciation for science and art.

Here are a few simple ideas to help get the lessons growing:

Give your child his own special gardening spot. It can be as large as an in-ground planting bed or as small as a plastic pot. Maybe you have an old sandbox or water basin you can convert into a fun growing space. Unusual containers make cool planters, too. Just make sure that whatever you use has drainage holes at the bottom for when your child waters, and buy soil that’s appropriate for your growing conditions. (There’s a difference between “potting mix” and “soil,” for example, so always read the label!)

Pick plants that grow well (and easily) in your area, keeping in mind what kind of sun conditions your child’s growing space has. Most vegetable plants need at least six hours of full sun a day, while some annuals do well in shady spots. If you’re not sure what to pick, don’t panic. Just ask your local garden center professional for help. (Hey, showing kids that it’s OK to ask questions is another important lesson!)

Encourage your young sprouts to keep a garden journal as their plants start to grow. Have them take photographs or draw pictures of their garden throughout the season, as well as keep track of how often plants are watered and cared for. Ask them to note what pollinators they see visiting their garden, like helpful bees and butterflies, and to make predictions and keep a tally of how many tomatoes, peppers or strawberries are picked each month. (Shhh…gardening teaches math skills, too…don’t tell!)

If you’re not quite ready to dig into gardening with your young sprouts just yet, that’s okay—you can still instill a love for growing by visiting a local botanic garden or arboretum together. These amazing public gardens aren’t just for adults. Many have entire sections dedicated to children. Some are so amazing, you may be inspired to find a new way to bring a little whimsy into your own growing space, whether out in the yard or on the deck or balcony.

Plants and kids can be a great pair, if you encourage the relationship to grow. Teaching children where healthy food comes from truly is a life-changing experience. It gives them gardening knowledge and skills, a chance to live a healthy lifestyle, a way to fight childhood obesity, an opportunity to help the environment and time to have fun with their families in the sunshine. What’s more, it gives children a reason to feel proud of themselves and their accomplishments. Just ask Gracie. Now 10 years old, this young gardener has four years of veggie growing under her belt.

“Gardening is awesome,” she reports, “because it makes you feel big, looking at all the beautiful plants and vegetables you grew and knowing that you did all of that work by yourself. Well, at least most of the work. We still need moms and dads to help!”