By midsummer, many adults are thinking of ways to provide something for children to do until school begins. Why not start a gardening project? You can introduce your youngsters to the joys of gardening and at the same time exercise their bodies and brains.
To be successful during the summer months, select seeds or plants that will thrive in our hot, humid climate. A good selection of flowers, vegetables and herbs can be grown now. Whatever you decide to grow, start with a well-prepared planting bed or, if you’re gardening in containers, use a good potting soil and the properly sized container.
To prepare a garden bed, remove any weeds or grass from the area. Next, dig the soil to a depth of 8 inches. For small children, this can be a physically difficult task, and your assistance will be required. Try to find tools that are designed for kids to use. Then, sprinkle a complete granular fertilizer following label directions, spread a 2-inch layer of organic matter over the area and dig it all in. Most often, compost, aged manure, peat moss, leaves or grass clippings are used as a source of organic matter. Thoroughly incorporate everything into the soil of the bed by turning it in with a shovel.
Children might ask why you need to add fertilizer and organic matter to the soil. A simple answer is that the fertilizer provides nutrients needed by the plants. You can compare fertilizer to vitamins. Just as getting enough vitamins is important to our growth and health, fertilizers provide nutrients that make the plants healthier and productive. Mention that although we call fertilizers “plant food,” plants make their own food through a remarkable process called photosynthesis. In this process, plants absorb the energy of the sun and use it to create the food they need to live and grow.
The organic matter also adds nutrients, but more importantly, it improves the soil so the plant roots will grow better. The organic matter helps create air spaces and aids in drainage of excess water from the soil. The air spaces allow oxygen to be present in levels needed to maintain a healthy root system. A loose soil also helps the roots grow through it more easily.
Most kids are familiar with recycling aluminum, paper and glass. Introduce them to recycling organic yard waste through composting. Compost is a valuable soil amendment that you can easily make yourself with grass clippings, leaves and vegetable and fruit peelings from the kitchen. The LSU AgCenter has excellent free information on establishing a compost pile.
For container gardens, choose commercial potting soils that are lightweight and drain well. Make sure the containers you use have drainage holes to allow excess water to drain away when you water. Choose larger containers because they will need watering less often and you can grow a wider variety of plants in them. Use your favorite water-soluble fertilizer or a slow-release formulation. Follow label directions and repeat as indicated.
You can start your plants from seeds or purchase transplants from local nurseries. (Try both ways.) Flowers that will grow well in the summer include: salvia, marigold,* zinnia,* periwinkle, portulaca, verbena, sunflower,* gomphrena, wishbone flower, balsam,* melampodium, pentas and cosmos.* Vegetables you can be successful with include eggplant, hot peppers, okra, sweet potatoes, banana pepper, Gypsy pepper, peanuts,* yard-long beans,* hyacinth bean* and luffa.* The last three need something to climb on. Make a teepee out of bamboo stakes for the vines to climb on, and the kids will love to sit inside. The plants marked with an asterisk (*) are easily grown from relatively large seed that children can handle easily when planting.
A few herbs would also be fun to plant. Choose plants such as basil (the spaghetti sauce herb), oregano (the pizza herb) or spearmint (the toothpaste herb).
You might also consider planting a butterfly garden. Do some Internet research on this topic. Children are enthralled by the different stages (egg, caterpillar, chrysalis and butterfly) in the life cycle of these fascinating insects. In caterpillar stage they are voracious leaf eaters, and plants that they like to eat are planted in the butterfly garden for them to feed on.
The adult female butterfly will only lay her eggs on those plants that will properly nourish her offspring (so you don’t have to worry about butterfly caterpillars eating your other plants). Different species of butterflies lay eggs on different plants. Here are a few examples: monarch — butterfly weed; Gulf fritillary — passion vine; long-tailed skipper — beans; sulfur — cassias. The adult butterflies feed on nectar from many commonly grown garden flowers. Some of the best are pentas, lantana, butterfly weed, coneflower, buddleia and verbena.
During the heat of summer, proper hydration is very important. Encourage kids to drink cold water before, during and after activity outside. Be sure to use sunscreen and wear hats that shade the face, ears and neck. The use of mosquito repellents is recommended, especially if you’re outside during the early morning or late afternoon and early evening when mosquitoes are most active.
Gardening is one of the best ways to put children in touch with nature. Planting a few vegetables will help kids realize that food doesn’t just appear on grocery shelves. Take some time, and open a child’s eyes to the wonders of gardening. •