Turn over a new leaf: Garden with your kids

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It’s spring. You’re seeing all those cute little plants for sale outside stores, and your saliva awakens at the thought of a still-warm, fresh-from-the-vine home-grown tomato. You are thinking about turning over the soil in the backyard and planting a seedling or two.

But you have kids. And they’ll just get in the way, right? So you mentally add gardening to the list of “Things To Do When The Kids Are In College.”

Not so fast.

Children can reap incredible benefits from time spent outside in the sun with a watering can and a pile of dirt. Sunlight spurs the production of vitamin D, which helps the body utilize calcium and phosphorous. Fresh air calms the mind and focuses the senses. Working the soil, imagining they are fairy princesses among the dandelions or big diggers at a construction site — this is all so good for little brains.

In addition, gardening together is a bonding experience: It teaches patience to you and your kids, it answers the question of “where does food come from anyway?” and it will probably expand their diet as they try eating new things.

“So,” you ask, “how do we get started?” It can be as easy as one pot, a bag of rich soil and a seedling. Or as limitless as a backyard pile of dirt. Allow space for digging and watering. Relax and allow for potential mishaps. Let kids choose what and where to plant. Give them the tools they need to do the job, such as kid-sized shovels, rakes and watering cans. And make it really fun.

Vicki Zanes, crowned queen at last month’s Moms’ Network Mom Prom, says, “Let them do as much as possible. Watering, weeding, planting, pruning, all of it. This means things will NOT go as planned all the time and plants may suffer. ... It’s okay. We are growing more than just veggies here, people!”

I’ve seen the coolest backyard gardens, with sprawling vines of squash and pumpkin and huge beds of strawberries, ripe for the picking. Have you ever stood inside a tepee blanketed by green bean vines? Imagine butterfly havens, archways of morning glory, secret hide-outs and forts. Kids love this stuff!

Gardening can be an adventure into the unusual. Try planting purple carrots, rainbow chard or giant pumpkins. Lamb’s ears are soft to feel; snapdragon blossoms are fun to pinch; and evening primrose opens only at night. Cherry tomatoes are the just-right snack — perfect for small mouths, and an all-time favorite around here.

The smaller kiddos will probably be most enamored by the creepy crawlies to be found: earthworms, pill bugs, ladybugs, caterpillars and more. Let kids capture and make temporary homes for them (we’ve housed plenty of these guys over the years) before freeing the bugs to carry on their daily duties.

As kids get older, a garden can be a place to practice math skills, explore science, create art, even learn business strategies. My almost-six-year-old asked for some blackberry vines to grow; he wants to sell the berries this summer.

Really, the goal here is to be outside, enjoying insects and things that grow and simply being part of it all. What better feeling than to connect with and support the living, breathing, providing wealth of a garden? Your children need to experience that too.

Laura Kyle and her husband, Tim, live in a little yellow house with their two sons. She blogs here about the reality of life — a desperate balancing act where tickles and games of chase meet laundry and healthful meals.

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