I love gardening with my 5-year-old son. His favorite activities include planting seeds and transplants, watering everything, sometimes even the plants, and filling the birdbath with rocks, sticks and mud.
I love that, at 5, he knows that plants make flowers, flowers make seeds and seeds make more plants. I was delighted when he recognized that the sunflower seeds in the bird feeder were the same as the seeds he planted last spring that grew into big yellow flowers. Of course, he promptly scooped up a handful of seeds from the bird feeder and planted them randomly in every flowerbed in the yard. It looks like we'll have lots of sunflowers this year.
Gardening is a great family-friendly activity. Simply planting a seed or harvesting a tomato with a child can foster a deeper understanding of the natural world.
Engaging children in food gardening early can instill healthy eating habits, since children are more likely to eat what they grow. Gardening helps children develop into adults who value and protect natural resources.
The key to gardening with kids is to keep it simple, age-appropriate and fun. When gardening with children of any age, focus on the moment, not on perfection. Plan simple activities and prepare to be sidetracked. The sense of wonder and discovery we want children to experience can't be forced; it comes with exploration of the world around them.
Easy beds, containers
I prefer to focus on gardens with a purpose or theme. Cooking and eating, and growing and crafting are my favorite garden-based activities. With a little planning, you can keep your family engaged all summer long.
Raised beds and container gardens make gardening easy for busy families. Requiring less space than traditional gardens, containers don't require weeding, but they will need frequent watering. Small watering cans or watering wands allow youngsters to water without damaging tender plants.
Container vegetable gardening is popular, making container-appropriate vegetable seeds and transplants easy to find. My family likes cherry tomatoes such as 'Sungold' and 'Sweet 100 Hybrid.' Both are prolific producers that provide ample harvesting opportunities for little fingers. The fruit is sweet and grows well in containers. You will need to support this type of tomato plant by staking.
Other container-friendly veggies to try include cucumbers such as 'Patio Snacker' or ''Salad Bush Hybrid,' peppers such as 'Tangerine Dream' or 'Sweet Red Popper,' and 'Bush Blue Lake 274' green beans.
Read more about growing vegetables in containers at www.clemson.edu/extension/hgic/plants/vegetables/gardening/hgic1251.html.
Plant herbs and veggies together and let children know it's OK to snack from these containers only. Keep flowering plants and other non-edibles separate for safety's sake. Flowering annuals and perennials in containers can become "pollination stations" for watching hummingbirds, butterflies and bees, plus they will pollinate nearby vegetables for better yields.
Older children can learn geography, food origins and culinary skills by growing and cooking foods from different regions of the world.
For an Asian adventure, plant vegetables such as Malabar spinach, yard-long or purple hyacinth beans, Japanese cucumbers, Thai basil and 'Ichiban' eggplant. Connect to traditional African culture by planting okra, sweet potatoes or melons.
Add herbs such as basil and oregano to tomatoes to create an Italian- or pizza-inspired garden. Bring it full circle by topping homemade or ready-made pizza crusts with sauce, cheese, halved cherry tomatoes and chopped herbs for a simple, homegrown supper.
Try grouping tomatillos, peppers and corn with tomatoes for a Latin American-themed garden.
Make your garden a living classroom by laminating a world map with stickers indicating the countries represented in the garden.
Get crafty, too
Large seeds are easier for small fingers to grasp and plant. For just a few dollars, parents can purchase a pack of birdhouse, dipper, luffa or egg gourd seeds. These vigorous climbers quickly cover trellises and fences and provide ample crafting opportunities at harvest.
At the end of summer, harvest gourds and place them in a cool, well-ventilated spot until completely dry before crafting items such as birdhouses, musical instruments, purple martin houses or luminaries.
Most people don't realize that luffa sponges are not sea creatures from the depths, but a dried, seeded and peeled luffa gourd. Save seeds from this year's harvest and replant next spring. Engage children in writing the name of the plant on small envelopes to share extra saved seeds (there will be plenty) along with a homegrown luffa sponge for bath time to inspire other families to garden, too.
Join Clemson Extension's Carolina Yards for a five-week online course designed to help Carolina gardeners learn to grow and maintain an environmentally friendly garden.
Enjoy online training from the comfort of your home and on your own schedule with peers from around the state.
Each week includes online presentations, videos, discussion forums and more.
Visit www.clemson.edu/cy/online for more information and to register. Register by April 24 to take advantage of the early registration fee of $110. The fee includes online training and a package of course materials shipped right to your home. Space is limited.
Are you one of the more than 6,000 stormwater pond owners in the tri-county area? If so, the 2014 Charleston Area Stormwater Pond Management Conference on May 22 will provide a forum to share the latest pond management information and resources for the Lowcountry community.
The agenda features discussions and lectures from pond management experts as well as an exhibitor demonstration area.
The one-day conference will be held at Trident Technical College. Registration starts at $50.
To sign up, visit www. ashleycooper.org.
Earth Day event
Join the nonprofit group Charleston Trees at 2 p.m. Tuesday for a celebration of Earth Day (April 22) on the right-of-way at Calhoun Street, adjacent to Citadel Square Baptist Church.
Yvonne Evans, Charleston Trees chairwoman, and Charleston Mayor Joe Riley will speak about the value of urban trees at this ceremonial tree-planting event.
Clemson Extension will offer School Gardening for Lowcountry Educators, a self-paced online course designed for public school educators, administrators and staff interested in starting or improving school gardening efforts in Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties.
Hands-on training is included for the course, which will be June 16-July 14. Deadline to register is May 26.
This course is funded by a grant through of the College of Charleston's Farm-to-School Initiative.
For more information, contact Amy Dabbs at email@example.com.
Amy L. Dabbs is a Clemson Extension Urban Horticulture Extension Agent. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.