Digging in and getting your hands dirty can be an enjoyable learning experience for the whole family.
While shuttling your kids between piano, soccer and dance lessons, do you ever wonder why the fun, learning part of their life has to be separate from yours? Or do you find yourself filling the school holidays with activities and then realizing you haven’t left space to make your own family fun? Luckily, there’s a simple antidote to these feelings of disconnect: Gardening with your kids.
This doesn’t mean you have to grow all your family’s food or become an expert in soil PH levels to get started. “All you need is dirt, sun, water and seeds,” says Robert Bowden, director of Harry P. Leu Gardens, to create lasting family memories, give kids a sense of purpose, and initiate healthier lifelong habits.
Kelly Ladd-Sanchez, mom of Kai, age 9, shares how her family bonded recently over bonsai trees. “We each got one and we all sat in the backyard clipping and trying to make our bonsais beautiful. We were helping each other, talking, sharing what was working, what wasn’t. We were all learning together.”
Gardening also gives kids a sense of accomplishment, which encourages them to try healthy foods they might not otherwise. “I want kids to know where food comes from,” says Chef Kevin Fonzo, owner of K Restaurant & Wine Bar in College Park, who spearheads, along with local raw food chef Sarah Cahill, Orlando Junior Academy’s (OJA) Edible Ed class taught to 5th through 8th grade students for half of each school year. The class is part of the Edible Education Experience (EdibleEd.org), whose mission is grounding education in a garden experience.
“Say kids love pickles,” explains Fonzo. “Yet, they have no idea that pickles are made from cucumbers, which started as seeds. So they begin to learn the concept of seed to table.” The results have been overwhelmingly positive. Fonzo recalls a story about a group of kids who’d harvested radishes they’d grown and brought them to him in the cafeteria kitchen. “They were so proud that they each wanted some part of the acknowledgment. I made pickled radishes from them, and the kids all tried them because they grew them. If their parents had served them, they’d never have tried one.” Adds Fonzo, “Growing their own takes away the fear. They know exactly what it is, from a seed. They aren’t afraid of it anymore.”
Growing their own food also fosters appreciation, says Sharon Dahlquist, who gardens with her 5-year-old daughter, Yael, and who is spearheading the garden curriculum at Monarch Learning Academy in Winter Park. “When we come to the table to eat,…understanding where it comes from, whether we grew it or someone else grew it, embodies gratitude.”
The health benefits are pretty convincing too. Florida Hospital for Children’s Weight and Wellness Program, currently serving 2,000 overweight or obese children and adolescents, has embraced the garden as a tool to help bring their patients into a healthier frame of mind. The program’s medical director, Dr. Angela Fals, introduced gardening with just some containers in a grassy area outside her office. “As time went on, we sensed that gardening was very important; the kids loved to come.” So they partnered with OJA and its school garden to give kids more ownership. Now, Fals and her team garden with their patients and their families at OJA’s give-back garden one Sunday a month at the large College Park plot at the corner of King Street and Musselwhite Avenue.
The takeaway, says Fals, is that the more experiential and hands-on learning is with kids, the more life-changing and permanent the benefits will be. “It also helps them to dare to taste a delicious vegetable, which usually tastes sweeter and fresher, leading them to accept vegetables a little more.”
Sounds great, right? But not sure where to begin? Well, December and January are perfect times for planting in Central Florida. Bowden of Leu Gardens suggests starting by simply planting some seeds. “Bush beans are easy,” he says. Start with a 6-inch clay pot or reuse a plastic pot that nursery plants come in (1 gallon is a good size). Add some store-bought potting soil, or just dig a shovelful of dirt from your yard, get a pack of seeds and plant four in the pot. Keep it watered and make sure it gets enough sunlight. In 55-60 days you can be eating homegrown beans. As you gain confidence, try something new. A pot is nice because you can move it to get the most sunlight. If a seedling dies, plant another seed. Don’t want to mess with a pot? “You can bury a bean seed right in your grass, and it will start growing,” says Bowden, who teaches many of the gardening classes that parents and kids can take together (leugardens.org/classes).
Bowden certainly takes the scary out of the unknown. And that’s exactly what Brad Jones, volunteer gardener with OJA’s garden-based curriculum, sees firsthand as the value of parents and kids learning to garden together. “Being vulnerable in front of your kids is valuable. It levels the playing field.”
The great thing is, you can learn from anyone who loves to garden. Jones suggests asking for help from, or talking to, someone who is already a successful gardener—a grandma down the street or a neighbor who has a great-looking yard. “I promise, they can’t wait to tell you about it,” he says. If you plan to start a project at home, though, he recommends visiting a mom-and-pop nursery. “If you already have a pot, bring it with you. They’ll help you find the perfect getting-started project.”
Worth the 45-minute drive from Orlando is A Natural Farm & Educational Center (anaturalfarm.com) located in Howey-in-the-Hills, near Tavares. Owners Luc and Sonia Duytsche offer many free family gardening workshops on Saturday afternoons—they carry all of the supplies to get started and will help you pick a single project and set you on a simple path toward gardening success.
Regardless of the outcome, what kids care most about, says Bowden, “is how it feels and smells to be outdoors, spending time with their parents.”