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As Covid-19 underlines the importance of being more self-reliant, this is the perfect time for experienced gardeners to begin teaching youngsters how to garden.
Last summer, a nephew and his young son competed to see who could grow the best peas and the 6-year-old won, a great incentive to keep growing.
I started growing things when I was 4.In my case, it was sweet peas and nasturtiums, and the ease of handling big seeds helped the experience.
When starting out, it’s essential to make gardening fun. Choosing things children like could be vegetables, as the end result can be eaten and — as schools have found — children will munch almost anything edible if they’ve grown it themselves.
For quick crops, mesclun mixes and baby spinach can be eaten young, while radishes are another fast-maturing edible. I don’t recommend carrots, not only because thinning is such a fiddly task but also because carrot fly can ruin a crop and the last thing you want is for children to be disappointed.
Pretty is good, too. Shiraz is a pea with two-toned purple and pink flowers then purple pods. This variety is best treated as a mange tout, with the young pod eaten raw or in a stir-fry. For conventional peas, Dutch heritage variety Blue Shelling has purple flowers and pods.
As noted, big is better when choosing seed for children to grow. Sweet peas, nasturtiums and sunflowers are good for starters. Incidentally, even if sunflower seed has been treated, plants will produce edible seed, while nasturtiums can be eaten, too, and a few flower petals can brighten up a salad.
Swan plants (Asclepias physocarpus) are very popular because they attract monarch butterflies and grow well in large containers. However, because every part of a swan plant — even the seed "bladder" — is chock-full of milky latex that is toxic to humans, care is needed. The caterpillars are immune and explaining about this characteristic is a way to teach children that, just because a bird or insect eats something, it does not mean that they can.
That lesson can lead on to one on the importance of safety, not only with tools but also in handling soil, compost and potting mixes. There are lots of cute gardening gloves for kids and they would make good gifts, as would mini-sized tools.
It is pleasing to see the return of New World’s Little Garden promotion and this year’s range of 24 herbs and vegetables is impressive, although Leighton Rutherford, of Ida Valley, was disappointed there were no sunflowers, which his school grew last year. His sister, Isla, was happy, though, as there were cherry tomatoes.
Adults have pointed out that the radishes and carrots in the Little Garden range are not really suitable for growing in this way and borage gets the thumbs down from me, as it tends to be an invasive weed here. Overall, though, the New World supermarkets’ Little Garden promotion is good and adults in single-person households could use the packs to grow just a few broccoli or basil seedlings.
Making gardening fun for children helps raise a new generation of gardeners for whom sustainability will be vital in a post-Covid-19 world.