Garden tips for February | February 3, 2012 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

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Real Estate - February 3, 2012

Garden tips for February

Gardening with children

by Jack McKinnon

Children take to gardening like they take to play. After all what is more fun than playing in the dirt, pulling things out of the ground, breaking sticks, planting seeds, playing with the hose and picking and smelling flowers?

The following tips will be about supporting this play, directing it a bit and encouraging learning from it. At any age there is always more to learn when it comes to plants and how to grow them. I will start with the beginning, how to start seeds and write about planting, cultivating (continue to grow), planning and identifying easy-to-grow plants that all children love. Here are the tips:

1. Start some radish, lettuce and Swiss chard seeds in a paper towel folded in half and dampened with a little water. Keep it warm but not hot, and keep it moist. In a few days to a couple of weeks the seeds will sprout. This is an opportunity to teach your children about how seeds hold the life of the plant in them, sending down roots to reach the soil and leaves, up to find the light.

2. Once you have seedlings it is time to learn about soil. Buy some potting soil or compost and sift it with a colander or wire basket. This will create a medium about the texture of rice that is ideal for new seedlings. Fill small paper cups or used milk cartons with this mix and punch three holes in the bottom for water to drain out. Plant one seedling in each cup by holding the leaf and lifting it carefully off of the paper towel. Try not to touch the stem of the seedling because it is so fragile it will crush with the slightest touch.

3. Water the seedlings every other day until they are big enough to transplant into the ground (about 4 inches high with plenty of roots).

4. Dig up a garden plot in a sunny place adding about 4 inches of compost. Demonstrate with adult tools but provide smaller tools for young people. If this is a new garden plot try to dig at least 8 inches down. If it is easier to dig then go 12 inches. This gives new roots plenty of room to grow. If kids get bored that is OK. They can bring compost, plants and the hose to the site while you finish digging. I like to start the first plot at about 6 feet by 6 feet.

5. Plant in a somewhat systematic way (rows, circles, clusters or your design). This lets you know where to weed when it comes time for that.

6. Plant and or transplant your seedlings at the same depth they grew in their containers. Too deep and they will die, too shallow and they will fall over.

7. Turn everything into a learning experience. For younger children learn the names common and Latin of the plants. As they get older learn more about the history of that plant like where it came from originally, who first cultivated it, how is it different from the original mother plant.

8. Include botany into science studies in school. Learn and share with children how roots grow, how cells divide, the difference between root and trunk cells and how leaves do photo synthesis.

9. Learn and share about hybridization — how fragrance was lost when roses were bred for flower size and color, how corn went from being a simple grass to a super crop that depends on man to reproduce it. Hint, read "The Omnivore's Dilemma" by Michael Pollan.

10. Visit arboretums to learn about the thousands of genus and species of plants. Continue studying and learning with your children by traveling the world and visiting countries with rich botanical history, such as China, India, England and South America.

Good Gardening.

Garden coach Jack McKinnon can be reached at 650-455-0687 (cell), by email at Visit his website at


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