Connolly: Easy ways to grow young gardeners this winter

Would you like to take the kids in your life on a walk down the garden path? Not long ago, farming and gardening were a necessary part of most families' lives and highly visible to young children. Now, in many cases, adults have to take the time to make sure children know their food doesn't magically materialize behind the fast-food counter.

To get some insights and holiday gift recommendations, I spoke with Lori Paradis Brant, environmental education director at Connecticut Forest and Park Association in Middlefield. She places gardening with children high on her list of activities that make a difference.

"Gardening can meet kids where they are, no matter their developmental level," she says.

Brant has been an environmental educator for 20 years, including 10 delivering the Project Learning Tree curriculum to Connecticut educators.

"Young children are very tactile and a garden can enliven all their senses," she says. "And one other wonderful thing is that from a child's perspective, it doesn't matter if the garden is as small as a pot of marigolds or as big as a working farm. To them, it's all about what touches them."

In Brant's opinion, three factors increase a young child's embrace of gardens and the outdoors.

"First, they need to be able to get outdoors, to dig leaf litter and sift dirt with their fingers," she says. "Kids in the 4- to 8-year-old range learn with their whole bodies. When they act like a tree, in their minds they start to become a tree."

The second way to encourage positive awareness, she says, is to share the child's excitement in discovery. "The shared excitement from an interested adult is priceless," she says.

Third, kids need the time and space to continue investigating, which is sometimes a challenge in today's more structured childhood schedules. "It's so important to let kids stay with a newfound interest, to reduce the number of interruptions," says Brant.

Books and indoor activities create opportunities for those important shared experiences with an enthusiastic adult. Brant offers a number of book suggestions for 4- to 8-year-olds.

For hilarity, she recommends "Diary of a Worm" by Doreen Cronin (2003). "Kids love it!" she says.

"Tops and Bottoms" is a 1995 Caldecott Honor book by Janet Stevens based on a classic parable that familiarizes children with vegetables in a garden while teaching about personal responsibility as well.

For a cat's eye view of farming, "Molly's Organic Farm" by Carol Malnor (2012) makes Brant's list. "I love the 'ready, set, grow' section at end of book and the story of the real cat named Molly," says Brant.

To reinforce her point about the insignificance of the garden's size, she recommends "Flower Garden" by Eve Bunting (1994). It follows a young city girl and her dad as they create a window box for mom. This book appears on a number of recommended lists.

Brant also recommends "A Seed Is Sleepy" by Diana Hutts Aston (2004) and "What's In the Garden?" by Marianne Berkes (2013).

In addition to Brant's recommendations, another well regarded book is "Miss Rumphius" by Barbara Cooney (1985). A fictional story of a woman who plants lupines all over the state of Maine, "Miss Rumphius" won several prestigious awards and is considered by many a children's classic.

"The Curious Garden" by Peter Brown (2009) is the story of a garden that goes on a stroll, so to speak. It is reminiscent of the real life story of New York City's Highline, an abandoned elevated railroad that has become a world-famous linear garden, park and public gathering space.

"Planting a Rainbow" (1992) and "Growing Vegetable Soup" (1990) by Lois Ehlert are among the most popular kids' gardening books. Another Eve Bunting book, "The Sunflower House," is also popular.

Activity kits are good at promoting appreciation for soil and plant life. The National Gardening Association, for instance, offers WormLab , a worm composting kit that is popular in science programs. It also sells the "Root-Vue Farm," where kids can watch root veggies such as carrots grow through a plexiglass container. (See the NGA's kids' gardening store at gardeningwithkids.org)

For do-it-yourselfers, a copy of Sharon Lovejoy's 1999 book, "Roots, Shoots, Buckles and Boots" will help point the way.

As for a real growing experience this winter, consider a winter veggie harvest from a sunny windowsill. I've had luck with the very cute, diminutive Tom Thumb lettuce and Red Robin cherry tomatoes from seed.

Who says you can't awaken a young gardener in winter?

AS A CHILD, KATHY CONNOLLY FOLLOWED HER GRANDMOTHER AROUND AN ABUNDANT VEGETABLE GARDEN ON A TERRACED HILLSIDE IN PITTSBURGH. TODAY, CONNOLLY IS A LANDSCAPE DESIGNER, GARDEN WRITER AND SPEAKER FROM OLD SAYBROOK. EMAIL HER AT KATHY@SPEAKINGOFLANDSCAPES.COM OR VISIT WWW.SPEAKINGOFLANDSCAPES.COM.

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