Little Gardeners: Home-Grown Connections to the Natural World

By Julie Cerny



One tiny seed rested in the palm of my hand as I walked around to show the small group of students, parents, and teachers. “This seed will grow to be a head of lettuce, I said.” They leaned in to take a closer look. Among the “ooos” and “whoas,” one of the moms raised her eyebrows, looked up at me in amazement, and said, “This one little seed grows a whole head of lettuce?” I smiled and nodded. “That’s fly,” she said.”


While it might be a little more challenging for families to connect with nature these days, we often forget that one of the most direct and intimate ways to connect with nature is to eat it. Whether it’s sliced apples, a handful of baby carrots, foraged ramps, or a bowl of our favorite cereal, when we eat, nature is right there with us.


And when we eat nature, a small part of it becomes a small part of us—and it fills us up a little more every time. Eventually, we may begin to realize that we have always been 100 percent nature—that we are made of the same components of all that we see in the natural world—our bodies made of water and carbon, the same as the flower stalks. Gardens remind us that everything is connected, and that “everything” includes us.


You may be thinking that you need a big backyard or a lot of tools in order to connect to nature through gardening, but a garden can live in places you might not have thought of. Planting seeds and watching them grow is an easy and accessible way to engage with nature even if you are cooped up at home or don’t have a lot of space. A garden can even live in yogurt containers on a sunny windowsill. Grow wherever you can. It will be worthwhile.


Nature is impressive, and seeds—they are pure magic. If there’s soil to grow in and the right amount of water and warmth, they know what to do. Seeds are covered in a coat that protects them until they are met with just the right conditions to break dormancy and germinate (sprout). Inside the coat are the beginnings of the root and stem of the plant, along with a small reserve of food to get the seed started on its journey of growth. Denise Pizzini, a flower farmer and garden educator friend of mine likes to say: “Seeds carry their own lunch!”


Hands are great tools for seeding. The littlest gardeners for whom fine motor skills are still developing have an easier time handling larger seeds such as peas, beans, pumpkins, and corn, while older little gardeners can manage small to medium-size seeds, such as lettuce, turnips, arugula, peppers, and eggplant.


Chris getting seeds ready for planting

For your little garden, you will need:


A sunny window (or space outside if available)

Seeds

Planting containers at least 4 inches (~10cm) deep

Potting soil, slightly damp

Labels and a permanent marker

Ruler

Water

Tray

Journal and a pencil

Compost

Floor or table covering

Nice but not necessary: a grow light




Helpful hints: Old milk jugs and salad mix containers make great planting pots. For labels, you can cut up a plastic milk jug into short strips and write on them—they are easy to stick into the soil, and they are waterproof! Choose smaller plants like greens, herbs, or radishes for a sunny windowsill garden. If you have a place outside that gets at least 6 hours of sunlight, you can grow all kinds of things.


First, it’s a good idea to get to know what you want to grow! In your journal, write the answers to the following questions. You can usually find this information on the seed packet.

1. How deep and how far apart do these seeds like to be planted?

2. How long will it take to sprout?

3. How long until it’s ready? (Hint! Look for “days to maturity”)


Time to Plant

1. If you’re working inside, lay out a floor or table covering (to contain any mess!).

2. Poke a few holes in the bottom of your container to allow excess water to drain out and help keep soil moisture just right.

3. Fill your container with damp potting soil (mix in some compost if you like). Gently press the soil into the container, leaving a little room at the top.

4. Create a label with the date and name of the plant and place it in the container before you plant your seeds (to avoid forgetting where you planted what!)

5. Make holes in the soil to the depth and at the spacing the seed likes best. You may want to use a ruler to measure.

6. Place seeds in the holes. Sometimes I like to add an extra seed, just in case the first one is too sleepy and doesn’t wake up! Cover the seeds with soil and tuck them in by pressing down a bit on the soil. Place your little garden on a tray and water it gently.

7. If you have a clear container lid, you can poke holes in it and place it on top to create a mini greenhouse. Remove the lid once the plant has emerged to let air circulate.



Brothers Stevie and Chris watering their container garden

1. Place your little garden in a sunny spot.

2. Water it every day until your seeds sprout. Record in your journal how long they took to sprout.

3. Feed your plants by adding some compost to the top of the soil or watering with compost tea every two weeks or so.

4. Make sure they have enough water and plenty of sunshine until they are ready to harvest. How long did your plants take to grow?


To learn more about how you and your family can grow a garden together and connect more deeply with nature, check out my new book The Little Gardener: Helping Children Connect with the Natural World and the additional resources below.


Take care, and always remember that you and your garden are as much a part of nature as the birds and the flowers.



Julie Cerny is an outdoor educator, gardener, and author living in New York’s Hudson Valley. Her book, The Little Gardener: Helping Children Connect with the Natural World guides families through dreaming, creating, and growing a garden together. Connect with “The Little Gardener” on Facebook and on Instagram @thehappylittlegardener.



Resources:

The Little Gardener: Helping Children Connect with the Natural World

A Seed is Sleepy by Dianna Hutts Aston We Are the Gardeners by Joanna Gaines

Container Gardening for Beginners

KidsGardening!



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