On a chilly spring morning 6-year-old Franka Aguilar was exploring the Children's Garden at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle with her younger sister and brother.
"It's a seed," Aguilar said, proudly holding up one of her discoveries. This summer Aguilar and her siblings will help their mom grow basil, cilantro and tomatoes at their Warrenville home.
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"It keeps them realizing that nature is all around them and to take care of it," Aguilar's mom, Cordula, said. Her children were on a nature hike as part of the arboretum's recent "Mudpies and Stone Soup" event. "We're always telling them 'Don't step on the plants.'"
From conservation and composting to simply having fun in the dirt, gardening offers a wide range of lessons and experiences for children of all ages. Retailers are taking note, with garden centers and big-box stores boasting selections of child-sized garden gloves, hats and boots as well as trowels, watering cans and other tools made specifically for little hands.
"They want to feel like they're really gardening," said Sue Murdoch, manager of Goebbert's Farm & Garden Center in South Barrington. "You go out and garden and get your gloves so they have an opportunity to do that as well."
Planting a vegetable garden with youngsters is an excellent way to show them where food originates, Murdoch said.
"Unfortunately, our children don't have a good connection to where food comes from," she said. "If you ask, they say, 'the grocery store.'"
When gardening with little ones, the key is quick results. Murdoch recommends vegetables that can be harvested quickly and frequently. Think cherry tomatoes, green beans, lettuce and a big seller at Goebbert's -- kale. Tomatoes often can be eaten right off the vine during harvesting, creating instant gratification.
"They go out and pick the lettuce and tomatoes and peppers and help prepare a salad," Murdoch said. "They get the connection between what they're growing and what they're eating."
Adding a unique splash of color to the garden with foods such as Swiss chard also can be fun for young growers, said Richard Hentschel, horticulture educator for the University of Illinois Extension in St. Charles. Basil, parsley and other herbs are appealing to tiny taste buds and noses. Though root crops such as carrots and potatoes require more patience, some children might enjoy the rewards of digging up treasures underground at harvest time, Hentschel said.
"It's one of those nice little life experiences that if you start with children when they're young, they will continue to appreciate nature," Hentschel said. "They're helping you plant something, and that's their tomato plant, that's their row of beans. They take care of it and tend it and then eat those beans. There's typically a strong connection they don't forget. It's with them. It's a childhood memory."
Whether growing yummy vegetables or colorful flowers, there are numerous ways to spark a child's creativity, said Laura Kamedulski, Children's Garden program coordinator for The Morton Arboretum. Instead of a traditional garden or container, why not try planting in an old boot? Parents also can create fairy gardens with their children and allow them to pick out tiny furniture at local garden centers, Kamedulski said. Smaller children can be captivated simply by watching a seed sprout on a wet paper towel inside a Ziploc bag. Tots too young to help with planting can dig and explore in an extra garden bed while mom or dad work outdoors, Kamedulski said.
"You don't have to make a huge mess," she said.
Watering is another activity kids love, whether they're 18 months or 8 years old.
"Kids will just water endlessly," Kamedulski said. "They love to water with their own little watering cans. That's a fun play activity that teaches them to care about plants."
Eileen Prendergast, youth programs director for the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, said her 3-year-old son makes sure all the plants are watered inside and outside their Chicago home.
"Water gets everywhere," said Prendergast, a mother of two boys. "That's OK because he's learning that process and that it's important."
Back at the arboretum, the Aguilar children headed indoors to make their mud pies. For their mother, the lessons go beyond pint-size shovels and watering cans.
"Being part of nature gives them a sense of self," Cordula Aguilar said. "They realize they are part of an ecosystem and they have to learn about it. If they don't learn about it, they can't love it, and if they can't love it, they can't respect it. If they can't respect it, they can't protect it."
Best plants for little gardeners
• Veggie varieties that grow quickly and can be harvested frequently -- green beans, lettuce, kale and tomatoes.
• Root crops that allow children to dig for treasure at harvest time -- potatoes, carrots, beets and radishes.
• Herbs for taste and smell -- lemon balm, mint, basil, cilantro and parsley.
• Sunflowers for summer fun -- sow them or transplant them into a little backyard "room" children can visit.
• Sensory garden plants -- lamb's ear with fuzzy leaves, "sensitive plant" (mimosa pudica) with leaves that droop when touched.
Sources: Sue Murdoch, manager of Goebbert's Farm & Garden Center in South Barrington/Richard Hentschel, horticulture educator for the University of Illinois Extension