Earth Day, coming just as the ground warms and turning thoughts to the planet our children will inherit, is the perfect time to consider the benefits that children reap through gardening.

The benefits go beyond the fun of playing in dirt to absorbing life lessons while observing life cycles. Growing plants - whether flowers, fruits, herbs, trees or vegetables - helps children grow. Gardening, with its responsibilities and rewards, boosts children's self-esteem while developing their sense of caring beyond themselves. This includes not only caring for the plants, but for the people, butterflies and wildlife that enjoy what is growing.

The big picture, according to the National Center for the Education of Young Children in Washington, covers everything from being in touch with the diversity of the world around them, developing their own identity and cultivating environmental stewardship to exploration, play, creativity, relationship building, broadened views of society and learning. It's no surprise that the prevalence of school gardens are on the increase.

For parents, gardening creates a shared interest and time together outdoors. "It's like one-stop shopping for parents and values, " says Patricia Cancellier, education director at the Parent Encouragement Program in Kensington, MD. "I couldn't think of another learning activity that has so much value to it."

Some specifics: The parent-child bond in working side-by-side and encouraging healthy eating - and cooking; the child gaining a sense of accomplishment, but also learning from having a plant die or get devoured by animals; the enjoyment of the fruits of her labor; the social aspects that include creating something that is shared by others - whether that is because it is edible or beautiful or habitat, and whether sharing means contributing to meals at home or feeding friends, the needy or wildlife. Children also learn about the soil, insects, plants, habitat and the environment, with a little math thrown in (How tall is that sunflower? How much water does the watering can hold?).

With gardening, Cancellier says, "the kids get to play in the dirt and the parents get to foster something good in it."

Lisa Burke, a master gardener and naturalist, has turned her Washington backyard into gardens and an ecosystem. Her sons' gardens include chocolate mint for her older child's favorite tea, along with plants that nourish the family and wildlife. The family shares their bounty with neighbors and friends, and they are learning first-hand about the environment, she said. They feel like young scientists and budding researchers.

"They just got guinea pigs. They are going to have their own guinea pig garden -- they are researching [what guinea pigs eat]. Then we will use [the guinea pigs'] bedding in compost," Burke says. "They are learning to take care of the planet. They are conscious that we are creating habitat and that we are keeping the habitat healthy. That is why we compost, that is why we have rain barrels."

Growing plants is not dependent on having a backyard plot or space in a community garden, and it can be done in kid-sized bursts of time. Gardens grow in pots and pails on a balcony or patio, and plants don't know if they're in stylish containers or old pails. Vines of flowers or small fruits can be trellised upward or woven through a railing.

To start, parents should decide how much space and time will be devoted to gardening, where there is enough sun - plants typically need good soil, sunlight and water. You may need fencing so that the garden is not eaten by rabbits, groundhogs or deer. Read up on plant requirements and size at maturity, so that you are not trying to grow a larger fruit, such as a watermelon, in a small space. One 16-inch pot can grow several different herbs.

Be realistic about what your child can do physically, her attention span, her patience. The orderly rows that you like may give way to your child scattering the seeds, which will grow anyway. Do you want to grow from seeds? Buy seedlings? Both?

Talk with your child about what he or she likes to eat and what wildlife eats.

Include your child in deciding what to grow. If cherry tomatoes are a favorite food, grow them. Will he try something new? If a mini-pumpkin excites your child, grow that. If a rainbow of beans appeals to her, grow bush beans in purple, yellow and green. If she wants butterflies to visit, grow the flowers and herbs that attract pollinators.

Does she want flowers in her favorite colors? Gourds for birdhouses she can decorate? A themed garden - such as a pizza garden, planted with tomatoes, herbs and toppings?

Together you should select plants that offer the best chance for success. Buy good soil and compost (leaf compost does not smell the way manure ones do) to add to your soil. Zinnias and dahlias, basil and oregano, squash and tomatoes are among the many plants that grow readily in the Washington area, and can be container-grown.

Create cozy hiding places. Cross and secure the tops of two lines of tall poles to make a tunnel; tie the tops of five tall poles together for a tipi. Vines - morning glories and pole beans, for example - will cover the poles.

Recycle. Start seeds in clean yogurt cups with a drainage hole in the bottom; turn buckets into planters ripe for decorating. Compost unwanted greens and leaves for plant nutrition.

And who knows what fun memories you'll create?

Burke helped her father with his small garden. She has warm recollections of family trips to harvest at a farm run by nuns, which included her aunt. It was comforting to know some of the produce would feed the needy.

She also recalls as a child running to the lush yard of a neighbor: "He had tall purple alliums. We used to go over when he wasn't there and pretend they were microphones, and we would sing Michael Jackson [songs]."


Andrea Siegel is a freelance writer and master gardener in Maryland. She gardened with her now-grown children.