Playing In The Dirt: Grow! Kids learn while gardening

97.9 The Hill and Chapelboro.com have partnered with the Orange County Master Gardeners on a monthly section, “Playing in the Dirt,” which explores the fertile soil of home gardening in our community and aims to provide information and inspiration for gardeners at all levels of knowledge. thrive! Visit Chapelboro every month for a new theme – from our gardens to yours!


Written by Sharon Billings and Kathy Bucher, Orange County Master Gardeners

Gardening is a wonderful activity for kids. It arouses curiosity and encourages a healthy diet. Best of all, it’s fun! Most kids enjoy digging in the ground, watering plants, and proudly picking flowers or vegetables. Along the way, they learn about science and the weather, and the work of the farmers who supply us with food.

Delia Nickles-Guptill and Reading Dudzinski with carrots harvested at Broken Spoke Farm in Hillsborough. (Photo by Alison Nickles)

It’s easy to start with a little space in the yard that gets good sunlight. You can also grow plants in containers if there is no space in the garden. You can even sprout plants on the kitchen counter!

For tips on growing vegetables, download the NC State Extension Vegetable Gardening: A Beginner’s Guide. It explains how to improve the soil, how to plan for enough sunshine and water, and how to plant it in three seasons (spring, summer, fall). It also describes a 4 x 4 meter planting bed that is easy and fun to build.

Vegetables and many flowers need eight hours of sunlight a day. Keep in mind that plants such as tomatoes will need space to grow and may need support such as stakes or cages.

If there is no space in the garden, a lot of flowers and vegetables will fit well in the containers. Use potting soil (not garden soil) and follow the instructions on the seed package or plant label. The NC State Extension contains useful information about container gardening as well as interesting plants for kids.

Visit a nursery or horticultural center and get some packets of seeds (both hardware stores and grocery stores sell seed packs). You can also buy tomato seedlings or other plants started in small pots. Kids can choose seeds or plants – they can read the labels and talk about the need for sunlight and water, and how much space the plant will need.

Easy-to-grow vegetables include sugar peas (planted in early spring), carrots, lettuce, radishes, cherry tomatoes (starting as seedlings), and potatoes. Annual flowers that are easy to grow and pick include marigold, cinnamon, and snapper.

If you run out of space or time, try indoor gardening:

  • Growing lettuce in a plastic bag: Put the lettuce seeds in a liter plastic bag. Read about it here.
  • Sprout a sweet potato: All you need is a sweet potato, a pot or a bottle of water and a few toothpicks. Read more here. (There are also learning activities for children on the North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission website.)
  • Growing plants from kitchen waste: You can use the tops of a carrot, an avocado or other pieces of vegetables and fruits. Read more here.

Volunteers at the Orange County Master Gardener educate the public about horticulture and plant science through programs. Members of the Youth Gardeners ’Program Committee are happy to visit our local schools and organize hands-on activities for young people to learn about and enjoy gardening.

With the help of Master Gardeners, children will start a garden at Glenwood Elementary School in Chapel Hill. (Photo by Kathy Bucher)

Youth Program volunteers worked in schools in our area and helped with gardening activities. A gardening project has been running for five years at Frank Porter Graham Elementary School in Chapel Hill. After classroom instruction, students plant vegetables in a well-fenced garden and then weed, water and harvest their rewards later. All kinds of cold and warm seasonal plants were grown, as well as unusual plants like rice. When working in the garden, students enjoy the opportunity to stay outdoors and learn about the plants. Some people like shoveling.

Another school in Chapel Hill with a pretty student garden is Glenwood Elementary School. Their garden was initiated by a teacher. Chapel Hill-Carrboro and other schools in the Orange County school system have gardens, and each has an area for gardens.

The Master Gardener Youth Programs Committee is collaborating with the Growing Up Healthy program, led by Maria Hitt, director of health initiatives at the Orange County Partnership for Young Children. Maria has created practical, fun lesson plans for preschool and preschool children. We used classes at Master’s Garden Kindergarten and Lil ’Treasures Daycare in Hillsborough. These programs are fun for everyone! We discuss a vegetable or flower with the help of books and art and eat some vegetable snacks. We will visit the outdoor garden for planting or harvesting, depending on the season. Kids love it and are happy to taste some food they previously thought they didn’t like.

We also develop lessons for elementary school students with activities, books and supplies. Topics include planting, planting a lettuce garden, composting with sunflowers, sweet potatoes and worms. Some activities also include a home component so other members of the family can participate. We recently received permission from the Curiosity Classes programs at the NC Museum of Natural History to use the props and scenario for a “Green Plant” lesson for second or third graders.

Garden at Mary Scroggs Elementary School in Chapel Hill. (Photo by Kathy Bucher)

We look forward to providing additional assistance with classroom instruction and planting outdoors. Teachers in the area are encouraged to contact our group. If you are an instructor and would like Orange County Master Gardener volunteers to visit your school with one of our gardening programs, please contact us at ocmgardeners+youth@gmail.com. We are happy to visit your school, help you get started in the school garden, give classroom lectures and help students with hands-on learning through gardening activities.

Useful resources for involving children in gardening:

Do you have questions about plants or gardens for Orange County Master Gardeners? To ocmgardeners@gmail.com or 919-245-2061. Follow us on Facebook (search OCEMGV).

Gardening can teach children about butterflies and other pollinators. (Photo by Ken Brockenbrough)


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