1 of 17
Larry Sagers
4H Gardeners planting flowers.

Teaching children to garden is an interesting prospect. Like most aspects of our lives, we tend to view gardening very differently, depending on our life stage.

I have now had the chance to view gardening from the viewpoint of a young child, an adult, a father and a grandfather. Each stage gives a different view of what you want out of it and what you are trying to accomplish.

I loved gardening even as a small child. While I might have shown some reluctance, I certainly enjoyed gardening more than learning the piano or other pursuits my parents were encouraging.

As a father, I trained six reluctant gardeners. For those of you going through this stage of life, there is justice. Now grown with families of their own, most have now realized that gardening is important and they want to teach their children to garden.

Being a grandpa gardener is the easiest. I bought a couple dozen children's-size garden implements and made certain each grandchild had one or more as a Christmas present.

I bring them some seeds, add in a few plants and then add lots of playtime and advice. I can happily leave things like getting the kids to work hard and do more difficult tasks to their parents.

Children's gardening benefits

Cornell University Department of Horticulture conducted extensive studies on the benefits of gardening with children. Those who work in gardens excelled in seven areas:

An increased interest in eating fruits and vegetables. This leads to more healthful diets and nutritional awareness.

A greater appreciation for working with neighborhood adults and being more agreeable about it.

An increased interest in keeping their homes and neighborhoods clean and in good appearance.

More positive attitudes about environmental issues.

An improvement in their behavior, increased self-esteem and a greater sense of ownership and responsibility. When they worked with family members, they fostered better relationships with them.

Better physical and mental health, such as reduced stress levels, lower blood pressure and reduced muscle tension.

Higher scores on scientific achievement tests due to the hands-on knowledge that they had versus the students who had no garden-based learning activities.

Many resources exist to help children gain the benefits from gardening.

The 4H gardening program

Stephen Sagers (my son), of the Utah State University 4H Extension faculty in Tooele County, thinks that teaching young people about gardening needs to be more than just putting in plants. He and Terra Sherwood, the Youth Parks and Recreation coordinator for Tooele City, run the largest youth garden in the state.

"Our garden project usually has 100 to 110 youth in it and there is usually a waiting list," he said. "Families want to get in. I think it is because we have individual plots.

"People like to have ownership of their plots. That makes a difference with kids because they can decorate how they want to and keep what they grow."

Each child gets an 8-by-15 parcel and must care for it at least once a week or they could lose it. They care for their garden the entire summer and can do as they please with the produce.

"They take care of their plots because if they don't they don't get it back the next year," Sherwood said.

The cost of participating is $7 plus the price of seeds, with the city providing the land, water and supervision and the university the curriculum and teaching help.

The 4-H idea is simple: help young people and their families gain the skills they need to be proactive forces in their communities and develop ideas for a more innovative economy. That idea was the catalyst to begin the 4-H movement, and those values continue today.

Junior Master Gardener Program

The Junior Master Gardener Program is a hands-on program to teach horticulture, environmental science, leadership and life skills. It helps teach young people how to become gardeners and also contribute to their communities.

USU Extension is also involved in this program, but 4-H clubs, YMCA activities and Girl Scout/Boy Scout badges use this program to supplement their own programs. It is also popular with public and private schools, home school groups and after-school programs.

The program's only requirement is that the teacher/leader be willing to work with youths. The leader does not have to be a Master Gardener to lead a group; support is available through the local County Extension Service.

The Level 1 curriculum includes plant growth and development, soils and water, and ecology. Other chapters include environmental horticulture, insects and disease, landscape horticulture, fruits and nuts, vegetables and herbs and life skills/career exploration.

A more advanced experience includes specific areas of horticulture and environmental sciences, gardening basics, thrifty gardens, food safety, ABC's of healthful eating and healthful snacks.

Operation Thistle: Seeds of Despair is the newest Junior Master Gardener curriculum, which provides numerous activities where students investigate plant growth and development, service learning projects and earn certification.

Thanksgiving Point Junior Master Gardener Program

One important local program is the one organized in conjunction with USU Extension 4-H and located at Thanksgiving Point's Farm Country.

Thanksgiving Point's teen volunteers and Junior Master Gardener Program club members select items to grow in their garden — everything from tomatoes and squash to pumpkins and green beans. One of their favorites is the pizza garden, which includes all the vegetables you want on a pizza (e.g. tomato, basil, onions, garlic and peppers).

Bonnie Plants Cabbage Program

Bonnie Plants, one of the largest plant growers in the country, is trying to help children learn about gardening and the environment. For the past nine years, it has distributed free cabbage plants to third-graders across the country.

Students get their own cabbage to grow in their garden. The cabbages produce very large heads, so they are exciting for kids to produce. To sweeten the gardening experience, Bonnie a $1,000 award to one student in each state. Last year's award went to Jaden Webster of Oakley Elementary in West Jordan.

Lisa Terrell and her husband run the local program and supply plants from their greenhouses in Grantsville.

She says, "I usually send them the Mega Cabbage. It can grow upwards of a 50-pound head. What I like about (the program) the most is it introduces children to gardening.

"One of the things that I think makes me happy about this program is that it seems to bring families together. I can still see Jaden's granddad's big smile. Not only do the kids enjoy it, but I have noticed that mothers, fathers, siblings and grandparents all seem to enjoy doing this garden project together," Terrell says.

I can still feel the cool garden soil under my feet as a kid, working with my grandfather to plant peas, okra, corn and tomato. That was a special time in my life, and this Bonnie Plants program is allowing kids to experience wonderful childhood memories.

Even if they never plant anything else, they will never forget that cabbage they grew in the third grade.

More resources

Utah 4H: utah4h.org/. Similar programs are available in all other states by contacting your state land grant college.

Junior Master Gardener: www.jmgkids.us. They have a wealth of information on gardening, sponsoring organization and other resources. One local contact is Dave Francis, Utah State JMG coordinator — [email protected]

Utah School and Garden Network: www.utahgardennetwork.org. It offers tips for both indoor and outdoor gardening with kids and schools.

The National Gardening Association: www.kidsgardening.com/grants.asp. It offers garden grants to nonprofit organizations.

Wasatch Community Gardens: wasatchgardens.org/. This group helped 1,500 Salt Lake Valley youths 3-18 connect with fresh, local food in their youth gardens. Programs include garden tours, classes, youth gardens and summer camps.

Red Butte Gardens Youth programs: www.redbuttegarden.org/. One program is Garden Adventures, a Saturday kids' class held twice a month. Upcoming classes include Dazzling Daffodils, Patio Herbs and Mighty Migrations. These are for children ages 4-12 and a caregiver.

Utah Botanical Center in Kaysville: utahbotanicalcenter.org.

Bonnie Plants Cabbage Program: www.bonnieplants.com.

Larry A. Sagers is a horticulture specialist for the Utah State University Extension Service at Thanksgiving Point.