WITH A LITTLE effort you may be able to keep squirrels, birds, the neighbor's dog, even racoons or rabbits out of a vegetable patch, but it is well nigh impollible to fence out young children. You may, however, be able to teach them gardening. It can acutally be alot of fun and gives parents a tremendous opportunity to spout off about nature and nutrition without sounding overly pedantic.
If you're relaxed and really enjoy what you're doing, your child may learn about life first-hand and achieve: some small degree of self-sufficiency in the process. In an age of double-digit inflation and dwindling resources, what better lesson could a parent give?
Kids are natural diggers -- you might start a toddler out in a small space that needs work, digging with a real trowel. (Kids' tools are rarely strong enough to handle anything other than play sand, but if you're worried about loss of expensive gardening equipment, try painting the handles bright red.) When a child can stay with a task for 15, minutes or more, he or she is ready to learn to weed. Start with one plant (dandelions are easily recognized) and show how to dig it up, preferably with a long dandelion fork that gets all the root. The child might enjoy using the little red wagon to haul the work away, and if you tell him you have a magic place (the compost pile) where weeds and other leftovers turn into rich soil, he'll be more apt to part with his weeds.
Once youngsters become real helpers, they are ready for their own garden. Talk with them about different vegetables and choose one or two that meet several requirements: hearty, easy to grow, large seeded, quick-germinating, attractive or funny-lookng, good tasting to them.
Carrots are a top choice with beginning gardeners. They'll grow in a sunny window box, can be squeezed in between flowers or rows of your own vegetables. I've yet to meet a kid who wouldn't eat a carrot, if she got to pull it out of the ground, rinse it and cut of the stem herself. Once she's a carrot lover, you can tell her how good it really is for her -- just one provides all the vitamin A she needs each day, and eaten raw, it will help keep her teeth clean.
Carrots can be safely started here about a week before the last average frost date (mid-April is safe for the city and close-in suburbs). Carrot seeds are tiny and hard to germinate in the heavy clay so prevalent in the Washington area, but there are a few tricks that can help you help your child:
Use coarse construction grade sand and shift some to mix in equal parts with soil and compost for a dandy potting soil work into a bed for carrots.
Seed tapes or pellets (seeds coated with clay to make them easy to handle) can help gardeners, young or old, grow food where they want it.
Intercrop larger-seeded, quick-growing radishes with tiny, slow-germinating carrots.The radishes will help break up heavy soil and give kids something to eat while waiting impatiently for their main crop.
Short fat carrots do better in clay soils than long, skinny ones and are often sweeter. Royal Chantenay, Goldinhart, Short and Sweet or Lady Fingers are good choices for kids' gardens.
Once carrots have sprouted, you'll need to help your child thin the crop, otherwise the roots will not have space enough to grow. Two or three tries during the growing season may work better than one ruthless purge. As carrots grow, the tiny orange roots will show hyour child how the garden is progressing, offering a taste of what's to come.If any of the crop makes its way into your kitchen, there are many ways to do your child's gardening skill justice. ELLEN WALLER'S CARROY-RASIN SLAW (4 to 6 servings) 1 1/2 cups grated carrots 2 cups grated cabbage 1/4 cup golden raisins 1/4 cup yogurt 1/4 to 1/3 cup mayonnaize
In a bowl mix grated vegetables and rasins. Beat yogurt and mayonnaise together with a whisk and fold into slaw, mixing well. Keeps for a week covered in the refrigerator. WATERFORD SCHOOL LEMON-GLAZED CARROTS (4 servings) 1 pound short, fat carrots 2 or 3 tablespoons butter 2 tablespoons sugar 4 thin slices lemon
Wash and scrub carrots (peeling only if you must). Place in a medium saucepan with 1-inch salted boiling water. Simmer, covered for 10 to 15 minutes, or until tender. Drain excess water, if necessary. Melt butter in a heavy skillet. Stir in sugar, lemon slices and carrots. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally until glazed. FARMER'S MARKET CARROT CAKE (Makes one larger 3 layer cake) 1 cup margarine 1 cup brown sugar, sifted 1 cup granulated sugar 4 eggs 1/3 cup orange juice 1 1/2 cups grated carrots 1 teaspoon cinnamon 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg 1 cup chopped walnuts 2 1/2 cups shifted flour 1/2 teaspoon salt 3 teaspoons baking powder 1/3 cup orange juice
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cream the margarine, adding sugars gradually. Beat in the eggs. Fold in the carrots and spices. Alternating liquids and solids, fold in juice, nuts and the remaining dry ingredients. Stir only until evenly mixed. Grease and flour three cake pans. Distribute batter evenly between them and bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until knife inserted in center of cake comes out clean. Ice with cream cheese frosting. CREAM CHEESE FROSTING 1/4 cup butter 8 ounces cream cheese 1/2 pound (half a 1-pound package) confectioners' sugar (or less, depending upon taste) 2 tablespoons vanilla 1/2 cup chopped walnuts
Soften butter and cream cheese to room temperature. Beat together, adding enough sugar to sweeten to your taste. Beat in vanilla and add nuts. Frost cake layers.