GARDENING means work, and it often brings disappointments: capricious weather, unwelcome bugs, battalions of weeds. So do kids really want to garden?
"What child doesn't like to get his hands in the soil?" answers Bill Hash, a patient man who has helped thousands of children sow and reap during his 22 years as director of Washington Youth Gardens, a program that introduces children from 11 District schools to the pleasures and skills of gardening.
Raised on a farm, Hash has some thoughts on gardening with children: Give even very young kids a small plot of their own, and let them choose and plant the crops; Hash himself hated gardening until, at six or seven, he saved enough money to order his own seeds from a catalogue.
Good crops for a young gardener are those that grow quickly and easily -- radishes, lettuce and greens, for example. "The best advice is success," Hash says, adding that children also enjoy growing canteloupes and pumpkins, which have pretty vines and lovely yellow flowers as well as impressive fruit.
Armed with his advice, some of Hash's youthful charges are taking advantage of a spring planting day at the National Arboretum, furrowing shallow grooves and dropping in miniature onions and speck-like seeds for greens. Underneath the warm, blue sky, one hopeful gardener proudly proclaims that the turned earth will soon be covered by "green-ness with all different colors like yellow and orange." Another seasoned veteran is more philosophical -- "sometimes it's very hard, and you have to be patient." Still, looking at 40 small backs bent to the rhythm of hoeing and sowing, it is easy to believe that we have an affinity for the soil that is felt as readily at seven as at seventy.
However, parents of kids more interested in history than horticulture need not throw in the trowel. A forerunner of today's backyard vegetable garden was the 18th-century kitchen garden, planted not to defy Safeway but to ensure enough food for the family. That era comes to life at the Claude Moore Colonial Farm in McLean. In back of a rough-hewn log house are two large kitchen gardens where the "farm wife" plants everything from beets to spinach, and cooks up the noon meal each day from the garden's bounty. In early spring, this often means the potatoes and beans harvested last fall.
Conspicuously shoe-less and dressed in stays and faded linen garments, Frances Burroughs, assistant manager at the farm, wields an old-fashioned hoe against clods of Virginia soil. Burroughs, who says she doesn't even enjoy gardening but likes the farm, began working here as a volunteer 11 years ago, when she was 13. She never stopped.
Children 10 and older are eligible to work with her in an intriguing summer program: They dress in colonial garb, go barefoot and perform chores that children at the farm would have done 200 years ago. Kids may participate once or several times a month, masquerading as characters from another era and gaining a sense of satisfaction from taking care of the farm. "With your own work you produce everything," says Burroughs.
For a garden that strikes a more frivolous note -- and for the insect buff in the family -- you may want to explore, or plant, a butterfly garden. You can check one out at Clearwater Nature Center at Cosca Regional Park in Clinton, where a large plot has been cultivated to nurture the colorful bushes and plants that butterflies love. Just now, the garden's dominant shade is earth brown, embellished with a few clumps of green, but come June, vivid Monarchs, tiny painted Ladies and the Great Spangled Fritillary -- golden yellow with dark markings -- will feed and flutter atop the brilliant blooms planted by park naturalist Chris Wagnon.
The butterfly, however, like Cinderella, has humble origins, spending considerable time as a lowly caterpillar. And butterfly gardens attract these creatures, too, to the delight of children. Of course, as Wagnon acknowledges, caterpillars do "tend to get carried away" with munching, but most butterfly caterpillars do not eat vegetables, so your food crop won't be threatened. And besides, the kids will have a chance to see a caterpillar become a chrysalis and then watch the mature insect emerge.
For children who want to woo butterflies, Wagnon suggests a six-foot-by-six-foot plot in full sunlight with plants clustered rather than set in rows -- a block of one color is easier for butterflies to spot from a distance, he says.
Red is the most important color, so Wagnon says to sprinkle a packet of zinnia seeds somewhere and go from there with a purple or lavender butterfly bush, a clump of butterfly weed and a patch of Mexican sunflowers (both orange), pink phlox, scarlet bee balm and, finally, bright green parsley (for the caterpillars). Even in the city, this assortment will bring you butterflies. In Clearwater's garden, where summer brings a riot of color, there are also thistles, coreopsis, milkweed, clover, goldenrod and black-eyed susans.
For a finishing touch, create a mud puddle at the edge of the garden so the butterflies -- which are most active during the hottest part of the day -- can sip water as well as nectar. If the butterflies and flowers don't interest the kids, the mud puddle will. ON THE GROW
Most nurseries sell the plants suggested for a butterfly garden, some of which should be going in the ground now. The nurseries can also provide advice on when to plant other crops.
In general, it is a little late for peas, but a good time to be thinking about everything else. Root crops, cole crops -- cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower are three -- lettuce and other greens can be planted now. You might want to wait a week or two on squash and beans, or anything that goes in as a seedling. To be on the safe side, call your local cooperative extension service for safe planting dates.
Here are their numbers: DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA -- 282-7400 (between 9 and noon). ARLINGTON COUNTY -- 558-2475. FAIRFAX COUNTY -- 691-3456. MONTGOMERY COUNTY -- 948-6740 (between 9 and noon). PRINCE GEORGE'S COUNTY -- Monday and Wednesday, 9 to noon; other weekdays, 1 to 4. GARDENS GALORE
Here's a sampling of gardens and gardening activities of interest to children. All are free unless otherwise noted. For more gardens, check with your county or city recreation department. DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA
NATIONAL ARBORETUM -- 3501 New York Avenue NE. 475-4815. Country Garden with a variety of unusual techniques of gardening; also plots planted by children in the Washington Youth Gardens program. The Country Garden, distinguished by lavender wooden frames, is on the right a short distance past the M Street entrance; the Youth Gardens are adjacent. Arboretum hours are weekdays, 8 to 5; weekends, 10 to 5. MARYLAND
CLEARWATER NATURE CENTER -- Cosca Regional Park, Clinton, 297-4575. Saturday, June 21, special Butterfly Garden tour from 1 to 2. Reservations required. You can also visit on your own: Flowers bloom in June and peak from July through September. Nature Center hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 9 to 4; Sunday, 11 to 4.
MEADOWSIDE NATURE CENTER -- Rock Creek Regional Park, Rockville; 924-4141. Hummingbird and butterfly gardens and extensive 19th-century vegetable plantings. Open Tuesday through Saturday, 9 to 5; Sunday, 1 to 5.
MONTGOMERY COUNTY COOPERATIVE EXTENSION SERVICE -- is holding gardening classes for children on this Monday (windowsill gardening), May 12 (getting the soil ready) and June 2 (garden pests). Geared for children ages 8 to 12, the classes are from 7 to 8 p.m. There is a $2 fee for materials. You can attend one or all three sessions, which will be held at the Cooperative Extension Service on the third floor of 600 South Frederick Avenue (Route 355) in Gaithersburg. Call 948-6098 to reserve a place.
NATIONAL COLONIAL FARM -- 3400 Bryan Point Road, Accokeek; 283-2113. Plant corn on May 4, from 1 to 4; tobacco at the same time on May 18. Farm hours are 10 to 5 every day; admission is $1; children under 12, free.
OXON HILL FARM -- Oxon Hill Road, Oxon Hill; 839-1177. Old-fashioned cornseed sowing with a team of horses, Saturday and Sunday, May 10 and 11, from noon to 3. Farm hours are 8:30 to 5 every day. Take the Beltway (I-95) to Exit 3A, Indian Head Highway south; turn right at the end of the exit ramp and right again into the farm. VIRGINIA
CLAUDE MOORE COLONIAL FARM -- 6310 Old Georgetown Pike, McLean; 442-7557. Orientation for children volunteers, May 31, from 9:30 to 3. Children must be 10 or older. Call by May 28 to register. Farm hours are Wednesday through Sunday, 10 to 4:30; admission is 50 cents for children and $1 for adults.
ELLANOR C. LAWRENCE PARK -- 5040 Walney Road, Chantilly; 631-0013. "Hoe and Grow," gardening activities for children 9 to 12 years old, from 2:30 to 4:30, Mondays, April 21 through May 19. Series fee, $10. Call to sign up. Park hours are 9 to 5, weekdays (closed Tuesdays); noon to 5, weekends.
MOUNT VERNON -- At the southern end of the George Washington Memorial Parkway; 780-2000. Kitchen garden based on George Washington's first garden at the estate. Open 9 to 5 every day; admission to Mount Vernon is $4 for adults, $2 for children 6-11; children 5 and younger free.
RIVER FARM -- Once owned by George Washington and now the headquarters of the American Horticultural Society, at 7931 East Boulevard Dr., Alexandria; 768-5700. Garden plot planted by kindergarteners from a local school has a vine-covered shelter children can crawl into. Open Monday through Friday, 8:30 to 5, and weekends for special events. Spring Open House, 11 to 4, Sunday, May 11. Take the George Washington Memorial Parkway south. Four miles past Alexandria, pass under a stone bridge, go 200 yards and turn left at sign for East Boulevard-Arcturus-Herbert Springs. Turn left again at the American Horticultural Society sign.