NEW MARKET, Va. (AP) -- Back off, a bit, from your usual seasonal quest for prize tomatoes, sweating over bounteous berries or training ''twiners.'' Turn instead toward teaching your own little sprouts how to garden. The effort could become by far your most important harvest this year.
Parents through the ages have discovered that gardening gives children an altogether new window to the world. Youngsters learn to see life cycles in a benign sort of way -- everything from collecting and drying new seeds to tossing tired old plants onto the compost heap.
''In the past 10 years, there's been a tremendous explosion in children's gardens and gardening,'' says Marcia Eames-Sheavly, a horticulture educator at Cornell University. ''People are concerned about a disconnect by children with their environment.''
Most educators recommend starting early and simply, perhaps by having your preschoolers work alongside you to learn how nutrient-rich dirt can feel beneath their fingernails. Have them mold mud pies, or scoop some loose soil into windrows. Toss shoots, roots or seedlings into their mix before placing the pies into the figurative ''ovens'' to rise. It's the ultimate hands-on experience for budding gardeners.
Select a vegetable they've learned to like -- a fast grower -- and have them plant it in their own little corner of the garden.
Have them adopt a row of seedlings to weed and water. At the end of the growing season, encourage them to donate some of their vegetable wealth by tithing a portion to the local food pantry.
Gardening nowadays is an activity as easily taught city kids as country kids. The days of country kids working an acre-sized garden vs. their city cousins planting a window box are long gone.
''We have some housing authority kids working on community gardening projects through 4-H,'' says Lisa Townson, a University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension specialist. ''There are lots of different lessons to learn.''
Teaching children gardening skills can mean a great deal more than having another set of hands hoeing plant rows. It also can mean producing a behavioral bumper crop.
Young couch potatoes, for example, might build dining room credits by weeding. Families can learn how to talk with one another again by virtue of shared garden projects. A new generation can pick up conservation values working plant by plant. Youngsters with energy to burn can reap the benefits of patience and reward.
''There are several exercises here involving goal-setting,'' Townson says about gardening. ''Have them select their seeds (from catalogs) in February or March if they're going to show vegetables at county fairs early in the fall.
''It's also another way to teach responsibility. If you plant some seeds and don't do anything with them, they won't produce too well. Gardening can be easier in that regard than dealing with pets.''
Gardening also can help develop some basic math skills, Townson says. ''Ask them to calculate when they should plant the seeds to have tomatoes ready for a picnic in August.''
This needn't be a go-it-alone kind of project. Scores of organizations around the country offer youth gardening programs. That includes the 4-H Clubs, schools, universities and cooperative extension services, certain garden clubs, horticultural societies, parks and arboretums.
Ask around. Check the Yellow Pages. Cultivate the Internet.
Gardening also can be a means of introducing your kids to the kitchen: Show them how to cook what they grow.
You say vegetables are a hard sell? ''Have them plant a pizza garden,'' Townson says. ''Plant some tomatoes (for the sauce), add a few herbs (oregano and basil), and you can even try growing ornamental wheat to show them where the flour comes from for the crust.
''Another idea is to plant vegetables of as many colors as possible -- red radishes, green peppers, yellow corn, orange carrots and purple cabbage make a colorful garden.
''Talk to your kids about the nutritional value of fruits and vegetables. Point out that different color vegetables provide different nutrients.''
Beyond instilling a love of nature into your children, gardening can become an enlightening hobby for kids of all ages.
''They're having so much fun they don't even know they're learning,'' Townson says.
''Roots, Shoots, Buckets & Boots: Gardening Together With Children'' by Sharon Lovejoy;
''Gardening Wizardry for Kids'' by L. Patricia Kite;
''Green Thumbs: A Kid's Activity Guide to Indoor and Outdoor Gardening'' by Laurie Carlson;
''The Children's Kitchen Garden: A Book of Gardening, Cooking and Learning'' by Georgeanne Brennan, Ethel Brennan, Marcel Barchechat and Ann Arnold.
On the Net:
American Horticultural Society, Youth Garden Resource list: http://www.ahs.org/publications/pbygresource.htm
Gardening Launch Pad: http://gardeninglaunchpad.com/kids.html
EDITOR'S NOTE -- Dean Fosdick retired in May after 23 years with The Associated Press, 15 of those as Alaska bureau chief. He has covered the Exxon Valdez oil spill, volcanoes, galloping glaciers and harvesting Alaska-grown 100-pound-plus cabbages. He can be reached at: deanfosdicknetscape.net
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