Community gardens help children grow more aware

Mary Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow? If you asked average American kiddos where their food comes from, the answer might be, "With drive-through windows, candy stores and grocery-store aisles, all in a row."

Many children have never seen a farm, so it's no wonder they may not know how the food they eat gets to their dinner plate. But all of that is changing with the growing trend of vegetable gardening. From backyard gardening (promoted by first lady Michelle Obama) to the increasing number of community gardens, kids are learning at a young age these days what it means to really get their hands dirty.

Fort Worth resident and mother of two Serena Keeler played an instrumental role in the creation of one of Fort Worth's most successful examples, the Fairmount Community Garden.

"I want my kids to have the experience of dirt under their fingernails," she said. "I want them to know where food comes from, to understand nature and to see adults coming together and making a sense of place."

When Keeler's children tend to their community garden plot, they sow seeds, water plants and are eventually rewarded for their efforts with a juicy cantaloupe or ripe tomatoes.

Once a month, members of the Fairmount Community Garden meet for a Saturday "work day," when gardeners accomplish tasks such as weeding or staining the fence. The Keeler kids help out with that, too.

"I think it offers them a sense of pride and ownership to help out."

During a time when kids face problems like childhood obesity and a growing disconnect with the natural world, vegetable gardening offers physical activity in the great outdoors.

Plus, kids are more likely to eat their veggies when they've had a hand in growing the carrots or radishes themselves.

It's not all work and no play, though. Keeler says her kids, ages 6 and 8, enjoy digging and standing on dirt piles as much as they enjoy the actual gardening. "Sometimes they just 'diddle,' which I believe is so good for them."

When it comes to starting a garden with kids, keep it simple. Some seeds, a little dirt and a shovel are all you need to get started. Herbs are especially easy to grow and add a lot of punchy flavor to everyday cooking. Kids will love cutting pieces of rosemary to add to baked chicken or sprinkling little oregano leaves in spaghetti sauce.

It doesn't take much money or even much space to start a garden. Tomatoes can be grown in a pot on a front porch; herbs can be grown on a sunny windowsill in the kitchen. No matter how big or small the garden, growing veggies together gives families the opportunity to grow not just food, but an appreciation for where it comes from.

Here are a few other ideas to help get your kids interested in vegetable gardening.