Growing up Gardening

Growing up gardening

Retail programs for kids aim to turn pint-size gardeners into 15-gallon enthusiasts as adults

By Elizabeth Petersen

“Remember to water your planter in the morning, so the leaves dry out by nighttime,” Danielle Ferguson advised the girls of the Newberg, Ore. , American Heritage Girls troop. Girls and their parents had toured the greenhouses, gardens and grounds of Ferguson ’s Fragrant Nursery in nearby St. Paul , meeting requirements to earn merit badges, and Ferguson had enthusiastically shared a wealth of plant and garden information. Finally, each girl chose several blooming annuals with similar cultural requirements to create a mixed container for either shade or sun.

Parents, most of whom claimed little or no knowledge of gardening, took in the information about annuals and perennials, trees, shrubs and bulbs, about providing for the needs of plants, about types of garden soil and how to improve soil and about sterile potting mix with added fertilizer. The event was successful in several ways, including the merit badges, but more important, it brought adults and children to the garden center, where they were surrounded by loads of gorgeous plants, many of them fragrant. The explanations by Ferguson simplified concepts that should ensure success for gardening at home. Participants went away with dirty fingers, pots filled with flowers and the smiles of satisfied gardeners.

Growing young gardeners

What can retail garden businesses do to get children involved with plants and gardens, and why should they? Options vary, but the reasons to draw children to the garden center and the joys of gardening are obvious. Research confirms that children who garden have an increased sense of pride, satisfaction and belonging, and that gardens are a boon to children’s overall health and wellness. Kids who participate in gardening programs connect to the environment and to their communities. Young gardeners also develop social skills such as cooperation and leadership; they achieve higher test scores; and they have improved attention, focus and self-esteem. Plus, they learn to enjoy nutritious vegetables and fruits they grow themselves.

Besides the benefits to the well-being of kids, the nursery industry needs both current and future customers, as well as future employees. Young families have the potential to provide both. Amy Bigej plans and implements the Kids Club at Al’s Garden Center in Woodburn , Ore. She draws on her personal love of plants and gardening and combines it with firsthand knowledge of what kids like. She and husband Mark Bigej, who have three young children, are part of the generation of young adults (Gen Xers), which Bigej calls “the missing link in gardening.” These families with two working parents will choose whether to spend their limited family time in the garden or on other pursuits. They are the ones who need garden centers to offer activities geared toward kids that meet the needs of the whole family. The Bigej children and others like them will be the next generation of gardeners, and independent garden centers would do well to target this demographic.

Al’s Garden Center ’s successful Kids Club

Amy Bigej researches and plans projects for the monthly Kids Club a year in advance. She tries not to repeat activities very often, so she constantly looks for fresh, new additions to the activity lineup. The highly successful Kids Club at the Woodburn store has run for about seven years, and it expanded to the new Sherwood store with excellent results: attendance there is soaring. At the April club meeting, almost 150 kids and their parents converged upon the Sherwood store for a half-hour of seed planting and veggie gardening. In keeping with Al’s Garden Center colors, the kids, most between 5 and 9 years old, planted the seed of purple carrots, as well as pumpkins and bush beans, in grower flats six-packs. They also tucked sunflower seeds into peat pellets.

“The goal of the Kids Club is not to make money,” Bigej explains. The $5 fee per class covers the cost of the supplies for each project, but nothing more. “The goal is to provide a service for the community, a fun weekend activity for families to do together, and to draw people into the garden center and encourage an interest in gardening. We have the power to shape the next generation of gardeners and to meet the needs of Gen Xers,” she said. “Kids are smart, and if we keep the message really simple, they learn things like what plants need to grow and what the different parts of a plant are. One second-grader surprised me recently by saying, ‘One part of a plant is the stamen.’”

Even a concept as sophisticated as the ancient art of bonsai can be shared with young people. At Kids Club in June, each child planted a dwarf Hinoki cypress in a container that allowed Bigej to keep the costs down. “We bought plastic salad dishes from McDonald’s and drilled holes in them. Kids planted their miniature plants and mulched with gravel. They also got an information sheet called Planting the Seeds of Knowledge, which tells about taking care of the plant at home.”

For the Worm Farm project in July, Bigej gathered together about 200 shoe boxes from employees and friends. They were lined with plastic and filled with potting soil. Information about composting included the fact that worms are composters, and red wiggler composting worms were introduced. After eating a banana for a snack, each participant buried the peel in the soil to feed the worms. “I really enjoy Kids Club, and we feel it is a great way to connect now with the next generation,” Bigej said. “After all, they will be our target demographic in another 20 years. It doesn’t hurt to start early instilling a love for gardening.”

Another way Al’s Garden center involves the community in its business is the annual Scarecrow Contest. Last year, students from five classrooms in two schools took on the challenge of building scarecrows on forms supplied by Al’s. Scarecrows were displayed at the Sherwood store all during October, and people could vote for their favorite by donating cans of food for the Oregon Food Bank. Since kids who built the winning scarecrow would get a pizza party, they pushed their parents to go to the store to vote. “It was amazing,” Bigej said. “The night before the contest ended, loads of food came in as one class tried to beat the other.” Altogether, over 1,000 pounds of nonperishable food was donated to help feed the needy in the area.

Another winning tradition

Swanson’s Garden Center in Seattle has an impressive tradition of engaging children in gardening activities, according to Maggie Brunger, seminars and events coordinator. Throughout the year the garden center offers workshops where children pot up, paint and create things to do with plants. The garden center also encourages school groups to tour the nursery, where the focus is discovery and information about plants that fascinate the kids.

During the Fall Festival, kids are treated to a hay maze, tractor hay rides and a chance to build scarecrows. Swanson’s provides wooden frames, hay for stuffing and piles of clothing: the kids do the creative part, putting the scarecrows together. Other activities include pumpkin carving and painting, and this year the retailer is adding a Hot Wheels race with cars made from pumpkins or zucchinis. During the winter holiday season, live reindeer and other seasonal activities delight kids and parents alike.

To encourage families to garden together, Swanson’s offers classes such as “How to Grow Vegetables for Your Pet” and “Gardening with Children,” in which a professional horticultural therapist explains how to captivate children and instill a love of plants and gardening from an early age. Participants are encouraged to bring details of their unique situations so they can learn ways to enhance the gardening experience by sharing it with the whole family — pets, children, adults and plants.

Seize the moment

Even garden centers without the space for classes or on-site gardening activities can encourage the interest of kids who come with their parents. Most experts agree that the key is to be enthusiastic. When someone is genuinely passionate about something, other people respond favorably. At Dennis’ 7 Dees in Lake Oswego , Ore. , Manager Nicole Forbes keeps an eye out for children with a budding interest.

“If kids are paying attention to plant material, we get a charge out of it and do what we can to encourage them,” she says. Nicole tells the story of one boy who was planning a garden and asked for recommendations of plants to go with his tomato, corn and bean starts. Nicole suggested the Believe It or Not Vegetables from Log House Plants, and the boy loved the idea of growing snake-like squash, rat-tailed radishes and warty pumpkins.

“Got anything with scabs?” he asked.

“Not yet,” Nicole said with a smile, “but come back next year.”

Advice of experience

TV gardening personality and retailer Ed Hume takes kids seriously. For years, he has worked to involve them in gardening activities, and a recently completed children’s garden at the nursery does just that. Here, Ed shares observations from his experience gardening with and for kids. “To excite kids about gardening or learning about gardening,” he recommends the following approaches:

1. Hands-on projects, such as planting seeds, seedlings, bulbs or rooted cuttings, which could be a class or monthly project.

2. A challenge. For instance, in Ed’s Educational Garden , the quiz garden is a favorite with both kids and adults. “Garden centers could have a riddle of the week, with a small prize, maybe a plant in a small pot for those who guess the riddle. How about that as a way to get the kids with their parents into your store once a week?”

3. An action challenge. “Our maze has four ways in, but only one way out. In garden centers, this can be done with plants or, for small children, with bales of hay.”

4. Fascinating plants, such as carnivorous plants. “There is a wide selection of carnivorous plants, providing the perfect opportunity for stores to make tie-in sales, since they are bog plants. It is a good opportunity to print an information sheet with store name and information.”

5. Plants with stories, such as bearberry, Lewisia and Clarkia.

“Above all, children need to see results, and fast,” Humes said. “Kids love the fun stuff, and I think that’s how you really get them excited about gardening.”

Resources for cultivating youth gardeners

Retail garden centers can get ideas and support for youth programs in a number of ways. One is to partner with area schools and the community to support efforts to include gardening in the curriculum. Some garden centers offer discounts to teachers doing classroom gardening programs, and others donate products, such as seeds, or they may support classroom gardening in other ways, such as offering backup greenhouse space when school resources overflowed. Other resources are available online.

The National Gardening Association is a nonprofit organization devoted to supporting gardening opportunities and plant-based education for kids of all ages. Founded in 1973, it offers helpful resources for anyone who wants to involve kids in gardening. Gardening with Kids is focused on children and the ways that gardening enhances education and helps build environmentally responsible adults. The NGA Web site for kids,, is an excellent place to access resources for gardening with children. Parents’ Primer offers parents ways to engage their children in gardening. GrowLab: Activities For Growing Minds describes fun, illustrated activities to explore plant life cycles, examine plant diversity and investigate the interdependence of plants, humans and other living and nonliving things.

NGA also supplies Youth Garden Grants, annual awards of gardening tools and supplies to schools, youth groups and community organizations, and it awards funds and curriculum packages annually in its Healthy Sprouts Awards. During its National Garden Month, NGA encourages parents and grandparents to start gardening with their kids.

Elizabeth Petersen writes for gardeners and garden businesses; she coaches students and writers; and she chairs the Oregon Plant A Row for the Hungry project. Contact her at