The bad news about backyard family gardens is that they're often landing pads for baseballs, little feet and curious fingers. The good news is that a child's own garden will encourage responsibility toward the earth and pride about contributing to family meals.
Besides, it's a great excuse to get dirty.
Russell Balge, urban agriculture extension agent in Baltimore County's University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service, knows something about the value of children's gardens. He turned a youthful passion for gardening in his Wisconsin backyard into a career.
"I was about 8 years old when I started gardening. I just grew up loving plants," recalls Mr. Balge. His childhood habit of daily garden inspections continues to this day. "Every morning I get up and walk around the yard to see what new is happening. I come home at night and find that things have changed."
From this perspective, gardening offers children ever-changing surprises instead of slow-growing drudgery.
There's nothing like success to nurture the soul of a small gardener. Combine simple garden techniques with a little understanding of what intrigues children:
*Involve the child from the beginning. Ask your child if he or she would like a garden of their own. If so, plot out a space together. Pot gardening or community gardens can make farmers out of those who live on even the tiniest green spaces. Visit the garden center together to pick out seeds or flats.
Consider buying children their own tools. Quality child-size tools are scarce, but "ladies" sizes and small cultivators and trowels are available. The Smith & Hawken Catalog (25 Corte Madera, Mill Valley, Calif. 94961; (415) 383-2000, offers a high quality spade, fork and rake for children.
*Pick crops that are interesting and easy to grow. Familiar table favorites that germinate quickly include watermelon, cantaloupe, peas, beans, radishes and lettuce. With a little wire and imagination, vine crops can form tepees or tunnels.
When asked about herbs, Mr. Balge laughs and repeats the advice given by an old English gardener: "Plant mint and stand back!" Dill is his personal favorite because it attracts beautifully colored caterpillars. Basil and parsley are easy herbs and have everyday household use.
Nasturtiums are also good. The flower, seeds and fruit are edible. (Mr. Balge cautions that they do attract aphids, however, which can kill the plants and transmit diseases to other plants.) Towering sunflowers yield seeds for toasting at season's end.
*Fertilize generously. After tilling and during the growing season, add generous amounts of compost and cow manure. Sickly crops are the surest way to stunt the growth of a child's interest in gardening.
*Assist -- but don't take over -- with weeding and pest control. Planting in blocks, rather than rows, shades out some weeds. Plastic sheeting may keep weeds away, but it deprives a child of the chance to handle soil. In applying any pesticide, Mr. Balge recommends completely covering up with hats, glasses, long sleeves and pants and working with complete supervision.
*Harvest and cook together. Chop the basil and cook in with the family's spaghetti sauce. What else could top a child's sense of accomplishment? Use the mint in tea, the pumpkins at Halloween, and the tomatoes in sandwiches. Encourage your child to share produce to friends and neighbors.
"You watch things grow, you see that they have to be nurtured," says Mr. Balge. "We can't abandon kids or nature."
Children and gardens can be a happy, not destructive combination.