NEWPORT NEWS, Va. - Once school is out, kids look for stuff to do.
Gardening could be part of the plan.
It could be summer school in disguise, teaching kids math, science, nutrition, and physical health lessons that are fun and adventurous.
At Coventry Elementary School in Yorktown, Va., schoolchildren have been planting tomatoes, carrots, squash, beans, and lettuce in a school garden. Yorktown master gardener Barb Dunbar and other master gardeners guide them through the process.
"We planted spinach and quite a few said they had never had spinach in a salad but were going to try it," she says.
The kids do their gardening organically and plant herbs to host caterpillars that turn into butterflies.
"Many parents come back and say their child wants a vegetable garden at home after doing one at school," Dunbar says.
If you opt to garden with youngsters this summer, use these pointers from Melissa Butler, curator of herbaceous plants at the Norfolk Botanical Garden in Norfolk, Va., where there's a hands-on garden set aside for curious kids.
Let kids pick the seeds and/or plants. They may not like to eat tomatoes but if they pick out the colorful seed packet with the picture on it, or nurture a seedling to maturity, they are probably more willing to give the veggie a taste.
Look for vegetable names kids will like - Cinderella pumpkin, Atomic Red carrot, and Zebra eggplants.
Skip the garden chemicals. It's a wonderful experience to pick a vegetable like a cherry tomato right out of the garden and pop it in your mouth.
Use an inexpensive magnifying glass. See who can find the weirdest, coolest, prettiest, tiniest things in the garden. Buy dollar-store gifts as prizes.
Learn a little, teach a little. The Internet is a wonderful source of information you can share with kids, factoids that will get their attention. For example, did you know a cucumber is 20 degrees cooler on the inside than the outside temperature?
Chill out. Even the best farmers have crop problems or failures. A raccoon may get the first cukes, the beans may wither if you forget to water them, or a kid accidentally steps on the tomato seedlings while he's planting squash. Move on to the next packet of seeds or tray of seedlings and just enjoy being outdoors.
Share some. Encourage kids to plant extra crops for the food bank, an elderly neighbor, or a needy family you know.
Reap what you sow. Often a vegetable garden is abandoned after the initial spring enthusiasm. Keep the project going by adding marigolds, new crops, and different gamelike lessons. Power off everything and get out in the garden - kids and parents. When you fix burgers and dogs on the grill, add some vegetables from the garden and munch a bunch of what you grow.
Gardening With Children by the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, $9.95, features kid-friendly gardening/science projects such as:
"Root View" garden, cutting out a half-gallon milk carton and creating a window where you can see the roots of carrots and radishes as they grow from seeds.
"Fun With Fungi," learning how to grow beneficial mold using bread, plastic baggie, cotton swabs, and water.
"Butterfly Window Box," using annual seedlings like marigolds, dwarf zinnias, globe amaranth, and petunias.