Gardening packs an educational punch: It can teach nutrition, biology, mathematics (sizing up rows and plot perimeters), social studies, geography and languages. Vegetable gardens help save money, encourage exercise, deliver fresh flavors to the kitchen and reduce the risks of buying tainted food.
Cooking is the logical second step, providing children with another life-long practical skill.
With that in mind, The New York Botanical Garden offers gardening with related cooking programs for kids from 3 to 13, along with an assortment of practical and craft ideas for people of all ages.
"It's a matter of taking things in steps," said Toby Adams, the institution's family garden manager. "Plants don't grow overnight, so we can introduce things slowly. Getting kids to understand things like cleaning up the plots. Composting. Washing their hands before preparing salads."
Adams breaks students into small groups where they're taught vegetable preparation methods and menu items. Some do pestos. A few make soups. Still others prepare herbal teas or salsas.
"Then they share them with one another," he said. "It becomes a reward for all that work they've done in taking the plants to maturity."
Children bring energy, imagination and confidence to the growing and cooking tasks, Adams said. "They also bring attention to detail and a sense of wonder. Kids are surprised at what's around every corner. They're seeing many things for the first time. They'll notice a butterfly fluttering by or see ladybugs under the leaves. When harvesting, they'll get excited about pulling on a leaf and coming up with a carrot. They think it's awesome when they stick a fork into the soil and find potatoes buried beneath the plants."
Mistakes, too, can be turned into learning opportunities.
"Making a mess," Adams said. "Spillage. Sunflowers that grow from seeds dropped the year before. Planting seeds in rows that are a little bit off here and there. Maybe it's something we didn't intend to do but we'll try to turn it around and make the most of it."
One thing children usually don't have in abundance is a lengthy attention span. But there are ways to get around that. Here are some ideas from the authors of "The Family Kitchen Garden: How to Plant, Grow and Cook Together," by Karen Liebreich, Jutta Wagner and Annette Wendland (Timber Press, 2009):
—Learn by doing. "It is boring watching other people gardening," Liebreich said. "They must be involved from start to finish. Doing is interesting. Watching is dull."
—Teach kids how to compare: "Does the beetroot 'Chioggia' taste different from beetroot 'Bull's Blood'? If you close your eyes, can you tell which is a white currant, which is a red currant? Is French parsley different from Italian, curly from flat-leaved? This not only makes it fun, but also cultivates a palate to distinguish tastes," Liebreich said. "And, incidentally, shows the importance of opinion."
—Stage competitions: "Whose bramble root is longer, whose bean grew taller, who speared more potatoes on their (pitch)fork when digging them up?"
—Experiment: "Did the bean with no water germinate? The bean in the dark? What happened to the bean with no stick to climb?"
—Do things in short sessions: Work on child-size jobs rather than large projects. Prepare just one menu item at a time.
—Go heavy on the encouragement: Getting seeds into the ground the right way is more important than planting a perfectly straight row. Be positive and expressive when taste-testing.
—Emphasize safety: Whether cultivating or cooking, insist that equipment and utensils are handled properly. Ban horseplay when working in the garden or around the stove.
—See tasks through: "Eating the food you grow; this makes things interesting," Liebreich said. "There's no point in planting potatoes if you don't, later on, get to dig them up. And then scrub them and cook them. It completes the story and also leads to great pride in achievement."
Kids aren't the only ones who will learn; home gardening has become something of a lost art for many parents, too, because of busy lifestyles and urbanization.
"Knowing that a carrot is muddy and grows underground sounds obvious to some, but is a revelation to others," Liebreich said. "We have teachers visit our gardens who thought cucumbers grew underground, and mothers who couldn't believe we would serve carrots that had been in mud only minutes before."