Gardening with NYC kids
So your kids want to plant stuff, but you don't have a clue-or a yard. No worries: Our guide grows along with your budding botanist, from casual observer to committed farmer.
Mon Feb 22 2010
Robert F. Wagner Jr. Park
1. Visit a green space
2. Plant at Home
Illustrations: Gaia Cornwall
Fill up a sunny windowsill with cacti and other succulents.
The forgiving desert plants make a great first "garden." They don't require much care, and they come in all kinds of wacky and intriguing formations: globular, flat, tall, bulbous, tentacled, cocooned in "hair," bristling with flowers.
Sarah Stalker of the Chelsea Garden Center (chelseagardencenter.com) recommends starting small, with plants in three- or four-inch pots. Place them in a bright spot; a southern exposure with direct sunlight is ideal for most. Then you can pretty much leave them alone, Stalker says—except, of course, for the occasional watering. Be sure to inquire about your succulent's particular needs.
Indulge your tot's dirt fetish by transplanting flowers.
Choose a few sweet-scented, easy-to-maintain snapdragons or butterfly bush seedlings. Or pick up a six-pack of early spring bloomers such as violas or pansies.
Haul the whole messy setup to your stoop or balcony. Water plants so roots aren't brittle. Prepare planting containers with a layer of stones; then fill to within one inch of the lip with a 50-50 mix of potting soil and compost. "Have your kids make some decisions," advises Toby Adams of the New York Botanical Garden (nybg.org). "Do they want to plant flowers in a pattern? Or arrange by color?" Gently squeeze plants out of pots and loosen roots. Tamp into containers, leaving plenty of room for growth, and water well.
An herb window box makes for a great, entry-level "real" garden.
Start seeds in biodegradable peat pots on a sunny windowsill, about four per pot. Cover with plastic wrap to keep soil damp, watering as necessary. When seeds sprout, discard the wrap. Thin plantlings to two per pot; then pop into window boxes. Wait until the weather is consistently warm to put outside. Group together thyme, rosemary, sage, chives, parsley, cilantro, even edible flowers such as violets and nasturtiums—no more than three per 24-inch window box. Pack in with potting soil/compost mix, and keep well watered, especially on hot days. Prune herbs back often—or taste-test the delicious results all spring long.
You've planted the seed, figuratively and literally—now grow some veg!
Pest-resistant delectables such as patio tomatoes, strawberries, cucumbers and peppers will thrive on your rooftop or in a sunny courtyard. Choose containers of at least two gallons each. "You don't need anything special," says Patricia Hulse of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden (bbg.org). You can even plant in a large cardboard box, if you poke holes in the bottom for drainage. Watering is critical: Don't let the soil dry out. First thing in the morning, hand your kids the hose (or a large, full watering can) and have them give the base of the plants a good soaking. You, dear parent, are advised to stand back. Way, way back.
Enlist your neighbors in a block-beautifying scheme.
Anyone with a spade and a dream can spruce up the planting pit around a sidewalk tree. Just follow some common-sense guidelines (milliontreesnyc.org has a full rundown; see Tree Planting and Care 101), and the whole family can spread flowery cheer over a somber city block. Drought-resistant annuals (plants that live for a growing season) with shallow roots are recommended—cosmos, marigolds, geraniums for sunny spots; impatiens, pansies, begonias for shade. Have kids dig one foot away from the trunk, and be sure to provide enough water for the tree as well as the flowers.
Accept the challenge presented by an untended dirt lot.
As long as you have permission from the lot's owner, you and your kids can build a few seed bombs and set out to flora-fy, guerrilla style. Use native wildflower seeds—asters, goldenrod, coneflowers, rudbeckia—for this mission, recommends Hulse; they minimize the risk that you'll overtake a neighbor's garden with invasive alien plant life. Pass the offspring a large mixing bowl, and have them stir up a concoction of two parts seeds, three parts compost and five parts powdered clay. Moisten till the whole thing holds together in a ball and...bombs away!—LN
3. Dig Deeper
Composting: The New York City Compost Project offers tons of how-to info (nyccompost.org).
Apartment composting is not for the faint of heart. Still, "it's awesome to show your kids the volume of what would otherwise go into the trash," says Greenmarket's Sabine Hrechdakian. Three markets (Union Square, Grand Army Plaza and Fort Greene) will take compostable materials off your hands. But first, you'll need to store the stuff. Easiest is to freeze cooking scraps—fruit and vegetable trimmings, coffee grounds, tea leaves—in a plastic bag till you're ready to unload.—LN
Or you can tackle the whole biodegradable heap yourself. Denver Butson, a Cobble Hill dad, has been composting with his five-year-old daughter Maybelle since she was old enough to dump scraps in the bin. Step one is securing an under-the-sink compost bin; next, setting up an outdoor composter (Butson has one stashed in the yard behind his real-estate office). No alfresco access? Store bins in a hallway or basement. Your kids will think it's cool either way. "If we're just going to throw something in the garbage, Maybelle says, 'That's boring,'" says Butson. "But if I tell her we're going down to the composter, she gets her boots on." Compost worms make short work of scraps and dry materials such as leaves and twigs, added to balance moisture levels.
The resulting mulch enriches the Butson family's vegetable beds, but the gardenless can donate their hauls to amenable community plots.
School Plots: The School Gardens Resource Guide is indispensable (greenthumbnyc.org/pdf/schoolgardenresourceguide.pdf).
Parents all over the city are buzzing about school gardens. Everyone wants their child's school to have one, and dedicated moms and dads are figuring out how to make it happen.
Getting started means reaching out to other parents, says Vicki Sando, who spearheaded the garden initiative at P.S. 41 in the West Village. Critical to the effort is drumming up support from the administration, teachers and maintenance crew. Plenty of outside resources are available, too: Nancie Katz started a garden at P.S. 91, an in-need school in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, with help from the Parks Department, sustainable food advocates Just Food and local businesses.
The benefits to kids are many. At P.S. 91, Katz's plantings of eggplants, peppers, tomatoes and collard greens confront the challenges of a community with high rates of diabetes and obesity. P.S. 41's garden supports what kids are studying in the classroom. Plantings of soybeans, Asian beans and pea pods supplemented a third-grade unit on China. And despite all the logistics involved, a school garden is no different from any other, Sando says. "All you really need are containers, dirt and seeds."
Community Gardens: Search GreenThumb's list to find a community garden near you (greenthumbnyc.org/gardensearch.html).
There are hundreds of community gardens in this city: tiny plots where a few flowers grow around a single tree, meadows sprinkled with wildflowers, woodsy tracts where mossy paths ramble through carpets of ivy. Bilen Berhanu of GreenThumb, the NYC Parks Department's community gardening program, says these spaces offer city children "the opportunity to experience the outdoors in a real, manageable way."
Rebecca Tuffey and her five-year-old daughter, Elly, have been overseeing their own 10' x 12' plot at Two Coves Community Garden in Astoria, Queens, since 2008. "I grew up on a goat farm, rolling in grass," Tuffey says. Before she found the garden, she wondered how she'd give her city kid the chance to dig in the dirt and enjoy being outside.
Now, the duo not only grow their own vegetables—kale, spinach, corn, green beans, carrots, sugar snaps—but they also take part in the larger life of the garden by working the communal area and attending events. Last year, "Elly spent a fair amount of time with the compost team and was eager to help anyone doing woodworking projects." She also demanded her own plot, so Mom generously gave her a 2' x 2' corner, where Elly grew giant marigolds.
"If all we'd done was drop a few seeds in the ground and watched what happened, it would have been enough," says Tuffey. "[But] we got hooked on the sunshine and fresh garden air."—LN