With everyone watching their pennies these days, more and more families are turning to gardening to reduce grocery bills and spend some inexpensive family time outdoors. But if you've never gardened before, figuring out where to start and how to involve your children can be intimidating.

With everyone watching their pennies these days, more and more families are turning to gardening to reduce grocery bills and spend some inexpensive family time outdoors. But if you've never gardened before, figuring out where to start and how to involve your children can be intimidating.

Don't worry, local experts say. Plants are forgiving, and by following a few easy steps, you and your children will have fun and come to love gardening together.

"The first thing would be to start small," said Cory Skurdal, master gardener program assistant with the Ohio State University Extension in Franklin County. "That's pretty much what I tell anyone who has never gardened before." Skurdal recommends introducing children to gardening by growing vegetables in pots, rather than turning over a large patch of ground in the back yard. That way, he said, you won't have to worry about weeds and plant diseases as much and your chances of success will increase. Container gardens do require more frequent watering, he said. But watering is an activity most kids really enjoy and can do on their own, he said.

Just remember to use containers with good drainage and clean soil, said Bill Maynard, vice president of the Columbus-based American Community Gardening Association. Even if you intend to grow your vegetables in a larger garden, Maynard said it's a good idea to start your plants in small containers and transfer them to the ground later. He recommends paper cups or old milk cartons for the job. Because children are naturally curious, Maynard said it can be easy to get them into the garden. "It's usually not a problem to get your kids to play in the dirt, so one of the first steps is to let them know that sometimes, it's okay to get a little dirty."

Gardening requires some patience, something kids may struggle with. So Eric Pawlowski, farm manager at the Shepherd's Corner Farm in Blacklick, recommends starting out with plants that bear produce quickly. For example, radishes can be ready to eat in as little as 28 days, and some leaf lettuces and spinaches can go from seeds to plate in just 45 to 50 days, he said.

Pawlowski said he tries to engage the children that visit the farm, run by the Dominican Sisters of Peace, by growing plant varieties that challenge their ideas of what vegetables should look and taste like. For example, he makes sure to grow orange and yellow tomatoes of various shapes alongside the round red tomatoes his guests are used to seeing in the supermarket. And children are always surprised, he said, when they bite into a yellow stone carrot and find out just how sweet it is. "You have to get them out of those comfort zones."

At the same time, Maynard said, "It is very important to plant what they like to eat, so they can see it growing and understand where it comes from." And when selecting plants, Skurdal recommends selecting varieties that are naturally disease-resistant. If they are, it will typically say so on the label, he said.

Once you know what you want to plant and where you want to plant it, the number one rule of gardening, Pawlowski said, is to keep everyone safe when handling garden tools. "I'm a good farmer," he said. "Why? Because I have all my fingers."

"You need to start off with a healthy respect for the damage these tools can cause you, your neighbor and the earth," Pawlowski continued. "There is a proper way to handle a rake and a hoe. All (children) know is that the seven dwarfs throw it over the shoulder. That is poor form when you are working around other people." And skip the cute "kiddie" garden tools on the market and opt instead for scaled-down professional tools, Pawlowski said. The items made for children look like fun, but tend to bend and break. That frustrates kids and may lead them to give up, he said.

"Basic hand trowels and cultivators - that's what I issue to anyone in fifth grade or below," Pawlowski said. "That way, they are right there in close proximity to where they are working. Being right there working on the one square foot in front of you is important for younger kids because there is a lot of activity happening in that area."


Miriam L. Segaloff lives in Gahanna with her husband and daughter. She has more than 17 years' experience in writing, editing and communications.