GIMME SHELTER- Planting a seed: Help kids grow with gardening

Dr. Diane Relf
Emeritus Professor, Virginia Tech Department of Horticulture


Q: Our young children have expressed interesting in helping us garden. They think it would be cool to grow something this year. Any tips on how to get kids started without it being too difficult or complicated? 

A: A main thing to remember is that children need to start with a project that will provide both enjoyment and success to maintain they're continued interest. As such, zinnias make perfect learning tools – the seed of zinnias are large, they germinate quickly (with most of the seed germinating), the plants don't require a lot of care outdoors, and they will bloom prolifically from mid-summer until the frost kills them in the fall. Seed can be started indoor four to six weeks before the last expected frost, and seedlings transplanted into the garden. An easier method is to sow the seed directly into the garden where they are going to grow.

Encourage children to take care of their own small garden or their own portion of a larger garden. For younger children, you may wish to select a mix of zinnia seed so they can enjoy many bright colors. Your young gardener can sow a small mass planting, so that when the flowers bloom, the garden will be a splash of color. Older children may enjoy planning a garden design with two or more colors of zinnia. 

Help children prepare the soil in the bed. Add organic matter or slow release fertilizer if needed, then moisten and level the soil. Have the children draw lines in the soil to mark the planting rows or design. Plant two or three zinnia seeds 1\4 to 1\2 inch deep in holes spaced 4 to 6 inches apart, depending on the type of zinnia. If the soil is warm and moist, the seeds will germinate in three to four days. When the seeds are sown in rows, it is easier to identify the zinnia seedlings from weed seedlings.

When zinnia seedlings have two pairs of true leaves, they need to be thinned by pinching off all but the most vigorous seedling at ground level. Leave about 4 to 6 inches between low growers, 8 to 10 inches between intermediates, and 10 to 15 inches between large giants.

Zinnia maintenance is very basic, just water, weed, and watch them bloom. Zinnias do not require a lot of water, but they should be irrigated during dry weather to keep them blooming at their best. Trickle irrigation is best as sprinklers tend to increase the chances of disease. Deep, infrequent watering (soil is wet to a depth of 5 to 6 inches) gets water to the plant roots where it is most needed better than frequent, shallow waterings.

Zinnias are perfect for picking – this helps to keep them blooming and it's great to give Mom or a friend several huge flowers right from "my own garden" – so keep scissors or garden shears handy! Growing plants, such as zinnias, can help children learn how to garden and enjoy beautifying their outdoor environment. When they have a hand in starting "life" by germinating seeds and nurturing "life" as they take care of the plants, children develop skills that they will use all their lives.