Mara Higdon likes gardening. Always has.
“It started with my parents and grandparents when I was younger,” said Mara, who grew up in southern Missouri. “My grandparents were farmers. I spent a lot of time in their vegetable garden. My afternoon activity was picking rocks. Soil there has a lot of rocks. They spent a lot of time making the ground usable.”
Mara, 39, is assistant director at Gateway Greening in St. Louis, a nonprofit that educates and empowers people to strengthen their communities through gardening and urban agriculture. Its staff of 12 helps with community gardening, church gardening, food pantry gardens, school gardens, and most recently, a senior gardening program.
Growing things is a win-win activity.
“You’re able to see progress and accomplishments,” she said. “When you stand back and look at it, you can see you made a difference. It’s exciting to see the transformation, whether it’s a small project for one person or for the community at large.”
Mara recently shared tips on family gardening with the O’Fallon Garden Club during its meeting at Rock Springs Park.
“I have four kids of my own,” she told the 40 or so gathered. “Since this is my career, we spend a lot of time in our garden and other people’s gardens. (Children) are the next generation of environmental stewards.”
She and husband Scott, who works in bioinformatics (a field that develops methods and software tools for understanding biological data) at Washington University, are parents to Charlie, 7, Penelope, 6, Walt, 3, and Henry, 7 months. They live in an older south St. Louis home with a small, sloped front yard planted with perennials and herbs, such as sage and chives. A few zucchini plants, their yellow blossoms peeking out, meander through.
Here’s what Mara had to say.
1. Check a vegetable gardening calendar to determine what you can grow and when. What should you plant for success in mid-August? “Beans. Spring and fall are the best times for beans.” Consider such things as snap beans, peppers, beets, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale and collard greens. “You also can still do lettuce when it gets a little cooler in September. Lettuce has a short maturity date. You can throw out seeds and see the fruits of your labor fairly quickly.”
2. Start small. “A lot of our gardens in childcare facilities are very small. Little kids don’t have long attention spans.” She recommends the method in a book, “Square Foot Gardening” by Mel Bartholomew. Give each child a square foot of ground. Put his name on a tongue depressor to designate it as his own. Tell him how many plants to put in the square.
3. Choose a spot that gets enough sun, a minimum of six hours of sunlight. “We moved to St. Louis and bought a house with a shaded backyard. We had beautiful plants, but no produce.” Mara gave their three backyard garden beds to neighbors across the alley. “They have tons of sun. Typically, when their garden has abundance, they share.” Not enough sun? Try shade-tolerant plants such as kale, parsley, scallions, turnips, beets, spinach, carrots, lettuce, garlic, mustard greens, chard, bok choi or potatoes.
4. Make sure you have adequate water and good quality soil. “In the city, we have a lot of debris in the soil. We bring in soil. We encourage you to start building your soil composition in fall. Add compost. “We add compost two or three times a year, a little more in fall ... We use raised beds because it has a lot of good drainage, warms faster and the soil is not contaminated. Plus, you’re less likely to have pest problems.” She recommends 4 feet of space between raised beds in school gardens to allow kids to get around.
5. Good idea: Use organic soil and fertilizer. “You don’t know where kids are going to put their hands. Little ones put their fingers in their mouth. My kids have eaten a lot of dirt.” The label “OMRI” (Organic Materials Review Institute) indicates soil is organic.
6. Aim for success. Try a fool-proof vegetable such as radishes, collard greens or okra, she said. Consider Hungarian wax peppers, jalapenos, lettuces. Spring and fall crops do much better in shade than others. Looseleaf lettuce is easy and grows quickly.
7. When at first you don’t succeed: “Beans, beets, lettuce — you can sow them again quickly if they don’t germinate. If it doesn’t come up the first week, plant another batch of seeds. Plop another seed down where the plant was supposed to be.”
8. Have some fun. During the summer, see who can grow the tallest sunflower or the sunflower with the most seeds. Or who can grow the biggest sweet potato. She told of a third-grade class that turned out a 13-pounder. They divided it among the entire class.
9. Appeal to the senses. “There’s nothing better than watering and mud pies,” she said. Have children put their hands in the dirt and squeeze. If the soil is compacted and sticks together, wait to plant. Have them smell garden herbs such as lemon balm, mint and sage. Rub them by the nose and ask, “Which smells better?” Try to get kids to try everything at least once.
10. Set ground rules on how to behave. Hold hand tools below the waist. Walk, don’t run, through the garden. Ask before picking. Be respectful to each other, no pushing or shoving.
1. Decide what you want to grow from seed. Make your own container by wrapping a cylinder of newspaper around a piece of wood. Tuck ends up like coin rolls so you have a form to put a few inches of soil into. Use any paper without color. Egg cartons also work well for starting plants. Or use peat pots (10 for $2.49) that come with little cakes of organic material. Add water and the cakes expand. After plants get their second set of leaves, slowly expose to cooler outdoor temperatures before putting in the ground.
2. Hang a shop light — they cost $8 to $10 — above your plants. “Make sure the light is close at the beginning, 3 to 6 inches above,” she said. “Set a timer for 13 to 16 hours of light. Once they germinate, raise up an inch as plants grow. You can do this in the basement. “We do a lot in the kitchen. We have radiators that provide bottom heat. You don’t need a heating mat. ... Put a fan on to make sure there’s some circulation.”
Other gardening activities
1. Keep a gardening journal of what you plant and what succeeds. Older kids may want to do a garden plan on the computer.
2. Examine a seed packet with your children. It’s something you can do in wintertime. “If we plant this, when will it be mature? It’s a great way for them to get information. Where do cabbages come from? It’s a great way to explore the plant world.”
2. Show kids how seeds germinate and grow by coiling a paper towel in a clear cup. Put seeds on the outside of the towel and water in the middle. If the towel remains damp, the seeds will continue to grow. Occasionally, you can put them in the ground and they will grow. “It kind of blew their minds,” said Mara. “It looks like a little alien.”
For more information, check the website gatewaygreening.org/grow/gardens/youth