Help Your Kids Blossom By Cultivating an Early Interest in Gardening

Plus, a roundup of local events and activities to grow your green thumb
backyard gardening - youth activities
Three generations show off their handiwork: Beth Winters, center left, with mom Carol Corbin, along with Eleanor, left, and Evelyn Winters.

On a beautiful day in the summer of 2020, young Eleanor Winters joyfully skips amid the gardens behind her Rochester Hills home. “We’ve got monarchs, lots of monarchs,” she tells her mother. Then Eleanor, 9, is off to a vegetable patch where gourds are growing “from the seeds we planted!” she shares with unbridled joy. 

Eleanor’s enthusiasm is contagious. It was planted years ago by her mother, Beth Winters, and by her grandmother, Carol Corbin of Troy. Eleanor’s sister, Evelyn, 7, also loves to garden.

“The girls’ favorite is our strawberry patch,” says Winters, a teacher in the Rochester Community School District. “They also love going to the garden stores and picking out their own annuals.” Favorites include local shops such as Fogler’s Greenhouse in Rochester, Telly’s Greenhouse in Troy, Eckert’s Greenhouse & Perennials in Sterling Heights, and Piechnik’s Greenhouse & Garden in Oakland.  

Meanwhile, Ryan Youngblood and his wife (together with their children, ages 5, 7, and 10) have been exploring vegetable gardening at their Oakland Township home. “We actually use vegetable gardening as the means to teach lessons to the kids on the essentials of basic life, and the absolute need [to have certain] key items in order for life to exist and continue,” says Youngblood, owner of R. Youngblood & Co., a landscaping company in Rochester. “They also get to see where food comes from, and it’s the start of teaching them the value of hard work and the rewards it provides.”  

Getting children involved in gardening might be one of the best things parents and grandparents can do for their kids’ development, experts say. “Children who plant and grow food with their families are more adventurous eaters, and that’s been proven,” says Dr. Molly O’Shea, a pediatrician based in Bloomfield Hills. “I share this with parents a lot. There are so many benefits for children when it comes to gardening, and when it comes to vegetable gardening in particular. 

“When a child of any age begins to learn where food comes from, it increases their willingness to experiment with food. Gardening also gives them responsibilities; they learn to care for something,” says O’Shea, of Beverly Hills, who immersed her own children in vegetable gardening when they were growing up. She points out that kids learn about failure from gardening, too. “Not everything we plant turns out, and that’s OK. These are life lessons.”

backyard gardening - youth activities
Evelyn and Eleanor Winters get playful in their garden.

Keep Growing Detroit co-director Lindsay Pielack agrees, noting that gardening is an amazing teacher for childhood development: “The garden can teach every subject, from small motor skills to relationships with adults to understanding the natural world.” Pielack suggests families check out KGD’s website (see below) to find activities they can do at home, whether they have a garden or not. Based in Detroit, the organization envisions a food-sovereign city where the majority of fruits and vegetables consumed by Detroiters are grown by residents within the city’s limits. Last year, KGD helped support nearly 1,950 Detroit gardens through its garden resource program. “And of those, 1,050 were backyard family gardens,” she says.   

At Michigan State University, Ellen Koehler, education coordinator for the MSU Extension Tollgate Farm and Education Center, knows all about the benefits of being a green-thumbed kid. “Not only are there beneficial aspects of growing our own food and understanding where it comes from, but there are also purely therapeutic aspects of gardening,” Koehler says. “Working with the soil and plants and spending time outdoors is extremely beneficial.” 

She and her team recently launched the HomeGrown Gardening Series for families and individuals who want to explore vegetable gardening together. One upcoming session is called Growing Fun with Kids.  

Meanwhile, the Winters family is eager to see their backyard bloom again. This year, the family’s gardens will be among those available to be toured during the Troy Garden Club’s 46th Garden Walk in July. “My mom’s gardens were featured in the 2013 walk,” Winters says, “so I’m walking in her footsteps this summer.”

Visitors will get to see Beth’s beautiful blooms as well as young Eleanor and Evelyn’s patch of pretties, including strawberries, tomatoes, lemon-thyme, gourds, zucchini, chives, and other greens that “we put in our smoothies,” Eleanor says.  

One of the family’s favorite highlights is the Eleanor Lily. “I’ve been growing daylilies for years and every year I add another one,” Winters says. She bought the Eleanor variety — a yellow and red-purple beauty — because it has the same name as her daughter and grandmother. There’s also a bright yellow one called Colossal Carol, which brings her mom to mind. And there are fluffy pink peonies too, which are from her great-grandmother’s yard and were given to her by her grandmother. “[My grandmothers] are living in spirit in my garden,” she says.  


Metro Detroit Events and Activities to Cultivate Your Green Thumb

Garden walks, online programs, and advice from the experts
backyard gardening - youth activities
Beth Winters’ impressive blooms will be featured in the Troy Garden Club’s Garden Walk this July.

Lend a Hand: Detroit Abloom, an organic cut-flower farm, florist, and native-plant nursery, is planning Kids Abloom, a children’s discovery garden, in the Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood in Detroit. Volunteers can help build the new garden, which will feature bean-covered teepees and tunnel structures, a butterfly garden, and more. 313-587-2446, detroitabloom.com. 

Learn the Life Cycle: MSU Tollgate Farm 4-H’s Follow the Nutrient Trail Virtual Interactive Adventure invites children to follow the nutrient trail of consumers, producers, and decomposers as they meet goats, chickens — and worms! Visiting the garden, orchard, and animal barn, students will investigate how the energy of the sun fuels the nutrient cycle. April 26-30. Registration: events.anr.msu.edu/springfollowthenutrienttrail/.  

How It Happens: MSU Tollgate Farm 4-H’s Plants and Their Partners Virtual Interactive Adventure asks kids the questions: How do plants grow, and how do they depend on other living things? Visiting the garden, greenhouse, fields, and animal barn, students will investigate pollination and seed dispersal. May 3-7, May 5-June 1. Registration: events.anr.msu.edu/virtualspringplantsandpartners/.   

Multisensory Green Scene: Michigan State University’s 4-H Children’s Gardens in East Lansing, open sunup to sundown daily, has dozens of themes, ranging from bird to kitchen, pioneer, and butterfly gardens. More information: 4hgarden.msu.edu. 

Growth Experience: Keep Growing Detroit offers residents of Detroit, Highland Park, and Hamtramck a garden resource program that provides families with just about everything they need (seeds, plants, and education) to start a garden at home. The organization also regularly holds open hours and family fun days at its farm. (Due to COVID-19, organizers can’t confirm when open hours and family fun days will return — check website regularly). More information: 313-656-4769, detroitagriculture.net.   

Expert Advice: Gardenatoz.org is a great source for  information, offering weekly webinars. The site also has an area dedicated to sparking children’s interest in gardening. It’s run by longtime professional gardeners Janet Macunovich and Steven Nikkila. More information: 248-681-7850, gardenatoz.org. 

Take a Tour: Enjoy the Troy Garden Club’s 46th Garden Walk on July 14. The tour showcases seven private gardens in the Troy area. This year’s event is called Anniversary Gardens in honor of the club’s 50th anniversary. Related activities include an art fair at the Troy Historic Village, where artists will showcase garden-themed creations. A village must-see for kids is the charming children’s garden, where a path leads through marked plants whose names represent the letters of the alphabet. More information: 248-540-6158, troygardenclubmi.com

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