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Ask the Landscaper: Plants that teach, foster a child’s love of nature

Ask the Expert Gardening
Vegetable and flower seeds such as sunflower, beans, nasturtium, radish, zinnia, marigold, and corn germinate readily in a warm location on a moist paper towel in a Ziploc bag.
Vegetable and flower seeds such as sunflower, beans, nasturtium, radish, zinnia, marigold, and corn germinate readily in a warm location on a moist paper towel in a Ziploc bag. Shutterstock/File

Kids have a natural affinity for the natural world. They thrive on exploration and discovery, enthusiastically impressed by different “wow-factor’’ activities. Learning about plants can be stimulating and instructive for developing an understanding of the world. My wife cites one of her earliest memories as her dad and mom showing her how to germinate a lima bean seed in her kitchen on a wet blotter; she still recalls how astounded she felt, recognizing the power in that little seed to so unexpectedly produce a root and shoot.

Parents can help their growing kids learn about plants in lots of creative ways. Younger children with relatively short attention spans want to get results as soon as possible. Vegetable and flower seeds such as sunflower, beans, nasturtium, radish, zinnia, marigold, and corn germinate readily in a warm location on a moist paper towel in a Ziploc bag. Kids are fascinated by the varied shapes, configurations, sizes, and colors of the individual parts of the just-germinated seeds and embryos. And some plants germinated like this can be transplanted into pots of soil to grow to larger sizes.

Katie Folts, the Massachusetts Horticultural Society’s director of educational outreach, recently talked with me about her work with young people, pre-K through Grade 8. Katie coordinates Mass Hort’s Plantmobile program, a traveling plant-science vehicle that brings hands-on horticultural workshops directly to the classroom. This program is well received, particularly now that increasingly intense focus on academic performance in many school systems often allows minimal space and time for more generalized learning.

Folts said younger pupils find large seeds (like bean and pumpkin) and bulbs easier to handle; they enjoy the feel of an interestingly shaped seed (beet, nasturtium, and nuts, for example) and seeing how quickly they germinate and begin to grow. She prefers using types of plants that won’t grow so large that they soon become unmanageable in the classroom.

Students in higher grades can better appreciate how stem sections from plants like succulents and begonia, and even some woody shrubs and trees (forsythia, willow, and hydrangea), can rapidly produce roots and eventually grow on to full size. Some schools incorporate gardens in their curriculum, enabling students to take on the responsibility of designing, installing, and maintaining them. The best ones focus on plants that require little maintenance and can survive with limited attention during the summer when school is not in session.

At home, parents can encourage children to grow vegetables they enjoy eating. Select an area in the garden (or in pots on a sunny patio) that will be their responsibility for the year. Starting vegetable, flowers, and herbs in small pots is easy and can produce gratifying results. Potted plants are easy to transplant to their main growing site; they also avoid the disappointments sometimes accompanying seeds that germinate unevenly when planted directly in the soil.

Older children may be interested in trying more challenging projects. I recall germinating avocado, lemon, and apple seeds when I was still in grade school with remarkable results — some of those plants grew well for several years, becoming rather large. Some adventurous students may even want to try growing more uncommon types of plants and using advanced practices like grafting, hydroponics, and tissue culture.

And who knows, perhaps the satisfaction resulting from hands-on, up-close successes at a young age will help develop a lifelong appreciation for horticulture and all the ways plants add value to our lives.

R. Wayne Mezitt is a third-generation nurseryman, a Massachusetts certified horticulturist, chairman of Weston Nurseries of Hopkinton and Chelmsford, and owner of Hort-Sense, a horticultural advisory business. He is also trustee chairman for the Massachusetts Horticultural Society at The Gardens at Elm Bank in Wellesley. Send comments and questions to [email protected].  Subscribe to the Globe’s free real estate newsletter at pages.email.bostonglobe.com/AddressSignUp.