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Mud Pies & More

Teaching children gardening skills empowers them to make healthier choices for themselves and the planet.

Gardening is easy.

Just ask Alexis Smith, 10, who loves helping her mom tend their sprawling east Longmont garden.

“I just write down everything my mom tells me,” Alexis says, proudly showing off her gardening binder, which contains pages and pages of her own handwritten notes, sketches and diagrams.

Last year her mom, Natalie, taught her about perennials; this year’s topic was planting annuals in pots. Natalie patiently explained the entire process to Alexis, from choosing the pots and locations, to selecting the right plants, to watering and deadheading. (“Deadheading,” Alexis confidently explains, “means pinching off any dead flowers so the plant has energy to grow new flowers.”)

mudpies-2Then off they went to the nursery, where Natalie gave Alexis the opportunity to select all the plants herself. “You just have to look at the back of the tag,” Alexis explains, “to see which zone they’re for, if they need full sun or part sun or shade, and how often you have to water them.”

After reading dozens of tags and finding the right types of flowers for her pots at home, Alexis narrowed down the choices based on color: “I got hot-pink geraniums, orange zinnias, yellow marigolds and lime-green sweet potato vine, because they all look so pretty together.”

When she got her flowers home, Alexis simply referred to her binder for the information she needed to plant them properly in their pots. She reread the important instructions she had written down, like “Put two inches of little rocks at the bottom of the pot for drainage” and “Always pat the dirt gently so there are no clumps.”

Over the next few months, she lovingly checked her pots every day, watering when necessary and enjoying the beautiful show of color throughout the front and back yards. “Sometimes I’m outside all day,” she says, “and I just love it.”

Pumpkins and Pies

Katrina Sabol, 9, has been gardening with her parents for as long as she can remember. In 2006, when Katrina was just 5, the family entered—and won—the Giant Pumpkin Contest sponsored by The Flower Bin in Longmont. Their winning entry (named “Victoria”) weighed in at a whopping 660-plus pounds.

“Growing a pumpkin that large takes a lot of time and effort,” says Chris Sabol, Katrina’s mom. “It was a family project, and Katrina helped a lot.”

After a parade, during which Chris and Katrina were crowned the Pumpkin Queen and Pumpkin Princess, the Sabols carved Victoria into a huge jack-o’-lantern, large enough for Katrina to fit inside. “We even hung a disco ball in there,” laughs Katrina’s dad, Joe. “And we made a lot of pumpkin pie,” Katrina adds.

Today, the Sabols’ Longmont garden includes a sizable patch just for Katrina, and a well-stocked mud-pie station tucked into a shady corner. Katrina spends a lot of time there, assembling her creative, flower-adorned mud pies using the old pie tins and other containers and tools she keeps on shelves along the fence. “I like to use thick mud,” she advises, “and if it’s too watery, just add more dirt to get the mixture just right.”

She decorates her creations with flowers and leaves plucked from around the large yard. “I’m just glad my mud-pie station is in the shade,” she says. “Otherwise it would get too hot.”

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Sustainable Skills

The time that Alexis, Katrina and other children spend in their gardens is invaluable, says Bryce Winton Brown, founder of the Garden to Table program (see “From Garden to Table” below), which brings gardening education to elementary schools in the Boulder Valley School District. “Providing children with opportunities to connect to nature through gardens is so critical to them developing the knowledge, skills and behavior that will lead to living healthy and sustainable lives,” Brown says.

Brown is right; both Katrina and Alexis have learned valuable lessons and life skills from gardening.

Katrina’s experience with decorating mud pies led her to the kitchen, where she has been experimenting with decorating actual cakes. She also enjoys flower arranging, with the help of her mom, who used to be a flo-rist. And, when she’s not in her mud-pie ­station or the kitchen, or tending to her flowers (mostly hot-pink ones, because that’s her favorite color), Katrina likes uncovering dead insects and studying them under the microscope she got for her birthday.

According to Chris, Katrina has become quite the entomologist: “Kids at school come up to her and ask her about different bugs.” Katrina has also learned something else that’s very important—she loves being outside. “It’s so nice to play in the grass with bare feet,” she says.

As for Alexis, her trusty binder is filled with nuggets of gardening wisdom she can always refer to, like “Don’t crowd the plants in the pot” and “Just stick your finger in the soil—if it’s dry, it needs water.”

And some of her newfound knowledge can also be applied to life: “Some die, but that happens. Just water your plants a lot and hope they make it.”

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