“Mummy! It smells just like sunshine!” said my 5-year-old son, Cameron, his face split wide open with a grin. He was standing knee-deep in the middle of our herb garden, the sun pouring down on him from a cloudless blue sky.
“How do you know what sunshine smells like?” said Kent, my 10 year old.
“It smells like dirt, and flowers… and Peppermint.” Cameron replied, looking at both of us as if everyone should know what sunshine smells like.
Growing herbs is a fun and fantastic way to introduce children to gardening. No matter how much space you have, from a window box to an 8 foot by 8 foot plot, herbs are hearty, prolific and easy to maintain. A little dirt, some water and sunshine are all you need to share a lifelong skill with your kids.
To start growing herbs in the house you can use Dixie cups. Fill the cups to within a half inch of the top with potting soil. Help your kids read the instructions on the seed packet, and supervise the planting, unless you really enjoy sweeping and vacuuming. Once they are done planting, water the cups well and then place them in a plastic tray in a warm spot with lots of sunlight. Water, gently, every other day.
In about a week to ten days, the seedlings start pushing through the dirt. This is a good time to talk with your kids about the particular shape of the first leaf sets. Do dill leaves look different from mint leaves? How many leaves are there? What do they think the adult plant will look like? This encourages kids to use their imaginations and teaches them how to identify plants.
Once the seedlings are big enough to handle transplanting, usually about five weeks after sowing, they can be moved outside to a window box, pot or garden. Dig a hole in the dirt large enough for the roots using a tablespoon or a garden trowel. Gently squeeze the cup to release the roots, and pull the plant out. Insert the roots into the hole and press the dirt around the roots and the stem of the plants. Give the plants a good drink of water and check on them over the next few days to make sure they like their new home.
Maintaining herbs is simple. Water them every few days, when the dirt feels dry to the touch. Within a few weeks, you’ll be able to harvest small amounts to season food. Trimming the herbs is good for them, because they’ll shoot out new branches where they were cut.
Be prepared to answer all kinds of questions. Anything from “Why is dirt brown?” to “Why do bees like flowers?” With older kids, you may hear from them about how plants are pollinated, because they’ve been learning about it at school.
Not only does growing your own plants present fantastic “teachable” moments, but it can save you money and protect your health. One package of basil seeds will cost you .99 cents, versus $1.50 per half ounce at the grocery store. If you grow your own, you know exactly what fertilizers and pest control solutions are used – by you!
For more information about herb gardening, go to