I love indoor gardening, I cannot get enough of it. But I know not all parents share my enthusiasm. Growing plants indoors can provide wonderful learning opportunties for children. Children can get close to nature no matter the weather, they can observe up close the wonders of plant life. Growing herbs gives the child the opportunity to grow their own food and learn about about real food, real flavours. It also allows the child to reap and harvest frequently.
"The most pleasant work for children is not sowing but reaping, a work, we all know, that is no less exacting than the former. It may even be said that it is the harvest which intensifies an interest in sowing. The more one has reaped, the more he experiences the secret fascination of sowing." Maria Montessori in The Discovery of the Child.
I've found toddlers in particular love to harvest herbs. Picking the leaves off the plant allows for practice of the pincer grip. For toddlers who can use scissors, harvesting herbs can also provide fine motor, scissor practice! Toddlers can put the herbs in the mortar and pestle to make a pesto, they can tear them into pasta sauce or perhaps chop them for a salad or put on top of pizza, they can sprinkle them over fish or vegetables for roasting. Naming herbs can be a fantastic language excercise and remembering them by scent can challenge the child.
Our children's herb garden currently includes rosemary (perennial), mint (perennial), basil (annual) and sweet basil. We use basil so much we need two pots and it comes in so many nice varieties. We use a lot of parsley and we can't grow enough of it, so we currently don't have a parsley plant. On and off we've also grown chives. We would love to add thyme and coriander. Different herbs have different requriements but our care for the plants genarally looks like this:
- We use terracotta pots. I love the asethetics of terracotta but they are porous and allow for more air movement, I've found they work well for herbs.
- Use quality potting mix, need good drainage.
- Water every two days. Water slowly and water well.
- Keep in a sunny position. We use our window sill or on a shelf near a window. (In Brisbane our herbs were on our deck). Our herbs in the UK have survived and even thrived during winter.
- Remove dead or discoloured leaves as soon as possible. Reduces risk of mould and disease.
- Harvest frequently. For most herbs this will result in lots of new growth. Pinch out the top of basil plants to promote growth.
If the children have watered the plants I will water them again, I usually water them on the kitchen sink and water them until the water comes out the bottom. Most herbs don't do well in soggy soil so drainage is important. As we keep our herbs in sunny positions they dry out pretty quickly and I've not had them suffer from over watering. It's easy to tell if the herbs need more water as they will look a little wilted.
If you are worried about over watering, you can leave the watering can or we use a small pitcher inside, full of water and ensure the child/ren know once the water is used up it that's enough (don't refill it until the next day). Or I love the idea some Montessori schools use and put a craft stick in the plant once it has been watered, this will ensure another child doesn't water it again.
If you aren't keen on gardening inside or out, how about trying just one pot? "But even one pot with one plant is better than nothing where there is no garden." Susan Mayclin Stephenson in The Joyful Child, Montessori, Global Wisdom for Birth to Three.
Toddlers can be rough on herbs, Otto has dropped one or two, he has pulled them out of their pots and often takes off entire branches. Harvesting herbs can teach gentleness, we can teach toddlers to smell and touch even rub their leaves gently. With a little care herbs will survive and can be enjoyed by the whole family!!