Oh, to be a kid again. Peeking under the leaves to see if there are green beans to harvest yet. Running out to the vegetable patch to gauge how much the "great pumpkin" grew overnight. Pulling the first radishes a little early because I-just-couldn't-wait-another-day.

Hey, wait a minute. I do some of those same things today! Which just proves that gardening can be enjoyed by kids of all ages.

Gardening with children is not only fun, it gives them a skill they can use for a lifetime. Not all of them will, of course. Some will abandon the soil to pursue other hobbies. Many will take time off to attend college and start a career.

But if the seed was sown in fertile ground, nurtured by garden-loving parents or grandparents, an individual who was introduced to gardening as a child is likely to find pleasure in it as an adult.

Children are more apt to develop a fondness for plants if they associate gardening with "fun" rather than "work." Insisting that your kids weed the vegetable patch each Saturday without sharing the joy of picking a bouquet of lilacs or planting a few seeds is likely to put them off horticulture for life.

It's all in the way you approach gardening with them. Here is a short checklist of things that will make gardening chores more "kid-friendly":

— Keep projects and instructions simple;

— Acquire kid-size gardening tools so they'll be able to work comfortably;

— Let children make some of their own decisions about what to plant, and where; let them make a few mistakes, too, it's how they learn;

— Take children on trips to the garden center to pick out seeds and flowers;

— If you have the space, give a child a small patch of his own to design and fill with whatever he chooses;

— Garden for short periods of time; changing activities frequently keeps kids engaged;

— Plant vegetables your child likes to eat. Concentrate on varieties that grow quickly, like green beans and radishes, but be sure to include a cherry tomato for later in the season;

— Let kids grow something just for the fun of it: lamb's ears, a bean teepee, chocolate-mint-scented geranium, a dwarf butterfly bush, yellow beets instead of red.

Kids are curious by nature. Turn an hour in the garden into a mini-botany or entomology lesson. A lot of science happens in a garden: the miracle of germination, soil chemistry and the bug-eat-bug world of beneficial insects destroying their prey.

Garden with them, quietly reasoning and teaching as you go. Children who like gardening will bring practical first-hand knowledge to biology class when they're older. And they may be able to teach the teacher a thing or two about earthworms!

Here are some time-tested gardening activities and projects that all children seem to love:

— Plant a "salad" or "pizza" garden in a giant pot; include a bush tomato, oregano, basil, leaf lettuce and a cucumber vine.

— Grow flowers like violets, daisies, pansies, coreopsis and ornamental grasses; press the blooms to preserve them and save them for craft projects next winter.

— Make your own salsa from homegrown tomatoes.

— Build a teepee out of long, stout bamboo stakes lashed together at the top. Plant a pole bean at the base of each stake. Youngsters will love harvesting beans from inside the teepee.

— Plant "baby" anything: beets, carrots, spinach, filet beans, potatoes. Vegetables taste better when you've harvested and prepared them yourself.

— Grow anything "giant": sunflowers, pumpkins, dahlias, squash. Bigger is better.

— Start an oak tree from an acorn. Or plant a "signature" tree with your child; let him or her help choose the variety.

— Fill a small plot with plants that are interesting to touch: lamb's ears, strawflower, snapdragon. A fragrance garden can include scented geraniums, herbs, lavender and rosemary.

— Plant a little cactus garden in an old worn-out sneaker. Use succulents without thorns such as hens-n-chicks and trailing sedums.

— Gather rose petals for drying into potpourri. Fill a small muslin bag or decorate a bowl to hold the dried petals.

Gardening activities don't have to end when the weather turns cold in autumn:

— Germinate grapefruit seeds indoors; or start an avocado pit or a sweet potato top in a pot of soil-less mix.

— Force a hyacinth bulb into bloom in a small vase of water or measure how fast a giant amaryllis stalk grows.

— Start tomato and pepper seeds on the windowsill for transplanting to the garden in spring.

For lots more project ideas and gardening activities, visit the National Gardening Association's Web site: www.kidsgardening.com.


Lindsay Bond Totten, a horticulturist, writes about gardening for Scripps Howard News Service.