My son Joey has spent a lot of time in gardens starting when he was a few weeks old. There are few things that make me feel as though I may be close to understanding the meaning of life quite like working in a vegetable or flower garden with a child. It feels so elemental and necessary to be teaching the magic of soil, seeds, flowers and fruits. I know I am sharing lessons others have taught, on some level, for thousands of years.
Children of all ages can help out in the garden. I will say toddlers can try your patience. Something about toddling and all of the straight lines of delicate seedlings just doesn’t jive. We have lost a lot of seedlings over the past few years. Toddlers also have a tendency to shove dirt in their mouths. I remember looking over at Joey, who was sitting in the dirt, and feeling somewhat horrified by the brown mustache he often had. Thanks to this New York Times article about “How Babies Know: A Little Dirt Is Good For You”, I didn’t have to feel guilty about that.
I think it’s good to get children in the garden and in the dirt as early in life as possible. That way, in their minds, it is simply something that has been a part of their lives all along. They have a chance to become attached to growing things and caring for the environment around them before all of the school activities and sports that come along a little later in life start vying heavily for their attention. Your kids may not end up with enough time to work in the garden during some of those hectic adolescent years, but perhaps having planted the seed of interest early on will help them come back to it when life slows down a bit.
I had very little interest in gardening during my teens but in my twenties, once I started living in my own home and caring for it, the urge started to come back to me. I am very grateful for the times I spent as child in my grandparent’s vegetable garden with corn towering over my head and the few things my mom and I would plant around the house. Sometimes it was just a watermelon plant and a couple of tomato plants or some flowers.
Once your children, grandchildren, or friend’s children turn 4 or 5 they are more able to grasp what is going on and how to be more careful in the garden. The level of reward goes up significantly for everyone. I usually order my vegetable seeds from a number of different seed companies but this year I left some for my son to pick out at the seed racks. He had soooo much fun looking at all of the colorful packets of vegetable and flower seeds and picking out what he wanted to grow. He could hardly wait to get home and start planting some of them.
We have a little greenhouse just big enough to start seeds and grow plants for an average sized vegetable garden so, as soon as we got home from the store we got busy filling flats and putting seeds in them. Joey will be five this spring and I was amazed at what a great job he did. Asking a 5 year old, especially a boy, to play with dirt and you have one willing helper. Anything involving dirt and water brings a big smile to his face. He planted three whole flats, each containing 50 little cells of soil, with tomatoes, peppers, basil, lettuce and some flowers! I just held the seeds and helped him keep track of which row he was planting. He already has such a feeling of accomplishment. A few times a day he asks to go out and check to see if they are coming up yet. It is exciting!
I dream of a public school program that actually offers a course centered around where our food comes from with vegetable gardening being a key element. It could be part of a science requirement and would involve the planning and preparation of a garden plot on the school grounds; picking out what they wanted to grow; starting the seeds; planting them; caring for them; then reaping the rewards. There is so much to learn I can’t think of a better way to introduce biology; entomology; soil science; farming; the process of seeing a long-term project through; environmental stewardship; and so much more.
My son must have decided he was ready for spring and he came up with this little art project on an unseasonably cold, snowy, March day. My husband and I got a real kick out of it. He cut pictures of flowers and vegetables he liked out of some of the catalogs I had laying around and taped them to most of the windows in our living room. The next day when he wanted to continue I encouraged him to make collages with them for fear of the stubborn tape goo I may have to clean off of the glass! I think this a great art project for helping kids visualize gardens and what they might like to plant. I was even thinking I might try it for some of my design work! I just haven’t gotten around to learning one of those computer programs that can do that for me yet.
Some Ways You Can Help Your Children Get Interested In Gardening:
If you have a playhouse in your yard consider putting some flowers boxes on it. They can be beautiful to look at and so fun for the kids. We built this playhouse out of scrap lumber left over from construction sites.
Seed Saver’s Exchange Children’s Seed Collection– Click here to see this fun collection of seeds called “My Garden Has A Story”. Each type of seed has a story about its origins. The collection comes with a 10 page book about planting and seed-saving. Great idea!
Kids are much more likely to take an interest in working outside with you if you find them tools that are just the right size. It’s incredible how proud and accomplished they feel when given a little ownership. You can just cut the handles down on some old tools if they are light weight enough like I did with this plastic rake.
I have purchased this Toy Smith’s Garden Tool Set twice so far. Joey is pretty hard on tools, but they are just the right size. Another great tool is the Bubble Mower. I can not tell you how many miles my son has done with this. He started using it when he learned to walk and still loves it!
If you don’t have space for a garden you can help a child pick out some seeds to grow in containers on a porch or even a window box hanging outside a window. Here are some ideas that are particularly kid-friendly:
Sunflowers– Who doesn’t love sunflowers. They are so dramatic and fun. If you don’t have much space you can easily find dwarf sunflower seeds and plant then in pots or containers. Also the dwarfs are a nice height, usually 2-3 feet, for younger children. If you don’t have a cold frame or greenhouse and you want a little jump on the season you can start the seeds directly in a container inside your house about a week before the last frost date for your area. Just be sure to move the container outside once they start to develop leaves. Otherwise, plant them in the containers outside when there is no danger of frost or directly in the ground. Sunflowers prefer not to be transplanted once they start growing. Joey has decided to grow ‘Firecracker’ dwarf sunflowers in a clay pot on our porch because, of course, they have firecracker in their name. There are a few nice varieties to choose from. We are getting ours from Johnny’s Selected Seeds.
Scarlet Runner Beans-This is a very fast growing, vining bean that gets to be 10 feet or more in about 3 months. There are different varieties but they usually have a pretty red flower. They are edible and will re-bloom if picked regularly. You can make a fun teepee or fort with kids by tying some tall stakes or tree branches together and planting 1 or 2 beans at the bottom of each support. The beans will grow up and cover the whole thing. You will want to prepare the soil at the bottom if the teepee isn’t going into an established garden. I am ordering one called ‘Scarlet Emperor’ from Botanical Interests.
Potatoes– If you have the space potatoes are really fun for kids. They are easy for little hands to plant and they come in fun colors and shapes; Red Norlands, Adirondack Blue, Rose Finn fingerlings;etc. Digging for potatoes is like Easter egg hunting in the dirt. Kids faces just light up,( and so does mine!), when they are digging… and digging… and finally find that the one potato they planted 4 months earlier turned into 5 or more!The Seed Saver’s Exchange has a great selection and even if you aren’t going to plant any it’s worth looking at the unusual varieties they carry!
Ever-bearing Strawberries-I think this is my favorite kid-friendly plant. You can buy ever-bearing, bare-root strawberry plants and plant them virtually any where. I prefer the ever-bearing varieties because, although you may have smaller fruits and just a few at a time, you get to pick some all summer. Children of all ages can enjoy finding a sweet little surprises in the garden or in containers throughout the summer. There are a lot of places to buy bare-root strawberries. If you have a large garden center nearby they may carry them in the spring, otherwise here are a few places: Burpee, Gurneys, Hirt’s
If you don’t have yard space strawberries can be planted in containers, on a deck, or on a sunny porch. Strawberry pots are designed just for this purpose. They have holes in the sides and the top for planting multiple plants. Click here for a link to a 3 gallon pot that I think is a pretty good size. There are smaller less expensive ones but I do think you want to be able to fit enough plants to make it worth while.
You can also do some strawberries in hanging baskets. These work great because the slugs can’t get to them. I prefer a sphagnum peat basket like the one in this link, The moss allows the plant to breath better than plastic. At the end of the season you can dump out the soil and re-use the basket for another 1-3 years before needing to replace the moss. Coco fiber baskets will work well too. If you want a free alternative you can usually find some used left over plastic hanging pots from a friend, landscaper, or maybe an especially nice garden center. Just be sure to use fresh soil.