Gardening with Kids
Whether kids have access to a large yard or only a windowsill planter, young gardeners’ inborn curiosity encourages them to discover nature’s cycles firsthand, while learning respect and concern for Earth’s larger ecology. Gardening not only instills lifelong appreciation for the beauties of nature, but fun, hands-on activities develop delicious skills of creativity, self-discipline and even self-sufficiency.
While we can’t run out and raise a rainforest in a day, a childhood head start on understanding the environment in one’s own garden can seed a lusher future. A backyard plot of just four by four feet will serve. Be sure to provide pathways or stepping stones for access, and then plant a rich mix of flowers and vegetables. If the family doesn’t have access to land, a container garden on a balcony, patio or deck can produce abundant flowers and vegetables; often, it makes caring for the garden even simpler.
An important tip: Although a child’s garden of any size may not be as neatly tended as a parent’s or grandparent’s, give the choicest garden spot to the child. Lots of sun and good soil will aid in the success that cultivates interest.
To begin, invite one or more youngsters to help prepare the soil, turning over dirt with a small shovel or trowel. Break up clumps by hand or by stomping on them. Digging holes is a favorite kids’ pastime.
Next, choose easy-to-grow plants. Select as many different types as will fit well into the allotted space. Carrots, fast-growing radishes and bite-sized cherry tomatoes are good vegetable choices.
For flowers, choose some that can be used as cut flowers or as special gifts for Mom, like zinnias, marigolds, snapdragons or salvia. For a spectacular touch, also plant a few sunflowers, which not only can tower up to 10 feet tall, but supply edible seeds.
Include herbs such as basil and parsley for garden grazing. Yummy fragrances come courtesy of lemon verbena, rose-scented geraniums and pineapple salvia. Some plants are just for touching, like perennial lamb’s ears, with their soft, fuzzy leaves, in silvery shades of green.
Starting from seed that the family has selected together from a catalog provides a wondrous learning experience. Small children find large seeds such as corn, beans, pumpkins, zucchini and sunflowers easy to handle and plant. Colorful annual bedding plants such as petunias, pansies or periwinkles are also excellent choices for a ready-made start to the season.
Use the seed packet, stapled to a stake with a child’s name written on it, for easy identification. Bedding plants picked out together at a nursery usually come with a plant tag, as well. Vivid pictures help children imagine what will grow.
Children love something of their very own, so keep them interested and aware of their garden by personalizing it with a sign; say, “Mary’s Plot,” or “John’s Place.”
Kids also love to water—particularly with the full force of the hose. Reminders that rain usually falls more gently encourage them to take it easier. A personalized sprinkling can is a good idea for younger children.
Wait before weeding. Even adults can have difficulty distinguishing small, wanted plants from unwanted weeds. Often, it’s best to let things grow a little. As they do, let the garden teach recycling. Grass clippings, shredded leaves and vegetable matter, placed into a homemade compost bin, recycle themselves into highly nutritious soil for plants.
“Patience is a virtue,” advises the adage, and the wait for flowers and vegetables to mature can teach the rewards of patience. Watching a garden grow may not be easy: Children may want to pull up young root veggies to see if they are “done.” Even if they do pull sprouting produce, the edibles may be just big enough to wash off and give them a taste of better things to come.
Gardening provides an ideal time to talk to a child about how plants grow and the role of worms, insects and birds as nature’s caretakers. Ask them, “If you were a plant, what kind would you be, and why? What would you tell the gardener?”
The discoveries and lessons never cease. The often surprising child’s-eye view of their world can help parents guide youngsters’ personal growth, as well as their gardening skills.
Finally, remember that half the fun is to pick, wash and cook the bounty. Big and small folks alike revel in the joy of the harvest.
Ted Fisher is a county extension horticulturist emeritus with the Texas AgriLife Extension Service.
For age-appropriate activities and other helpful insight, see: Gardening with Children, by Monika Hanneman; A Child’s Garden, by Molly Dannenmaier; BackyardNature.net; and KidsGardening.org/primer.asp.