I don’t have children yet but I am lucky enough to live next door to some awesome little kids, who were my happy models for the photos in this article. They are my practice/surrogate children, and I am slowly indoctrinating them into the Cult of Gardening. It seems to be working, as they love “working” in the garden. This, I guess, qualified me enough to write the following article, which was recently published in Urbanbaby Magazine. Enjoy.
Getting kids into gardening
Ask many people about gardening and they claim to have a black thumb. “My mom always made me weed when I was a kid,” is a common refrain, followed closely by, “I always kill everything.”
Of course, gardening was a chore for many of us growing up. It was done not with pleasure or the spirit of exploration many gardeners enjoy, but reluctantly. Because of that, some of us may have vowed not to inflict the same torture upon our children.
It’s a shame, really, because gardening doesn’t have to be a chore. In fact, gardening with your kids is a fantastic way to get them outdoors, teach patience and sensitivity, instill an appreciation for the natural world, and to provide a gateway to a healthy lifelong activity.
Let’s set one thing straight: gardening is right up most kids’ alleys. There’s dirt. Bugs. Grass to pluck. Sunshine. As long as it’s introduced in an appealing way, kids will grow to love gardening. But how do you make gardening appealing to a toddler or young child?
It’s (mostly) in the head
First, try to approach each project – whether you’re hanging up a new birdfeeder, or tucking some nasturtium seeds into your window boxes – with a child’s sense of wonder. Seen through your children’s eyes, growing seeds is a scientific experiment, observing the birds and bugs in the garden a lesson in biology. In this way, you’re teaching your child to see gardening not as a chore to be completed, but as an ongoing exercise in exploring the natural world.
What kind of gardener are you?
If you’re a moderately experienced gardener, you probably already have an idea of what types of gardening activities will interest your children – instead, you may need to “unlearn” a few of your own ideas.
You might have to relinquish control of an HGTV-worthy colour scheme. After all, your son might love the colour orange – and decide he wants to plant marigolds in your pastels-only garden. You might have to settle for less than perfection in your perennial border (since the tricycle ends up plowing through it anyway). After all, like kids, plants are usually hardier than we think.
If, instead, you are of the black-thumb variety, you’ve got nowhere to go but up. Gardening isn’t rocket science. Really – the basics are dirt, sun and water. Anything else – compost, decorative accessories, organic fertilizer – is an added bonus, but not strictly necessary. Sure, you can spend years studying soil science and pest management, but the best way to learn is by trial and error. Don’t be afraid to lose a plant or two – it happens to even the most experienced plantsperson. Find a nursery with knowledgeable staff, and ask for help. Start small, and build on your successes. Take it as an opportunity to learn with your child. Perhaps you’ll both fall in love with gardening!
Babies and young toddlers may not have the dexterity to plant seeds or water the flowers, but they’ll sure enjoy being outside with you. Hunt for bugs, watch birds or butterflies, discover plants that smell or feel interesting. Anything that involves hands-on interaction, discovery and play.
Children of all ages love to dig in the dirt. Let your kids take the lead in soil preparation; give them their own kid-sized shovel and they’ll happily dig away, discovering – and developing an appreciation for – the worms and other creatures that carry out their lives beneath our feet.
Older children can have a garden of their own. It could be a large wooden planter, or a little plot of earth – what it looks like doesn’t really matter. Have them choose what they’d like to plant (with your guidance, of course).
Part of the fun will be checking each day to see which seeds have sprouted and how tall that sunflower has gotten. Encourage your children to take responsibility for basic watering and weeding. Unless you want to let them learn the consequences of neglect, you’ll likely have to do some of the maintenance, but your kids will still gain a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction in a job well done.
Another way to give children a sense of ownership is to plant a tree for them. Some parents plant a “birth tree” when a child is born. But you can also plant a climbing tree – one that, if planted when your children are toddlers – will be ready to climb by the time they’re nine or 10. Prunus serrulata (Japanese cherry) and Acer rubrum (red maple) are great picks for climbing trees.
There are so many things to do in the garden together. Here are a few ideas to get you started.
Grow your vegetables
Perhaps surprisingly, many children take great interest in growing vegetables. Give them a sunny plot for a veggie patch, and they might even in eat the vegetables they grow. After all, what child wouldn’t be proud to say about her dinner, “I grew this!”?
Vegetable seeds are affordable way for kids to get into gardening. Together, try:
* growing the best-ever spaghetti sauce: basil, oregano, onions, carrots, tomatoes.
* radish seeds for near-instant gratification. They germinate in three to 10 days and can be harvested within a month.
* planting carrot seeds in the shape of your child’s first initial or other simple shape.
* growing your own bean stalk. Scarlet Runner is often recommended for children. And with good reason: Tasty and ornamental, its quick-growing vines can create a living teepee or green-up a playhouse wall. (It makes a great privacy screen for adult’s porches, too!)
Themed gardens are ever popular with children. How elaborate you get is up to you and your child. Follow her lead: she may want dedicate a section of your yard to her favourite colour, planting all yellows or purples. Or to the family cat, planting cat grass and catnip. Here are some other fresh ideas:
* A chocolate garden: Try chocolate-scented plants such as Berlandiera lyrata (Greeneyes or Chocolate Flower), Cosmos atrosanguineus (Chocolate Cosmos), Akebia quinata (Chocolate vine, Five-leaf akebia), Chocolate Mint and Gilia tricolor (Bird’s Eyes).
* A fairy garden: Find a shady corner and build a house for fairies to visit. Pebbles can be used as stepping stones leading to a tiny door in a tree. Plant small-leafed groundcovers like creeping thyme and mosses. Cup- or bell-shaped flowers such as fritillaria or campanula also make excellent beds for fairies.
* A soft-and-hairy garden: Combine plants that are interesting to touch, like fuzzy lamb’s ear, wooly thyme, bristly strawflower, Allium “Hair,” and texture-rich ornamental grasses.
* Scented gardens: try a perfume garden (lavender, rose, mock orange, gardenia, camellia) or perhaps a tea garden (mint, chamomile, lemon balm).
Birds and Bees
Involving your child with the birds, insects and other critters that frequent the garden is another way to get them interested in gardening. But more importantly, it will teach them to value and respect the creatures that share their planet. Here are some suggestions for discovering the animal world together:
* Feeding and watching the birds is an easy way for even the youngest child to interact with nature. Build your own birdfeeders (the simplest design involves smearing a pinecone with peanut butter then rolling it in birdseed and hanging the whole thing in a tree or shrub). Creative Gardening for Children has some more great ideas.
* Start a compost or worm bin. Units can often be bought from your garden centre, City or Municipality. Let your child “feed” his new pets and turn the pile, if able.
* Plant to attract wildlife. Look for BC-native plants, especially those with flowers, seeds or berries. Butterfly gardens (filled with plants that attract butterflies) are also very popular. Often seed mixes labeled “butterfly mix” are available. You can also try dill, cosmos, alyssum, verbena, monarda and salvia.
Safety in the garden
Don’t let illness or injury hamper your child’s enjoyment of the garden. When buying plants, make sure they contain no toxic parts (ask the nursery if you’re unsure). Before your children start digging, outfit them with gardening gloves and sun hats. Keep sharp tools out of reach, and use organic methods of pest control and fertilization.
The garden holds so many life lessons for children – and adults. Why not get into it today? Your kids will thank you for it.
Jessica Schessler says
Great story! I’d love to get my 2 year old nephew outdoors and into a garden. Now if I could just learn to get a bit of green on my thumb… :)
And while I’m here… I’d love to share some info with you guys about my summer internship. I’m working for a small non-profit called Sustainable Harvest International. They work with farmers in Central America and teach them sustainable, organic forms of farming to help stop slash and burn, thereby saving rainforests, and making the farmers and their families economically independent. It seems way better to me to do things this way than to just go in and try to plant trees somewhere. Find sources of forest destruction, and instead of trying to halt it, find better solutions!
Anyway, if you want to read more information about SHI…
Oh! And we’re also being featured on Stonyfield yogurt lids. Stonyfield is donating $40,000 to three non-profits based on voting, so if you want to help some forests out, you can vote here:
Plus, you can get a coupon for a free cup of yogurt online, and then use that to mail in and vote and get free prizes. :)
One of the most fun things I’ve seen for kids in the garden is a camperdown elm. Its limbs and leaves hang down, creating the perfect secret sanctuary for little ones to hide in. It’s kind of the same effect as a bean teepee. Your own secret space to call your own.
Robin (Bumblebee) says
Your suggestions are really on-target. As the mom of a teenager, I now find that the best way to interest my son is to connect the food to what he likes to eat. If we are making pizzas together, I’ll send him to fetch his own oregano and basil. Or to get a bell pepper. Now, when those aren’t available in the wintertime, he talks longingly about fresh herbs.
I also make a point of always mentioning the names of plants, although not in a teacher-like way. Recently, when trying to catch an injured bird, he told me “He’s under the hydrangeas.” I didn’t even know he knew what the hydrangeas were!
What a great post! My Masters research was into the feasibility of a true Family Garden and throughout my questionnaires and interviews so many people were unwilling to give up the adult space and yet believed they had a family garden. Let them run free, I say!! Lovely writing, thank you.
Wonderful, wonderful article! Loved your suggestions about themed gardens – each one unique and sure to entrance a child.
What a great article! I work at a daycare with a large class of toddlers, and I’ve been trying to think of new ways to incorporate gardening into our summertime projects. You gave some excellent ideas that I think the kids will love! Thank you!
Ottawa Gardener says
I have a 3.5 yr old and 18 month old and they are both into the dirt and water bit of gardening. When I suggest going to a garden centre, however, my oldest says ‘Don’t you have enough plants?’ Wonder where the little darling gets that from…
Thanks for all your wonderful feedback, suggestions and praise! (She says, all glowy inside). Love to you all.
The other mother says
Nice writing! Cute kids (okay, maybe I’m a little too close).
We just went to (and helped organize) a “sprouts” camp, permaculture for kids, just outside of Robert’s Creek, care of Robin Wheeler at Edible Landscapes. It was really fun: four families with young children (age four and up is ideal) camped and ate on-site, and kids went out with Robin on a few tours about different types of plants growing on her property. They made fresh herbal tea, ate berries and dug up tubers, and even made art from flowers and plants. Adults got their own “timely measures” tour.
More info: http://www.ediblelandscapes.ca/
Marc – I want to go to Edible Landscapes! Sounds amazing.
The Cheap Vegetable Gardener says
I must say my gardening has been much more enjoyable since I have had two daughters to share it with.
I love your kid focussed posts. Here’s another post on getting kids in the garden and aware of their green responsibilities.
Growing a Greener Family