Gardening with Children
by Erin Hynes
There are plenty of reasons to garden with children — to get them off the computer, to share family time, to encourage a love for nature, to interest them in eating vegetables. But not all kids take to tending plants; after all, gardening can be hot and dirty, and it doesn’t offer immediate gratification. A child’s interest in gardening requires nurturing, just like a garden does.
Three Big Rules of Gardening with Children
These four guidelines will start you down the garden path with your offspring. How you put these guidelines into practice depends on you, your child and the kind of garden you grow.
Set an example. It’s true — kids do learn by example. Watching you garden will plant the idea in your child’s mind that gardening is what grownups do. That idea might not take hold until your child is an adult, but one fine spring day your adult child will wake up and think “I want to plant marigolds today!”
Discover what interests your child. There are thousands of doors into the gardening universe. Open the door closest to your child’s natural interests, whether that’s looking under leaves for bugs, taking kitchen scraps to the compost pile, picking dandelions, pouring cups of water into flowerpots or just reading under a shade tree.
And give your child a say in what you plant. If Shasta daisies or bright daylilies catch your child’s eye as you stroll through the garden center, add them to your shopping cart.
Be realistic. Don’t saddle your child with the responsibility of a whole garden. A garden takes more planning, preparation and maintenance than you can expect of most children — heck, even adults who love gardening get tired of it by the end of the season. Have a family garden that everyone (in other words, mostly you) takes care of together. You can designate a small area as your child’s, or even just a plant or two. Of course, you’ll still take care of it.
Ideas for Making Gardening Fun
Plant long-lived spring-flowering bulbs. Spend a nice autumn afternoon tucking crocuses or daffodils into the ground. Dig the hole and let your child drop the bulb in. Your child — and probably you as well — will forget about them over the winter and have a joyful surprise when they pop up in early spring.
Start some from seed. While it’s true that radishes are easy to grow from seed, what kid likes radishes? Instead, plant the big seeds of beans, marigolds, pumpkins, sunflowers, watermelon and sweet corn in late spring, when the soil is warm. Choose early maturing varieties, both to speed up the payback and to avoid the heat of summer in the Deep South and the early arrival of winter in the Ffar Nnorth. To avoid tears, protect plants from insect pests and animals.
Involve the other senses. Gardens offer more sensory stimulation than just looking at pretty flowers and eating tasty vegetables. There’s no end to the number of fragrant plants, including herbs that don’t release their scent until you crush a leaf. For a crash course in floral fragrances, visit a public rose garden and sniff a wide sampling. Use words like flowery, spicy and fruity to describe the scents. Also take a sniff in the scented geraniums section of the garden center, where aromas include chocolate, pineapple and lemon.
Plenty of plants are fun to touch, as well. The perennial groundcover lamb’s ears has soft, furry leaves. Succulents have fleshy leaves. Snapdragons open their mouths when you squeeze the side of the flower. Obedient plant and sensitive plant move when touched.
The rustling of leaves is the most common plant sound, but some produce seed pods that sound like rattles, such as false indigo and love-in-a-mist. On the topic of love-in-a-mist, kids also enjoy the sound of plants with funny names, such as balloon plant, gas plant, kiss-me-over-the-garden-gate, Joe-pye weed and rattle-snake master.
Eat in the garden. Get more veggies into your kids by introducing them to the novelty of eating right in the garden. Good candidates for garden grazing include sugar peas, green beans, chives, mint, cherry tomatoes and even sweet corn — all organically grown, of course.
Grow your memories. Grow something that reminds you of your childhood — peonies, lilacs, sweet pea, whatever — and talk from time to time about the memories it brings up for you. Your child will understand, at some level, that plants connect us to our past. Besides, those plants will make you smile, and every child likes to see a parent smiling.
Garden writer Erin Hynes eats more vegetables while standing in the garden than she does at the dinner table.
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