Gardening with Children
By: Karen Breukelman
This is a topic that I am very familiar with. Gardening with Children. You see, I have two daughters, ages 3 and 5, and I baby-sit a 4-year-old boy. To me there is no other kind of gardening. The kids are always with me.
Some times when I have things to get done in the yard and garden, my first response, when the kids ask to help, is to say “Not now, I’ve got to get this done.” , or “Maybe later”. But, through experience I have found that if I include them in my work I can actually get more done. ‘How can that be?’ you ask, ‘Everything seems to take longer when the kids help?’ Well, by showing the kids the joys of gardening, we end up spending more time in the yard and less on the playground and in the house. And we all love it!
I will explore the Four W’s of Gardening with Kids. Why?, Where?, When and What?
First of all, children love to play with water, to dig and to get dirty. Gardening combines all these things into one! What could be better than that? It’s permission to play in the dirt!
Another good reason to garden with children is because they are naturally curious. It is how they learn new things. They don’t just want to be told how to grow a plant. They want to see it, smell it, feel it, taste it and watch it grow. Herbs are great for kids because they are edible and smell great when crushed between little fingers. Children love to pick flowers for parents and friends. They will feel a great sense of accomplishment when the food that they grew is used in a meal or snack. They will also taste and eat veggies that you never could get them to eat, just because they grew it themselves.
A third reason is to teach them valuable life lessons.
Such as - Cause and effect: If you take good care of your garden it will thrive and grow or if you don’t water it your plants they will wilt and die. (Thankfully, plants are very forgiving and will recover from lack of water or at my house too much watering!).
- Another big lesson to be learned is Patience. Waiting 10 days for seeds to germinate can feel like years to the 3-year-old who is checking the garden every hour! For this reason, I would suggest that you also sow some quicker germinating seeds, such as radishes, or plant onion sets, so there are some dramatic results in just a few days. Transplanting seedlings into the garden, can be very rewarding for little ones. Pre-soaking sunflowers, beans, and peas will speed up the germination process also.
Bulbs planted in the fall represent the ultimate in patience. But the surprise in the spring and the joy of digging all those holes makes it worth it!
- A third lesson learned is the Appreciation of the wonder of nature and its processes. They will see the potential of every seed, even the weed seeds that my daughters collect for me. What they learn and experience now will instill a lifelong respect for and interest in green and growing things.
WHERE can you Garden with Children?
You can garden almost anywhere. Some suggestions are:
- in all ready made flowerbeds around your home
- Containers such as planters, tires, buckets, old bathtubs ( I’ve even seen plants growing out of an old toilet!), styrofoam cups, margerine or yoghurt containers etc... Use your imagination. Any thing can be used as long as it has good drainage holes in the bottom. I start most my seeds in pudding containers.
- Veggie garden - if you have a vegetable garden you can divide it into individual areas for each child, or you can use it as a group! Plant more than just veggies! Add flowers and herbs too!
- Inside the house. Window boxes are great for herbs. Seeds like tomatoes and peppers, cucumbers and pumpkins, as well as many flowers, can be started in a sunny window or under inexpensive fluorescent lights in the basement. This way children can enjoy gardening, even on rainy days.
WHEN can you Garden with Children?
Indoors you can garden anytime - Herbs and houseplants can be enjoyed year round.
Seeds can be started for transplanting from about March on depending on the plants.
Outdoors - peas, carrots, lettuce and many annuals can be seeded directly into the garden around the middle of May.
Most transplants or seedlings can be planted outside after the last frost, some where around the beginning of June. You can put them in sooner but you must be willing to protect them from frost, by covering them on cool evenings.
There will be tasks to be done all summer long.
- watering, this is great fun for the kids. I give them each their own watering can to use, then I partly fill the kiddie pool. They would go back and forth from the garden to the pool for hours, if I would let them!
- weeding, kids also enjoy this job, although I will caution you to be very specific as to what is and is not a weed, to ensure that only the weeds are being pulled out.
- harvesting is an ongoing part of gardening. What you harvest, depends of course on what is ripe at the time. You can pick flowers all summer long for arrangements and pressing and drying. Berries are great straight out of the garden or in desserts and jams. Fresh veggies cannot be beat for taste and nutritional value.
Let the children help in the preparing of the food to build on their interest. As I said before, you’ll be amazed at what they will eat if they have grown it themselves!
In the Fall bulbs can be planted. The garden will need to be cleaned up and the children can help bring the leftover plant material to the composter or in my case the pile in the bush, behind the fence.
Small or child sized tools can make any job in the garden more fun for the children. I don’t know about you, but I find it is best to give out similar tools to each child in order to avoid the inevitable questions, “How come she gets the big shovel“, or “I wanted the blue one!”
WHAT do you PLANT?
Large seeds, such as peas, beans, corn, sunflowers, nasturtiums, and calendula are great for young children because they are easy to handle. Also the seedlings come out of the ground bigger than most others. Very rewarding to the little ones. Potatoes and onion sets or bulbs are fun to plant too.
Small seeds can be a challenge for adults, so do not expect straight, even rows from the children. I try to show the kids how it’s done and then try not to fix it after they do it their own way. Some seeds can be bought pelleted to make them easier to sow.
Ask the children what they would like to grow. My 5-year-old wanted to grow red flowers last year, so we went to the garden centre and found some red sunflowers. My 3-year-old loves to pick carrots, so I make sure we sow the carrots near the edge of the garden. Follow their lead. Provide guidance, but let them do the work.
There are some plants that are very toxic to children. Teach the children only to taste or eat plants that you check first. Supervise little ones very closely. Check the Toxic Plant list and know what you have growing in your yard. There is a Toxic plant website at the bottom of this page. On this site are:
Fourteen Ways to Avoid Poisoning
1. Become familiar with the dangerous plants in your area, yard and home. Know them by sight and name.
2. Do not eat wild plants and mushrooms.
3. Keep plants, seeds, fruits and bulbs away from children.
4. Teach children at an early age to keep unknown plants and plant parts out of their mouths. Make them aware of the potential danger of poisonous plants.
5. Teach children to recognize poison ivy.
6. Be certain you know the plants used as skewers for meat or marshmallows.
7. Do not allow children to suck nectar from flowers or make “tea” from leaves.
8. Know the plant before eating its fruits or berries.
9. Do not rely on pets, birds, or squirrels to indicate non-poisonous plants.
10. Avoid smoke from burning plants.
11. Remember, heating and cooking do not always destroy the toxic substances.
12. Store labelled bulbs and seeds safely away from children and pets.
13. Do not make homemade medicines from native or cultivated plants.
14. Remember, there are no safe “tests” or “rules of thumb” for distinguishing edible from poisonous plants.
Print a copy of the Toxic Plant list for your reference.
Some fun ideas that you can try with the children are:
Egg Sprouts: you’ll need eggshells, cotton balls, alfalfa seeds
Put 2 wet cotton balls in half an empty eggshell. Place the eggshell in an egg carton.
Sprinkle some alfalfa seeds on the cotton. Put the open carton on a windowsill.
Keep cotton damp for a week. In 7 to 10 days you’ll have sprouts to munch.
(You can paint the egg before planting.)
Pumpkins - biggest
Zucchini - longest
Sunflowers - tallest and or largest face
Initials: Have the children write their name or initials on the soil with flour or sugar (so that they can see where they are seeding), then they can sow the seeds according to the directions on the package. In a week or so they will see their name made out of plants. Onion sets work also.
Sweet Potato Alien: Place a sweet potato from the grocery store on a clear glass jar with water in it. Roots will appear from the eyes of the potato and fill the jar. Leaves will sprout from the top giving the potato an alien-like effect.
Bean Teepee: In the garden or a large flower bed place 5 or 6, 2 metre long stakes or poles in a circle. Tie tops together to get a teepee effect. At the bottom of each stake plant 2 or 3 climbing bean seeds (pole beans, scarlet runner beans...). Once the plants grow up the stakes the kids will have the coolest fort in the neighbourhood!
Scarecrow: Make your own scarecrow out of old clothes and a pillowcase stuffed with straw for the head!
Labels/Markers: Have the children paint wooden stakes or make fun signs for in their gardens.
Family Gardening - www.familygardening.com
KinderGarden - http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/kinder.htm
Toxic Plant List - www.cfc-efc.ca/docs/00000041.htm
ThunderBay MasterGardeners -www.TBMasterGardeners.homestead.com