Gardening with kids sounds very exciting and fun (and it is!) but can be frustrating at first. I have gardened since I was little, so of course I wanted my kids to have that experience. I was a proud Mama when I brought my toddler out for spring planting with his goofy sun hat and tiny trowel. Then he spent the whole time scattering seeds and generally making a mess while I clenched my teeth and tried to stay cheerful.
Since then I’ve realized gardening with kids is an entirely different process that requires a different mindset. I want to encourage you to involve the young people in your lives in gardening- it’s worth it! Reach out to me at Garden PlaySpace if you'd like some help with your garden. And here are my tips for making it enjoyable for everyone:
1. Change the goal of the garden.
Pre-kids I would spend a lot of time planning my garden for maximum food production and seed saving. While I love this kind of gardening, I now rely on local sustainable farmers to meet this need. Because with kids, the goal of the garden has to be fun and exploration. Nobody was having any fun when I stressed over how things were planted. Now we have a productive garden that produces a lot of food, but more importantly, it is a place my littles feel welcome and involved.
Can we have peas for dinner?
2. Divide up the garden space so there is always something to see
Nothing is more boring than an entire garden that is off limits because you're waiting for seeds grow (which can take weeks!). Instead of clearing out the whole garden between seasons, leave some plants to flower and seed and always leave a little area that is open for looking for worms in the dirt. Your beneficial insect friends will thank you for this too, as they need habitat and forage between plantings. Encourage observation! There is always something to see as the garden goes through different phases.
3. Save Seed
Saving seed is great way to learn about natural cycles AND save seed for future planting AND have a fun task for little hands. Kids are captivated by saving and planting their own seed (and rightly so! It's miraculous!). Make the connection from the garden to the kitchen by observing seeds in foods like apples, strawberries, pears. Pima County Seed Library is a great local resource for saving and sharing garden seed.
4. Little Helpers
Your kids want help but it takes some advanced planning to avoid screaming "ACK! DON'T TOUCH THAT." Think ahead to identify kid-friendly, age appropriate tasks. They don't have to real tasks- the purpose is to focus your kiddos good intentions and make them feel involved. For example, my 2 year olds regular "job" is finding insects in the compost and my 4 year old works diligently moving rocks out of the pathway. Other examples include: cleaning saved seed, checking for things to harvest, smelling all the flowers, watering, looking for insects, counting bees, etc.
5. Kids tools and tool care
And related to helping, kids love and take pride in kid sized tools: gloves, shovels, wheelbarrows, watering cans. Show your littles how to properly use their tools safely- it is not a toy!- and how to put them away and care for them.
6. Check for safety and teach rules; then let them explore independently
In our Tucson yard we have all kinds of dangers and creepy crawlies: scorpions, spiders, snakes, spines, but I also value my kids having a connection to the natural environment and being able to experience it on their own terms. Soooo what's a mother to do? From when my kids started walking we taught them how to be safe and what the limits were to their territory. We modeled this, reinforced this, supervised them from a distance until, I'm happy to report, at a young age they're able to play in the garden without me hovering. Additionally, we are careful to not create habitat near play areas (wood piles, low bushes) and I always check for snakes and safety before the boys come out. The rules we taught:
Always wear sunscreen and/or sun hat
NEVER put your fingers in holes in the ground
If you pick up rocks, always look for creatures underneath and on the rock
Ask if it's OK to eat that plant
Creatures (bees, snakes, scorpions, etc) will not hurt you unless you mess with them. So don't mess with them! And tell an adult right away if you see something.
7. Let go and let them plant
Planting is one of the most exciting parts of gardening. Though enthusiastic, there is no way kids can pull off a recommended 1/4 in depth or 3 in spacing... So let it go. At best you'll be able to give general direction about where to plant and ration out a handful of seeds, but mostly it will be a free for all. When I was very pregnant with one son and the other was a toddler, we mixed all the seeds we wanted to plant together in a mixing bowl, he threw them around and I raked them in. Best winter garden ever! In Arizona we basically have a warm season (March-September) and a cool season (October-February). Be sure to check a local planting guide for details. Within those seasonal parameters- have fun! Here are some pointers for YOU to not stress the planting details:
Don't let the kids plant the fancy, rare, expensive seed! Use old seed, saved seed or cheap seed.
Plan on thinning or planting additional seedlings once you see where things have germinated.
Have a sense of humor and keep it positive so your kids feel motivated and proud,"great job planting 100 bean seeds in on hole!" Gulp...
I think I'll have a snack
8. Encourage “grazing"
Use organic and natural gardening methods, avoid toxic plants (oleander, tobacco, some flowers) and teach kids to differentiate between plants so you can confidently say, "go have a snack in the garden." I continue to be shocked at the things my little kids will eat if they pick it themselves (arugula! amaranth! asparagus, oh my!). Once when my 2 year old was munching on raw kale (!!) in the garden, I tried an experiment: I gave him a bowl and had him pick more to take inside. But as soon as the vegetable was in the kitchen, he wouldn't touch it. Gardening is an incredibly powerful way to teach your kids healthy habits for life. Tasting different vegetables in a garden setting is a positive, fun way to encourage picky eaters.
So what are you waiting for?! Get planting! Let me know if you need a hand!