Gardening with Kids

By: Justin Spittal

If you’re anything like me right now you’re stuck at home, trying to keep a presence at work, accepting your new home-school teacher accreditation, and keeping the house from constantly looking like you left your windows open during a hurricane. Your friends and co-workers without school age kids are getting those home projects finally done that they’ve been sitting on for the past 5 years. Either that, or they’re “bored out of their minds.” So are your kids…every time you take the ______ (insert technology devices here) away from them. Additionally, you have been inundated by your school, PTA, family, and other parents who are just better at this then you, with a plethora of options of fun and educational things you can do with your kids. Meanwhile, you can’t remember what day it is, if you slept last night, if you fed the dog, or if you even have a dog. Needless to say it’s a bit overwhelming.

My remedy to break the cycle is this. Drum roll please…Gardening with Kids!!! But here’s the secret. It’s not really just about gardening. You’ll figure that out later. Maybe years later. So let me get into it.

I am a horticulturist by choice, which means when I start talking about plants, most people are either trying not to fall asleep or working it out in their mind how to get out of the conversation. Unless I’m with another plant nerd, then we can talk for hours. I will save you the details and refer you to YouTube or your Mother-In-Law for gardening how-to’s. (Co-Operative Extensions have some useful tips as well.) Just know, that in order for a plant to survive, they need Water, Sunlight, Growing Media/Soil, and some kind of protection from pests. If you can capitalize on those things, you will overcome most of the hindrances to becoming a green thumb.

When gardening with kids, you need to understand the child’s desire to accomplish tasks (I have four kids between the ages of 1-12, so I understand there is a range.) Their physical abilities. Their concentration on the job at…SQUIRREL! And their desire to see the fruits of their labor. Here’s a guide by age from my experience.

  • 1-2 yo – Focus on easy things like filling planting soil into starter pots and dropping the seeds into the soil. It’s also fun to eat the dirt. And stick it down your diaper. Rub it on your face and your pants. It will be a mess. Don’t fight it. Embrace the moment!
  • 3-5 yo – They can start tilling the garden. Digging holes as long as the soil is pretty loose. If it’s not loose, and they get sidetracked, there will be bugs and worms to explore. Most bugs don’t bite, so don’t demonize them. They are amazing little creatures that can engage a child’s curiosity and creativity for hours. Also, be prepared that for every 17 plants you put in the ground, they may install 1, that you will likely have to re-plant after they turn their back for a minute. It’s ok.
  • 6-9 yo – These are the golden years! They can concentrate, may actually want to help, and be productive. They will let you know when they are done usually by disappearing for awhile to perform some sidewalk chalk artistry and then return to plant the last tomato or petunia with you. This is the age they will run inside to show you when the first pea plant has produced a pod and then make you watch them devour it like a pea harmonica.
  • 10-13 yo – Good luck getting any help without idle (or real) threats. But…they are old enough to harvest and help make something out of the product. They can cut up fruit and veggies to put in a salad. They can create a bouquet of flowers. They may start to understand things like beneficial insects and enjoy watching ladybugs devour the aphids.
  • 14+ yo – Either you have created a gardener for life. Or they will never want to garden again!…

Until they are older and have their own children. And they want to share the joy of watching a seed turn into a tomato that is sweeter than Halloween candy. And the bona fide medicinal qualities of being outside in the fresh air, with nature surrounding you. And the bonding experience through teaching a life skill that produces something which improves over time. And the excitement of watching their own kids find the first flower which was just an innocuous green stem yesterday. And the fulfillment of seeing their children’s eyes glow when they discover that hard work and effort can produce truly beautiful and tangible things. And eating some dirt.

As a tribute to my own parents, I would like to thank them for instilling in me the knowledge and enjoyment of gardening when I was a kid. And even though our vegetable garden was edged in creosote soaked railroad ties, somehow we all turned out alright. I appreciate their patience and guidance and I was engaged enough that I turned plants into a career. So thank you Mom and Dad! Also, I need some more canned peppers.

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