Gardening with Children (Without Losing Your Mind)

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Having children did not alter my homesteading dreams. If anything, giving birth made me put greater emphasis on those aspirations because I wanted my kids to eat fresh, home grown, organic food. So the summer after our first child was born, I planted a vegetable garden as usual, keeping our into-everything baby in her stroller as I worked. But by the following year, that didn't cut it. Our little go-getter wanted to help Mommy. With everything

"Fine," I thought. "All those old-timey advice books recommend getting children started with chores as soon as possible. I can start teaching her how to garden now. It will be wonderful!" 


The first day went something like this: My toddler dumped all the carrot seeds into a pile in the grass. After I picked up as many of the minuscule seeds as possible, I tried to rearrange them to resemble a proper planting layout in the garden bed. My little helper got mad because, as she put it, "I do it!" She helped me pat down the soil over the seeds. (Success!) Then she over-watered the seeds and they floated into the garden’s pathways through the swiftly moving streams she'd created. "Done for the day!" I proclaimed.

Later, when a few tender carrot leaves managed to poke up through the soil, my darling trampled over them with oblivious (and for their size, surprisingly Godzilla-like and destructive) feet. Gardening with young children isn’t as easy as our idyllic fantasies lead us to believe. So what's a mama or daddy to do? 

Why Encourage Children to Garden? 

The good news is most young children naturally love gardening. Dirt, sunshine, water, flowers...These are all things kids are drawn to. (If you happen to have a child who shows little interest in gardening, it doesn't hurt to take him to farmer's markets or farms where customers are allowed to roam and see things in action. You can also read him books that inspire a love for gardening, like The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett; How Groundhog's Garden Grew by Lynne Cherry; and Up, Down, and Around by Katherine Ayres.) 

There are a great many reasons to encourage the gardening bug in your kids, aside from the one that's most obvious to homesteaders (i.e., self-sufficiency). Yes, your kids are learning an important life skill, but scientific studies show children benefit in other ways, too. 

For example, some studies note that kids who grew up gardening report happy memories of their outdoor chores later in life. In one study, grade school students who gardened were better able to work in groups. They were also more likely to display characteristics like responsibility and maturity, and they had stronger interpersonal skills —including a stronger bond with their parents. 

Other studies show kids who garden score higher in science than kids who don’t. And multiple studies show that kids who grow food are more enthusiastic about eating fruits and vegetables. (My personal experience confirms that!) Finally, gardening is a great way to help develop fine and gross motor skills in young children. 

Give Them A Plot of Earth 

Getting children gardening at a tender age is the best way to encourage a love of growing things - even if it might prove vexing for the adults trying to teach them. One way to please both parents and children is to let kids follow their natural instincts and do it all themselves: Give your child a little bit of dirt. (If you have more than one child, be sure they each have their own, entirely separate garden areas. If you're new to this parenting thing, trust a veteran: You will regret it if you make them share.) 

Your child's garden needn't be large. In fact, I recommend something small - or you run the risk she may become overwhelmed. 

My children's first gardens were merely large pots with a mixture of very easy to grow plants like radishes (even if they don't enjoy eating them, kids love radishes because they grow so fast!), carrots, lettuce, pansies, and nasturtiums. You could also give your child a small raised bed or square of land - say, two or three square feet in size at most. 

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My kids began gardening when they were about three or four, but there were many things they did with little or no help, including: 

* Drawing up a garden plan 

* Helping to add amendments to the soil 

* Putting soil in pots 

* Digging holes for plants 

* Counting out and planting seeds (albeit clumsily!) 

* Adding mulch to the garden 

* Creating plant markers (with painted popsicle sticks or rocks) 

* Weeding 

* Watering 

They were also allowed to eat the food from their own gardens whenever the fancy struck them. 

Once you establish a small children's garden, it's important to remember that it is your child's; resist the urge to do too much of the gardening for her. It's an interesting truth that humans learn a great deal by making mistakes, so if my kids forgot to water their gardens, I might gently remind them, but I never nagged. If their plants died, they learned a little lesson. 

I do encourage you to take advantage of your children's mistakes, though; I like to turn them into science lessons. For instance, if your son over-waters his peas, give him an explanation of why too much water is bad for plants. Better yet, set up three plants for an experiment: One for him to water properly, one to over-water, and one to not water at all. 

Incidentally, while child-sized gardening tools are cute, they are totally unnecessary - and because they tend toward flimsiness, may cause your child frustration. An adult's heavy plastic trowel is all most kids need. Also, if your child is quite small, a child's play watering can may be a lot easier for her to handle than a full-sized one...and it also limits your child's ability to drown the garden. 

Helping in the "Big" Garden 

There's no doubt about it. Many kids won't be totally satisfied working in their own garden; they will want to help in yours, too. The trick is to minimize the damage they may do. 

I recommend beginning by involving your child in the family garden planning process. What vegetables would they like to eat next season? What fruits? If you raise animals, have your child brainstorm what could be grown to help feed those animals. (Then, when harvest time comes, allow your child to do the feeding.) Keeping gardening a family affair makes growing food much more interesting for many kids, and in years to come, your little "garden helpers" will truly be a help. 

Since kids love to work alongside their parents, I also suggest working on your separate gardens - together. You work in "your" garden and your child will work in his. (It helps tremendously if his garden is located near the family garden.) This arrangement should keep your child occupied for at least a little while. 

You can also give kids something related to do while you garden. Very young children can sit in an outdoor playpen with a few toys. Slightly older kids can play in a nearby sandbox, mud puddle, or a patch where they can dig holes and plant imaginary things. (Make sure they understand the rule is that digging is only allowed in a specified area.) A toy lawn mower may also keep your child busy with any grassy areas nearby. 

But don't continually shove your kids out of the family garden; make them productive workers instead. For instance, when my kids were younger, I'd show them a particular type of weed - something distinctive and easy to identify. I'd point out the shape of the leaves and any other characteristics that made it unique, calling on them to use their observational skills. Then I'd ask them to pull only that specific type of weed. (I do recommend waiting until your vegetable plants are obviously bigger than the weeds in your garden, in order to minimize accidents.) 

When my children were really young, an easy choice was blooming dandelions. Sure, the children didn't have the ability to dig out dandelions by their roots, but the blooms were very easy to identify. Besides, even pulling off the flowers was helping, since it prevented the weeds from going to seed. When my kids were done with their weeding, they fed the resulting pile to the chickens. This arrangement often kept them occupied long enough for me to get in a good bit of garden work. 

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Another task kids like is irrigating with a watering can. It's true they may not give the plants a good, deep watering, but they are unlikely to hurt much, either. 

Not surprisingly, when my kids were younger, harvesting was their favorite part of gardening, because I allowed them to eat a certain amount of food right off the plant. (Who am I kidding? Eating food right off the plant is still their favorite part of gardening!) I figure letting them eat as they pick is healthy and gives them more enthusiasm for growing their own food and eating vegetables. My only rule was they couldn't go into the garden and gorge themselves. They had to ask permission, and they had to leave a certain amount of food behind so others in the family could have some.

Other Tips for Gardening with Children: 

* Raised beds - or even berms - are a huge help if you have small children. Kids are much less likely to trample seedlings in raised beds than they are in gardens planted directly into the soil. 

 * Let your kids get dirty. Yes, they will track mud and dirt into the house no matter how many times you warn them not to. But getting dirty is a childhood joy and helps instill a love of homesteading in your children. (There's even scientific evidence that dirt lets good bacteria into your kids' bodies, making them less likely to become ill.) If you can, set up a simple outdoor washing station with a hose and a pebbly area for standing on, then let the kids dry off in the sun. It's the stuff of happy childhood memories! 

* It may seem obvious, but do remember to keep children away from potentially dangerous objects, like tillers and lawn mowers. Tragic accidents happen every year. 

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* Don’t neglect to keep part of your yard open as a place for kids to freely run and play. So many people today insist lawns are useless, or cram their yards with gardens and adult eating areas, obliterating open spaces for children.

I'm not promising that gardening with your children won't result in some frustrations. But I do know that with a little time and patience, working with your kids in the garden is highly rewarding, endlessly good for them, and a boon to your worn out self when they (and you) grow a little older. Gardening and childhood; it's a combination every kid deserves to experience. 

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