Gardening with children sounds a lot like herding cats. But, gardening with the family does have its benefits. Gardens are where the miracles of fresh and healthy fruits and vegetables, experiencing nature, enjoying exercise, meaningful human connection, multi-generational life-long learning and beautifying and protecting the environment take place. To take full advantage of the garden as an outdoor classroom family members of all ages, here are a few things to keep in mind.
- It doesn’t have to be perfect– Becoming a parent changes your whole world, and it changes your garden too. With little ones at home, it is a challenge to find time to work in the landscape. And, the landscape itself is different. Play houses and sandboxes encroach upon garden beds, and monster truck rallies and tea parties that occur with reckless abandon may damage garden plants. Your plants and your sanity may be trod upon by the pitter-patter of little feet. There is time enough to have a Better Homes and Garden yard after the children are grown and gone. Now, while they’re little, is the time to make memories, foster learning and build healthy habits in the garden. The next time you are tempted to yell “get out of the flower bed,” try to think “it doesn’t have to be perfect” instead.
- Instead of gardening around children, garden with them– The kids are going to be in the garden and landscape anyway. You might as well put them to work while they’re there. Or, at least turn them into garden allies that will be less likely to cause garden destruction since they too are invested in its success. To involve children in garden planning, offer kids aged five and younger two choices to grow from, and increase options as they age. Offer plants with larger seeds when they are younger and graduate to plants with smaller seeds as motor skills develop. Have them plant in their own growing space to instill a sense of ownership, responsibility and respect for the garden. A traditional 3 foot by 3 foot garden bed would also provide more than enough space for your child’s garden. It does not have to be fancy either. Great fun can be had in staking a hula hoop to the ground and planting in it like a pizza with “slices” for each type of plant. Plant options for touching and munching include sturdy plants like bush or pole beans, sunflowers and marigolds; sensory plants like begonias (rubbery) and peppers (smooth); and delicious plants like cherry tomatoes or snow peas.
- Creepy and crawly is more than OK, it’s awesome– Most young children are interested in creepy crawlies instead of repelled by them. Their ideas about insects have not yet been fully formed, and this is a good thing. An interest in insects can get children involved in the world of nature around them and the world of science. Each sighting is an opportunity, so grab a magnifying glass and make the best of an icky situation. Did you find an insect? Pretend to be an entomologist, or an insect scientist, and count to find out. See if you have three distinct body regions (head, thorax and abdomen), six legs, one pair of antennae and up to two pairs of wings. If the numbers do not add up, you could have another type of arthropod like a spider, scorpion, millipede or centipede and not an insect. Often youth will be fearless as they examine their creepy, crawly find. As adults, we may need a little reassurance. Know that there are over one million types of insects, and greater than 95% of them are beneficial or neutral. Less than 5% are harmful. Beneficial insects perform many essential tasks. They prey on pest insects, pollinate our fruits and vegetables and break down our waste and trash.
As you garden with children, remember they explore the world around them, including the garden, with all of their senses. Protect curious little gardeners; make sure prickly and poisonous plants are not incorporated into your landscape, and read and follow all label directions on fertilizing and pest-controlling products. Practice food safety principles at all times for safe and healthy harvests. If you have a compost pile, be sure to hot compost to discourage disease-harboring molds. And, leave meat, dairy, oils or other fats and pet or human waste out of the pile.