Did you know that a carrot plant looks like a feathery fern, with no orange in sight? Well, you probably do, but I'll bet most kids have never seen a carrot growing... that is, unless they've spent time with you in the garden.
Busy parents know how hard it can be to find time for gardening with children. When children are young, it can be difficult to hold their interest long enough for you to put in a row of peas. As they get older, their interests vary and their attention wanders. But when it's time to dig the soil, plant the seeds, water the plants and, finally, harvest those fresh vegetables, getting the kids involved can be rewarding and fun.
Gardening can also be an invaluable educational experience for children. You'd be surprised, for instance, at how many kids don't know that the edible part of a potato grows underground. And that it's actually a plant, with leaves! Children are fascinated with growing things, and you can use that fascination to help them learn about the foods they eat every day.
Here are a few tips to foster enthusiasm for gardening in young children:
Make the Garden a Place for Play
Who says gardens have to exist in straight rows? Fun shapes and plant combinations are a fun way to get kids excited about spending time in the garden. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Bean towers make a great living fort for kids' play. Just set 8-foot wood or bamboo poles in a circular shape and tie at the top with twine. Then plant pole beans at the bases of the poles, and watch the viney hideout grow!
- A pizza garden is a fun way to design your planting. Divide a large circular garden space into wedges. Then plant bush tomatoes, bell peppers and eggplants in the "slices", surrounded by yellow marigolds for "crust".
- Snake gardens appeal to a child's creativity. If you have an open plot, create a long, winding raised hill and help your child plant his or choice of vegetables and flowers.
Give Children their Own Garden Space
You can encourage your children in the garden by inviting them to take an active part in growing vegetables at home. Reserve a small section of the garden for planting with children. This can be a corner of your own vegetable garden, one permanent raised bed, or a few growing containers arranged together. Let your child have a hand in choosing what to plant: ask what his or her favorite vegetables are.
Here are some popular choices for kids to grow:
- Radishes are rewarding - they grow very quickly and are ready to eat in as little as three weeks.
- Spinach is easy, fast-growing, and can be eaten right out of the garden.
- Cucumbers, especially the miniature type, are great for young gardeners. Look for a variety without spines.
- Pole beans or snap peas are fun to grow on a trellis or fence, and kids love to snack on pods they find the pods on the vine.
- Cherry tomatoes are irresistible to most kids, and can also be eaten right off the vine. Buy greenouse plants or start seeds early inside. One or two plants would provide enough fruit for a child's garden space.
- Pumpkins have big seeds, so they're easy for little fingers to plant. Pumpkins are best for a large space - their vines can quickly overrun a small garden.
- Zucchini are a good small-space alternative to pumpkins. The fruits are best eaten small, but it's fun to watch how large they can grow.
Flowers are a fun addition to a vegetable garden for kids. Children love to touch and smell flowers, and even pick them to give to mom or dad!
- Nasturtiums have their very large seeds - they're very easy to plant and will grow anywhere.
- Snapdragons, with their unique shape, are fun for kids to grow. Buy greenhouse plants rather than seeds, and have children help you transplant.
- Sunflowers are always a favorite choice - the taller the better!
Buy the Right Garden Tools for Kids
A sure way to a successful garden with children is to give them the right tools for the job. Child-sized tools are best for little hands - look for authentic, smaller versions of the "real" tools mom and dad use.
- A set of garden tools - including a spade, hoe, garden rake and leaf rake - is a great starter for any child in the garden. Kids love to help out by digging the soil and raking it smooth at planting time.
- A sifter and watering can are popular tools for little gardeners. Children can use a sifter to sort rocks out of garden soil or finished compost. And kids love to help water the garden - a small watering can is great for when the garden is dry. You may find that plastic beach toys are more inexpensive, but tools designed for garden use are usually sturdier and will have a longer life.
- A child-size wheelbarrow is a great addition to the tool shed - it comes in handy for larger-size jobs. Anything from grass clippings, compost, weeds, or even a few stones can be transported by an eager child with a wheelbarrow.
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Kids Have Fun Helping You in the Garden
What's the best, freshest way to eat your veggies? Right off the vine, of course! Even those kids who avoid greens at the dinner table may see vegetables differently when they see them growing in the garden. Invite your child to help you pick peas or beans - they may eat more then they put in the basket, but they'll get their daily dose of those healthy vegetables!
Whether it's the learning experience you're after, or just the freedom to get a little weeding done, the key is to make the garden a fun place - a place where kids want to be. Your child will thrive in a healthy environment. And, who knows, you may even be cultivating a future gardener!