Kids and gardens are a natural partnership partly because gardens are about the outdoors and partly because things are always changing in the garden. Gardening as a family lets you create lasting memories and offers more opportunities to connect with one another.
But gardening with your kids and grandkids has some other advantages that you may not have considered. It provides natural lessons in math, science, observation, problem solving, record keeping, responsibility, self-sufficiency, community, accomplishment, and pride. Here are some kid-friendly ideas to get you playing in the dirt as a family.
1. Let every family member in on the garden plans from the very beginning.
Have your kids draw their own blueprint of what a garden should look like. Then be sure to incorporate an element or two from everyone’s designs or plant ideas. Let kids choose the plants—sounds rather unstructured, right? Good. Your kids get structure all day long from school, to homework, to bedtime routines. Allow them to wander through the nursery and buy the plants that captivate them.
You could even let go of the reins almost entirely and let them come up with a garden design that’s all theirs. Very young children can begin with a container garden, while older kids can be given a space of their own. From the design to the plants, let them make the decisions on what is planted in their own garden plot. Parents or other adults can guide them toward plants that are safe, as well as those that have the same general growing requirements.
2. Plant a kid-friendly garden.
While planning your flower or vegetable garden, don’t forget to add those plants that are particularly attractive to kids. Kids love plants that that are great to touch, such as lambs’ ears (Stachys byzantina), and plants that smell good, such as cinnamon basil or scented geraniums.
Radishes are a kid favorite because they mature with amazing speed for a quick harvest. And you can’t miss with planting fresh strawberries. Plants that grow tall as giants (‘Mammoth’ sunflowers) and those that stay very small (‘Teddy Bear’ sunflowers) or those that grow like giants are amazing plants for kids.
Pumpkins fill the bill for many of these areas. For instance, ‘Atlantic Giant’ pumpkins are those grown to hit monstrous world records. If you plant a large pumpkin variety, the nightly growth is amazing. Be sure to go out to the garden and measure them every day.
On the other end of the spectrum, ‘Baby Jack’ and the white ‘Boo’ are perfect for the wee ones to carry. Kids can scratch their names into the flesh of a pumpkin while it’s young, and as it matures, the skin forms a scar to create a uniquely personal pumpkin.
Sunflowers offer the same drastic measurements. Giant sunflowers such as ‘Russian Mammoth’ grow to a towering 12 feet tall, and their leaves are as big as an adult’s head! Young children can get face to face with the short, fluffy variety ‘Teddy Bear’.
3. Plant a kid’s theme garden.
This is one of the best ways to get kids into the garden and make it uniquely theirs. Help them plant a garden with a theme that they can relate to, such as a chocolate or fairy garden. Garden theme possibilities are endless. Ask your kids for their ideas.
Chocolate garden ideas include plants that just look like chocolate (Dahlia ‘Black Beauty’) as well as ones that literally smell like chocolate, such as chocolate cosmos, chocolate mint, and chocolate-scented geraniums.
Fairy gardens can be created with *tiny-leaved ground covers and plants with teeny flowers. Don’t forget to create little doors at the base of trees for fairy homes.
4. Let kids harvest homegrown produce.
Whether your family has planted vegetables, fruit, or flowers, let the kids do the harvesting. It’s one of the greatest pleasures of the garden. Plus, harvesting is great fun. Let them dig for the potatoes (hidden treasure), pull up the carrots (it never fails to surprise), and pick the blueberries (if you trust the kids will come back with them).
5. Let them cook or prepare the bounty.
In the kitchen, let the kids do the washing and help with preparation. Many a gardener has found that when kids help grow and harvest vegetables, they have a tendency to eat them too. If your kids are quite young, they can help wash and snap the green beans, as opposed to letting them actually cook.
More Kid Gardening Fun
Invest in a critter ID guide. Grownups and kids alike can identify a bug or creature in the garden that fascinates them. Wildlife ID guides or cards will not only give a name to bug faces but will explain what that critter’s role is in the garden.
Last, don’t forget to let kids dig, scoop, and fill things. Imaginations are messy—do your best to encourage them.
*Before letting young children handle plants, do some research and look at several lists to be certain that they are safe and nontoxic. The University of California’s Safe and Toxic Garden Plants is just one of many possible lists.