In this time of slowing down, staying home and spending extra time with our families, gardening can bring much-needed fresh air, movement and learning to our children.
Children are naturally curious about the world around them. They instinctively mimic our activities and interests and learn best by doing. If I am holding a shovel or rake, I can be confident my grandchild will want to (or insist upon!) use the same tool. What child doesn’t like to command a garden hose, shovel or trowel?!
Little hands don’t always scatter seeds or gently handle plants they way we’d like; however, in gardening with children, we acknowledge the journey is more important than the destination, a lesson I’ve learned in spades with my own three wild and wonderful grandkids.
The benefits to children
Aside from the one-on-one attention a child enjoys with mom or dad, an outdoor gardening experience offers fresh air, sunshine and physical activity. Gardening tasks such as digging, raking, sowing seeds and watering involve large and fine motor skills. Opportunities for sensory stimulation include the obvious—the odors of soil and mulch, the pungent scent of herbs like basil and rosemary and the sweet fragrance of lavender or pansies. The velvety lamb’s ear, which I call a “friendly” plant, offers interesting textures, while holly bushes have prickly edges.
Delighted squeals will alert you to the earthworms and other garden critters children discover. I have been surprised by how easily even young children remember the names of plants, with lamb’s ear being one even my littlest grandson can point out when we are out and about. Planting and harvesting vegetables introduces children to cause and effect and provides a sense of importance and accomplishment.
Set yourself up for success
When it comes to gardening with children, choose plants with short germination cycles, less likely to test the patience of little ones who have a hard time waiting to see results. I recommend flowers like sunflowers and nasturtiums and reliable vegetables like leaf lettuce, radishes, beans and peas. Children learn the plant life cycle best by planting seeds, with some of my favorite easy-to-grow flowers from seeds including sunflowers, nasturtiums, cosmos, zinnias and coreopsis, but planting established plants like leaf lettuce or cherry tomatoes yields faster results.
Gear gardening toward any age
With the goal being to present gardening as a fun, rewarding activity, it’s never too early, or too late! Children as young as 2 or 3 enjoy digging, scattering seeds or placing plants in the holes and watering. Young elementary-age kids can learn about the parts of the plant and their growth requirements. Older children may want to research plant types and design a flower bed. All ages benefit from learning about their environment and the cycle of life.
Begin with a short-term activity like a small flower bed or large pot you’d like to spruce up with seasonal flowers. Invite your child to join you in a planting project. Research which plants will work in your pot or garden of choice, depending on whether it receives mostly sun or mostly shade, and let your children help you choose. Pansies are inexpensive early-spring show stoppers for sunny Oklahoma gardens or pots. Zinnias are heat and drought tolerant, will bloom all summer and make excellent cut flowers for bouquets to bring indoors. Some of my other Oklahoma favorites include snapdragons and marigolds.
Most children will enjoy a few minutes of digging holes and transferring purchased plants. Watering the plants (and sometimes each other) is typically my grandkids’ favorite part. An empty plastic milk carton makes a perfect lightweight watering container for children. If you are wearing garden gloves, surprise your child with small gloves. Offer lots of positive reinforcement along the way.
If you want to try vegetable gardening, start in a sunny spot inside with bean seeds or seedlings like cherry tomatoes in early spring and transfer outside when the danger of frost is past, with the last average date of frost in Oklahoma being March 30. Giving your little one his or her own gardening space by designating an area of a raised bed or providing a pot reinforces the importance of the mission. Planting, harvesting and preparing the carrots they have grown, even if they don’t typically like vegetables, provides a sense of satisfaction in completing the task. You may be surprised how willing children are to eat vegetables they’ve grown themselves!
Growing little gardeners
For ongoing care of your garden, partner with your child in the mundane by pulling weeds, watering and tending to your child’s plants together. The novelty of gardening can quickly fade if the chores become drudgery, so allow plenty of time for catching frogs, watching wiggling earthworms and making mud pies.
Especially for budding scientists or naturalists, composting (decayed organic material used to improve soil) can be a fun, educational activity for the whole family. At age 7, my granddaughter became intrigued with starting a compost bin. She learned which kitchen scraps are appropriate for composting and helped collect them. And even her youngest brother delighted in tossing egg shells, fruit and veggie scraps and coffee grounds into the composting bin. Keeping the compost wet provides yet another excuse to turn on the water hose! The transformation of kitchen and garden scraps into rich, “black gold” soil is magical.
Even yard maintenance can be intriguing. My grandchildren especially enjoy planting fescue grass seed with me. They liked what I called “roughing up” the existing soil with a rake, scattering the fescue seeds and sprinkling the seeds with water. A few weeks later, we all celebrated when fine blades of bright green grass began to appear.
Finally, enjoy the beauty you’ve created together. Children delight in picking flowers, even occasionally flowers we don’t want them to pick! How often have the little ones in your life proudly presented you with a dandelion? Our tiny artists love to create beauty and share their creations with us, one of their precious ways of saying “I love you.”
Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series exploring the world of gardening with children. Debbi Marshall is a master gardener, retired U.S. probation officer and Grammie to three rambunctious pint-sized gardeners. The second article in this series focuses on five reasons to introduce your child to community gardening.