Starting a garden with kids is a great way to keep them engaged all season long. Kids love to be outside and are interested in the natural world. Teaching kids how to grow and nurture a garden will teach them an important life skill. They will also be healthier eaters later on in life. Did I mention it is fun? I mean really fun (and messy)!
I've brought my kids into the garden with me since they were really young. A couple of summers ago we grew a successful strawbale garden. Which was just the perfect height for my then 1 year old to water. They love to pick and eat cherry tomatoes and pull carrots.
It's all about the journey
That's probably true true for most things in life, but especially when you garden with kids. You might go out there with a plan in mind of what "needs" to get done. But your kids might just want to dig for worms that day - it's fine. Water might go anywhere except for on the plants, seeds will get scattered around randomly (forget about neat rows) and plants that are not weeds will get pulled. Try not to let it bother you. In the end it's about spending time together in nature.
A space for them to garden
Over the years I've done both: have them garden alongside me in "my plot" and give them their own little growing space. I find that the frustration factor is easier to handle if they have their own garden bed. A space that they're responsible for and can claim ownership. Where they can experiment and you're not expecting too much harvest from.
In the past we made a straw bale garden for them. Which worked out great until we found a wasp nest inside. Yikes! As of late we invested in a relatively inexpensive raised bed (affiliate link). It comes with a cover which is perfect for starting carrots early.
The drawback with a raised bed is that you have to fill it with soil - quite a LOT of soil. Therefore it might be more cost effective to start with an in-the-ground bed or small planter. If you have deer, rabbits and/or groundhogs in your yard, think about protecting your kids garden from critters. There's nothing more devastating than waking up one morning and all your plants have been eaten.
Planning a Kid's Garden
Decide if you and your kids want to start their plants from seeds or buy seedlings. A combination of both is actually perfect. Depending on your growing zone you may start seedlings indoors 4-6 weeks (see back of seed packet) before your last frost date. To plant seedling outdoors you will have to wait until your last frost date has passed.
Helping kids with seed starting
Seed starting will teach kids about the life cycle of a plant. Caring for indoor seedlings will give them an activity they can enjoy early in the season. Plus eating from a plant that they've grown from seed is simply priceless.
If you are starting from seed, teaching kids how to choose the right location, how to plant, water, and germinate the seeds is an important first step. They get to watch as the first seedlings appear and this will get them wondering how that happened and what comes next.
Showing your kiddos how to get the soil just right and what to start the seeds off in is another rewarding experience. You can easily start with small seed starting kits from any big box store. Or you can create your own DIY starter kits and turn it into another great gardening project.
Buying seedlings from your local farmer’s market or nursery is another affordable way to start your young gardener’s experience. It is a fun trip and you can show them how to pick out the heartiest looking seedlings.
Adding seedlings you've bought at a nursery can be a good back up plan in case your indoor seed starting wasn't successful. Starting with seedlings might also be more appropriate for very young children that can't handle tender plants yet.
When planting seedlings you can demonstrate how to dig a whole that's big enough, how to plant and water correctly. They will be amazed at the instant transformation of their garden.
Choosing the right plants
Seed catalogues are a perfect place to start. I enjoy perusing colorful seed catalogues with my kids in the dead of winter. We marvel at all the unusual looking veggies, like black pumpkins and purple carrots and dream up our garden for the coming season.
First, let your child help you pick out what they want to grow. Start with vegetables they already eat and love. Then you might nudge them toward not so popular foods like spinach, which tastes delicious fresh from the garden
Small hands will do better with bigger seeds. But don't let that hold you back to plant things like carrots that have tiny seeds. Plants that grow and produce fairly quickly will keep your kids more engaged. And a crop that produces throughout the growing season will be more rewarding than a single harvest crop.
Here's a list of plants that are perfect starter plants for kids:
- Carrots: I know I said bigger seeds are better, but tiny carrot seeds can be planted by kids if you assist them. You will have to thin out seedlings that are growing to close to one another. Pulling carrots out of the ground is such a delight to kids. It's like treasure hunting.
- Cherry tomatoes: They grow quite easily, even in a bit of shade. Kids love to pick and eat them on the spot. They're sweet as candy. Beware of the chocking hazard for very young kids.
- Snap peas: They grow fast and aren't too fussy. When you harvest them, they will grow more beans, allowing you to have a supply throughout the growing season. Most kids like to eat them too.
- Zucchini: Big seeds make zucchini easy to plant. The plant grows fast and it's fun to look under huge leaves for harvest. If your kids don't like zucchini by itself you can "hide" it in delicious zucchini muffins.
- Pumpkins: Carving out a pumpkin for Halloween they've grown themselves - what could be more fun? Pumpkins are easy to grow, if you can protect them from small mammals.
- Zinnias, sunflowers and marigolds: Kids are always delighted to see bright flowers. They attract pollinators and birds to the garden. It's also a great experience for kids to cut their own flower bouquet to bring inside.
What age should kids start gardening?
Kids can help and be in the garden as early as toddlerhood. While you will have to watch them closely, they will have a great experience connecting to the earth. The ideal age to get kids started is probably around kindergarten. At this age they have the necessary motor skills and can understand basic concepts.
Give gardening with kids a try. Time spend in the garden together is wonderful time to bond, laugh and learn. You and your kids will cherish these moments for a lifetime.
Until next time. Happy Tinkering!