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Gardening With Your Kids

J. Schatzel works in healthcare administration in rural upstate New York and has a master's degree in history.


Planting With Kids

Whether you are planting in a windowsill, flowerpots, raised beds, or a large garden, there are infinite ways to get kids involved in planning, planting, and maintaining a garden.

Picking out what types of seeds to plant, planning when and where to plant, and making a list of the dates and types of seeds planted are great first steps to get kids involved in the growing (and later eating) of home-grown produce. We always enjoy comparing the number of days the seed packet predicts with the actual number of days before the plant is ready to harvest.

Starting the Seedlings

We start our seedlings for some plants in containers that would otherwise have gone into the recycling:

  • The bottom half of a plastic milk jug
  • The bottom half of an apple juice jug
  • Cottage cheese and yogurt containers

I write on the containers in permanent marker what type of seeds are planted in them, for reference later. My 2-year-old had a blast painting some old clay pots in some fun bright colors. It gave him something to do, and now he’s proud to point out that he painted those pots that now grow parsley and basil.

If planting in raised beds, an activity to keep toddlers occupied while planting or weeding is to give them a bucket of water and a paintbrush, and let them “paint” the outside of the boxes. They think they’re helping, and it keeps little fingers away from delicate seedlings, or away from open seed packets.

Getting Kids Excited About Gardening—and Weeding

My 3-year-old enjoyed coloring pictures of different vegetables and fruits, and talking about what we were going to plant, in the weeks leading up to planting our garden. We talked a lot about what we would grow, what recipes we’d make with the produce, how we would take care of the plants, and how much fun we would have. We got his watering can ready and found him a bucket to use for weeds.

He was the perfect age for weeding scavenger hunts:

  • “First, put all the dandelions in this bucket.” We made dandelion jam, dandelion shortbread cookies, dandelion muffins, fried dandelion blossoms, dandelion egg noodles, and dandelion pesto that spring.
  • “Next, put all of the watercress in this bucket.” We had a crisp snack to munch while watering our garden.
  • “Next, put any lambs quarter in this bucket.” We used it in place of spinach on a chicken Alfredo pizza and in place of basil for making pesto.

By giving him one item to scavenge/weed at a time, it prevented any overzealous removal of seedlings or early picking of plants.

Growing the Garden

Gardening is an excellent exercise in delayed gratification for children. It teaches the value of a job well done, persistence, patience, and the value of working together. There are infinite other lessons you can work into gardening as well:

  • Math
  • Reading and writing
  • Physical exercise
  • Plant/bird/insect/animal identification
  • The chemistry of compost
  • The biology of photosynthesis
  • Color identification
  • Caterpillar-butterfly metamorphosis
  • Seasonal migrations
  • Maps
  • Drawing and photography

With my 3-year-old, watering the garden is by far his favorite part. He loves using his little watering can to water things, and using the hose. He loves seeing the water make rainbows in the sunshine, and counting how many times he has filled his watering can to water his plants.

Learning From a Job Well Done

The reward is obvious in gardening, for a job well done. If the garden is kept watered, weeded, and well cared for, the plants are more likely to produce viable food or flowers for later enjoyment. Some plants are quick to wilt if not well maintained. The importance of watering/fertilizing plant species differently, pollination (and cross pollination), the pest-control steps of planting citronella to deter insects or marigolds to deter animals, the value of planting certain plants together (ie: strawberries and chives, or onions and spinach), and the historical context of plants provide endless topics for learning.

Watching Plants Go to Seed

Reserving some of each plant to go to seed for those plants for which this is a viable (and legal depending on your location) option, is another fun element to gardening. Watching plants grow larger and go to seed is interesting to watch. Different phases of plant life are exposed, than you may have witnessed if you were repeatedly cutting lettuce, parsley, basil, etc to use as it grows. Allowing plants to flower and go to seed, can be especially interesting for children to witness. Careful selection of seeds from the best pepper or tomato from the most robust plant, can be used as a lesson in genetics and natural selection.


Harvesting the Garden

Whether your “harvest” consists of bushels of produce, or a few snippings of herbs in a windowsill, kids enjoy helping in the process. Picking something they helped plant and grow is rewarding, and a fun activity in general. Especially with young children, I make a big deal about how proud I am of all the hard work they did in growing it, and reminding them that now they get to use it for (insert recipe here).

Preserving the Harvest

The process of preserving the harvest is another great way to involve kids in the garden-to-table cycle. Whether they help by snipping beans and composting the snipped ends, drying chopped chives on rimmed baking sheets in the yard on a sunny day, freezing shredded zucchini for later use in recipes, pickling carrots and cauliflower, making apple butter in a crockpot, making strawberry jam on the stove, or mincing garlic for compounded butter, there are endless ways kids can help, at an age/ability appropriate skill level.

Whether the help is by reading a recipe aloud, hands-on learning to use various kitchen utensils/appliances, or tying bundles of herbs to dry on the clothesline, you can tailor your children’s level of involvement to their age and ability. This year my 3 year old especially enjoyed pressing the food processor buttons, to make pesto. We put the pesto into ice cube trays, and froze it to be used later in the year. He was amazed that when the frozen cubes of pesto were removed from the trays and put into a container for storage, the green blocks were made of the same green sauce he had helped grow, pick, blend up, and scoop into the mold.

Trying New Foods (That They Grew Themselves!)

Having helped grow the food, also meant my kids were more likely to try new foods and eat things they’d otherwise not touch. Zucchini fritters with chives, fresh basil on pizza, sun dried tomato pesto rolls, stuffed squash blossoms, pumpkin gnocchi, Rhubarb Jam, fresh parsley in pitas with feta, chic peas, bell peppers, and vinaigrette.

My 3 year old eats things that my adult husband won’t even try (more for us I guess!), often with a proud announcement that “I picked that zucchini!” or “I dried those chives, remember mom?” Always a proud parent moment, when I hear those remarks. Even away from home, if he is picky about something, I can often remind him “that’s guacamole, it has onions in it just like the ones you grew” etc, and he will try (and realize he likes) the food he is initially refusing.

Repurposing old containers into herb storage containers (the lid of a parmesan cheese container fits on a standard mouth canning jar) can encourage kids to use the herbs that they might otherwise claim they don’t like. An interesting shaped jar that jam or pickles came in, can be used to hold refrigerator pickles, homemade sauerkraut, dried herbs, or candied fruits. My son loves putting a sprinkle of dried minced garlic (from the decorative glass jar we found at a garage sale a couple of years ago), onto omelets, pasta, or pizza.



4waystoyummy on May 28, 2020:

Right on! This is a great article full of super tips. I really started my first garden when I was pregnant. It's when we as parents start to really think about what our values are and how to enjoy and nurture life. I think it also helped slow time down and anyone with children loves that! I still do! Kudos!

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on May 27, 2020:

A wonderful area of exploration and learning. Nicely done.

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