Tips for gardening with kids

KFamilyMOJanuary 1, 2014

Hi. We have 3 kids..this summer the oldest two will be 3 & 5. I remember "helping" my grandparents in their garden from younger than that. I know they're still too young to be even halfway responsible for a garden but our oldest is fascinate with how things get to the table and we hope that he will be more willing to try things he's helped to grow. We have a smallish backyard so don't want to devote a lot of space this first year especially. We were leaning towards tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, green beans...any tips on the best way to set these out and ideas to keep them interested would be greatly appreciated. If there are any other plant suggestions, we are open to those as well. Thanks in advance!

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Strawberries !

    Bookmark   January 1, 2014 at 9:35PM
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Do those grow the same year you plant them? I hadn't given any thought to fruit so will have to check some out. Thank you!

    Bookmark   January 1, 2014 at 11:27PM
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What about carrots? Most of our carrots never even make it out of the garden plot, my kids rinse them under the hose and munch on them. We call them Bugs Bunny carrots when we eat them with the greens still attached. My kids (3 & 5) especially loved the "Paris Market" variety: round and small like a radish, and they are easy enough for a child to yank out of the garden. Sugar snap peas are also popular. They are easy for little fingers to plant, sprout quickly enough to keep their interest piqued, and are fun to pick and super sweet. Those rarely make it home either.

    Bookmark   January 2, 2014 at 11:50AM
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digdirt2(6b-7a No.Cent. AR HZ8 Sun-35)

We have a smallish backyard so don't want to devote a lot of space this first year especially.

Have you considered using a couple of containers just for them? Plus how much current gardening experience does the "teacher" have? If not much then don't get carried away with trying too much at first as it sets you and the kids up for failures.

A large pot of strawberry plants, one of lettuces, and one for one of the small cherry tomato plants like Tumbling Tom would be a good starter garden.

As they grow be sure to include lessons about the positive role of insects in gardening - that most a good guys - so they don't fall into the far too common belief that "the only good bug is a dead bug". My grandkids love taking bug tours in the garden with grandpa.


    Bookmark   January 2, 2014 at 12:20PM
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Some people remove strawberry flowers the first year. I leave a few so I'll get a couple of berries just for fun.

    Bookmark   January 2, 2014 at 1:24PM
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tishtoshnm Zone 6/NM

With my kids, we talk about things as they come up. I let some of their natural curiosity lead them and let some things come up as time allows. We compare and contrast different seeds. There are flowers with different seed types that can be a lot of fun such as calendula versus marigold. You can also pull out seeds like kale, broccoli, mustard greens, radishes and talk about how alike they are which goes with talking about them being in the same family (my youngest loves asking about plant families). You can also compare leaves and plant growth to see families.

Also for kids, have a rain gauge and teach them how to check it after a storm and give them their own notebook for recording the level. For the ages you have, just draw a diagram and let them color to that level and you write the date in (very important , this teaches conscientious data collection). Or give them their own calendar where they have specific stickers for gardening events. Gold star for planting, red star for precipitation, etc.

When the plants have reached maturity, take out some seeds for that plant and have them compare the size of a seed to the plant that arose from it.

You can also research a worm bin or have a compost pile or both. My kids love the worms. It was also a wonderful day when my daughter, who was about 8 at the time was with us in the big city and she saw a truck with a bunch of pulled plants in the back and "look at all that compost material!" Cool stuff.

Another crop to consider for kids that is relatively easy is potatoes. Get some cool ones like purples or reds or fingerlings. Most of all, they are fun to dig but it also shows the genetic diversity that is possible.

You can also teach them how to test for moisture. Have them stick their finger into the soil to see if it is moist or dry before watering. This one is of great importance to keep them from overwatering.

Don't forget herbs. Herbs are great for taking the time to roll in your hands and smell. This is just a great sensory thing to with many things. Have them smell the lemon balm, lavender, fressh ginger, lemongrass, mint, etc.

All of this also goes with the very important thing you have to emphasize over and over, and that is not to eat anything unless you are given permission and told that it is safe. Everything may be safe in your garden but you do not want them to make assumptions when going to somebody else's house.

    Bookmark   January 2, 2014 at 2:06PM
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albert_135(Sunset 2 or 3)

My grandmother got me hooked at about age four by filling a Mason jar with soil and slipping the seed between the glass and the soil so I could watch the roots appear first then the stems. The difference between corn and beans was of interest to me back then.

Most vegetables won't do well in a jar so when the plant got identifiable leaves the lesson was moved to the garden. Some small easy annuals like marigolds might be kept in the jar until bloom.

    Bookmark   January 2, 2014 at 5:21PM
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A few years ago someone suggested educators do like the cook shows on TV. Stagger some plantings and when the student gets bored with seedlings pull out a more mature plant like RR puts a roast in one oven and removes something ready to serve from another.

I remember some rumbling. Don't recall anyone trying this and reporting back here.

    Bookmark   January 5, 2014 at 1:18PM
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ZachS. z5 Littleton, CO

With the larger seeds like peas, beans and squash even a 3 year your old will be able to easily count them and put them in a pre made hole (say you poke your finger in the soil and tell them to put 3 seeds in each hole) my son loves helping me plant the seeds in the spring. (of course his first year he wasn't quite ready and decided to just dump the packet out...we had a lot of bean plants that year haha). The 5 year old would probably be able to even drill the holes him (her?) self if you gave him a pencil or a stick or something with a premeasured line on it or even if you just showed him on his finger where 1/2", 1" was.

Another thing is to include them in every part of it, even if they are mostly just watching. My little helper is 3, just for reference, and he gets so excited when I tell him were going to the store to look at garden stuff, and especially seeds. I started a few seeds indoors last week, and he was so eager to help, I asked him to hand me stuff like a bowl to put the seeds in and the nursery trays and pots. He was thrilled we were finally getting to plant!

In my case, the kiddo really just loves being in the garden in the summertime and things are growing. He loves harvesting the beans and tomatoes (squash not so much since the the vines and stuff are prickly) I pretty much let him roam about in there as he pleases, even though he sometimes squishes a few seedlings or picks some green tomatoes and bean flowers.

Really just make it fun, cuz that's what it's about. Make every trip to the garden a teachable moment. With topics about the effects of weather, stages of growth, ecosystems and probably thousands more there is no shortage of things to learn (for both you and them).

You will definitely experience failures. Whether its a tray of tomato seedlings that you lost to damping off or a hailstorm that wipes out all your veggies overnight. That's okay. Its how you learn and is a great way, IMO, to teach kids how to deal with disappointments and setbacks.

But you will also have success too, and slicing up those home grown cukes and eating snap beans fresh off the vine will be just as good as any soccer trophy.

    Bookmark   January 5, 2014 at 8:07PM
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floral_uk z.8/9 SW UK

' Make every trip to the garden a teachable moment .....' 'Topics' ... 'Research'...

All so earnest and serious. These are children in a garden. This is their childhood.

What are you going to do if your kids are not the perfect paragons? They are not excited? They don't care? They lose interest when the seeds don't come up immediately? They squabble and whinge and want to go home?

I would warn against being disappointed if they get bored quickly or are just not interested. Don't force them because you think it's educational and good for them. My kids weren't that bothered and preferred digging holes, throwing weeds at each other and playing with the water to actually gardening. DD's favourite activity was pretending to be carrying water from the well in an Indian village. Nothing to do with gardening at all but she has since made three trips overseas doing development work. Give the poor things a break and just let them mess about in the earth and use their imaginations.

Only years later has my daughter started growing things herself. She was learning even though she appeared uninterested. My son is still not bothered.

My Dad never 'taught' me anything about gardening. He just gardened constantly and quietly in the background and left me in peace to develop my own passion.

    Bookmark   January 6, 2014 at 9:56AM
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ZachS. z5 Littleton, CO

I didn't mean to sound serious, that wasn't my intention at all. I guess I'm lucky to have an enthusiastic helper. I guess to me learning is fun, and from what I can tell, my son does too.

But you are right Floral, not everyone or every kid is the same, and some like it some don't. Gardening, for many of us, is a hobby and as Aldo Leopold once said "becoming serious is a grievous fault in hobbyists." So forcing something on them would serve no purpose.

From the OP though, it sounds like the children are interested in learning and helping, so I say run with it.

    Bookmark   January 6, 2014 at 12:34PM
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A fun thread to read.
Only thing I have to add is to save a corner for a few sunflowers!
They are impressively BIG, and the seeds are fun to eat--for the kids and the birds.
Also, they are best started indoors a little early, so that part is fun, too.

    Bookmark   January 6, 2014 at 5:44PM
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At that age my son enjoyed putting the seeds in the holes. His small fingers were well suited to it. He also liked helping to pull out the carrots when they were ready. He was amazed.

He is 8 now, and less interested. He still likes to come with me check gopher traps to see if we caught a gopher.

He sort of likes to pick cherry tomatoes, but I think that is just because he likes cherry tomatoes.

Main thing is keep it positive, and dismiss them if they show the first sign of getting bored. If it becomes not fun for them, then they will shut down and you won't get them back out there.

Best of luck!


    Bookmark   January 6, 2014 at 9:23PM
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My two year old loves to help me in the garden! I try to let her help and see what I'm doing. I may never have straight rows, but a crooked row of onions and a thick patch of radishes where she helped me plant makes me smile.

Your toddler can take stuff to the compost pile, play with worms, plant beans, plant onion starts, hold the basket when you harvest, pick bush green beans, help you find red tomatoes, and dig with a trowel. When you need a minute he could fill a pot with dirt for you :)

Your five year old could do all of the above, learn to make rows, and help you plant and pick. When we dug potatoes this year, I don't know who was more excited, me or my daughter; but we have so much fun and bonding time in the garden. He could maybe have a little bush bean patch of his own to tend.

I think what you have planned to plant are good choices, and there are other great suggestions that have been made too. As has been already mentioned, have fun and let your kids enjoy this wonderful time outside. Your children will learn so much without you really trying, and they may show an interest in learning about even more.

    Bookmark   January 7, 2014 at 1:26PM
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nancyjane_gardener(Zone 8ish North of San Francisco in the "real" wine country)

Even if you start late, it can make a difference!
We started gardening about 12 years ago when we quit smoking. We had had a few tomato plants when the kids were younger, but do to gophers and time constraints.....
The garden led to better diet in obsession these days! LOL Anyway, this was just as the girls were going out on their own. They would come home to home grown veges, soups and sauces, fresh herbs etc. They were pretty proud of us!
They haven't taken up gardening yet, but I'm sure, once they buy their own places with decent sized yards Mom will get a garden call! LOL Nancy P.S. Out into the dark to pick some kale for din din!

    Bookmark   January 7, 2014 at 9:11PM
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zzackey(8b GA)

The first year I grew strawberries I never cut the flowers off. i had a great crop. Strawberries will yield a few months after you plant them. I would plant peas. They can be as sweet as candy. I only got to be in garden to help dig the potatoes. I wish my mom had let me garden more. Digging potatoes up after my dad had hoed was so much fun! Like digging for buried treasure.

    Bookmark   January 7, 2014 at 10:52PM
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These are great ideas! I have enough experience helping my grandparents to know that gardens rarely go exactly as planned and are a lot of work. The boys love helping measure and cook already and ask lots of questions about how they get their food and my husband and I have thought about a garden for several years and it seems the time is right. I think one thing I'll do is let them help pick what we grow. I understood what Zach meant as everything is a learning opportunity for us..we just don't let the kids know. Lol. Regarding a compost pile or worm bin...are those hard to create/maintain? As in...can they stay out there in winter? You guys have given so many good ideas for us to discuss and I can't thank you enough!

    Bookmark   January 8, 2014 at 12:33AM
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Probably the simplest way to compost is to take some kind of wire mesh and form it into a cylinder. Fill the bottom 6 inches or foot with dry leaves or straw or dry grass. Then, every day or every few days, dump your kitchen waste on top and spread it into an even layer, and cover the kitchen waste with a layer of dry leaves or straw. When the bin is full, let it sit for a year. The compost will be done at that point. If you start the bin in mid summer, there is a good chance it will not freeze over the winter, as it will be giving off quite a bit of heat.

You can start a second bin when the first one fills up. By the time the second bin is full, the first one will hopefully be ready to use.

You can use around 12 feet of mesh. The mesh should be three or four feet high.

I have attached a picture at the end.

This is not the only way to compost. It is one way suited to lazy people who produce small amounts of compost-able material over a long time period. There will be worms in the bin after a while, but you might not see them near the surface. They might not be the same type of worms people use in worm composting (red worms). It may smell a little occasionally, but in general, if you add the right mix of wet and dry materials, it won't smell bad. If it smells, add dry leaves or grass or straw.

Here is a link that might be useful:

    Bookmark   January 8, 2014 at 4:28PM
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Children who visit my garden get a kick out of seeing foods they know growing. In addition to other plants metioned, I'll add mammoth sunflower, asparagus (which gets harvested early), peanuts, and cucumbers are fun. My son (a very selective eater) would actually eat foods he would never touch otherwise *IF* he picked them himself.

    Bookmark   January 8, 2014 at 5:18PM
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Mckenziek....thank you so much for composting bin info. What kind of container do you keep the food in before composting? And is there any kind that can't/shouldn't be composted? That's definitely not anything I'm familiar with but I have a feeling my boys would be excited.

    Bookmark   January 8, 2014 at 9:07PM
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Also, is there any special preparation anyone can suggest to prepare the ground? And any advice on what time of year to start on that would be apprxiated...obviously after our snow melts...I seem to recall my grandpa planting things as early as March....

    Bookmark   January 8, 2014 at 9:09PM
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In our kitchen, we have a 5 gallon bucket for compostable material. I fill about the bottom 1/3 of the bucket up with clean straw, then just add stuff to the top. When it is full, I empty it in the bin, rinse it out, and reuse it. I actually have two buckets so that there is always one ready. The straw in the bottom keeps the bucket from getting gross if I add wet soggy stuff.

Composting is a big long topic. Personally, I compost everything that could be considered food or that was once alive, or is made out of normal paper. So that includes all food scraps, paper towels that have food on them, paper milk cartons and coffee filters (as well as coffee grounds), etc.

Many people will tell you that you can't or shouldn't compost any animal products like meat or fish scraps. The main reason for this is to not attract vermin. My bin is closed off so vermin can't really get in there. I compost everything, including occasional meat scraps and hamburger or bacon grease. I also believe that once the composting action starts, it is a little too hot for mice and rats to go inside the bin. I could imagine racoons raiding the top of the bin, but it is not hard to keep racoons out by putting some kind of heavy cover over the top.

If you want to play it safe, you can only compost food scraps which don't have meat or have very little meat. Eggshells can be put in there, but honestly they don't break down much. You might have better luck if you crush them first. I am too lazy to do that. I crush them when I see them when using the compost. Avocado pits often sprout and then die (because they are smothered as you add to the bin).

After you go through a full year, you will see what broke down and what didn't. There is no real harm in having things in there that don't break down (like egg shells and bone). You can pick them out if desired when you put the compost in your garden.

Weed seeds will usually sprout then get smothered as you continually add to the bin. A few may sprout near the top when you stop adding to the bin to let the compost age.


    Bookmark   January 9, 2014 at 2:47AM
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AiliDeSpain(6a - Utah)

This will be my third year gardening with my two little weeds, this year they will be three and five as well. They LOVE helping in the garden. I did have to build a locking gated fence last year because they love to pick tomatoes before they turn red. LOL. They help plant seeds, mulch, and their favorite HARVESTING! They probably know more about plants than most kids their age. They seriously love it, I am sure your kids will love it too!!
I tell them all about the process the plants go through and how it produces food to sustain our family. They also learn about preserving. All in all it's a win win!

    Bookmark   January 12, 2014 at 1:44PM
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I have a compost system made of old pallets like this one

I save veggie and fruit scraps and put in a section, cover with dirt, and leave it. When it's warm I try to mix it about once a week. You will see worms soon. Garden cuttings, weeds, leaves etc go in there too. Feels good to minimize waste and take melon rinds and tomato ends and such from garden and compost them to be recycled for something else to grow.

    Bookmark   January 13, 2014 at 2:21PM
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My own children have grown now, but I still plant a children's garden at our camp and have had other children visit my gardens.

Play 1st.
Instead of gathering tools as the 1st task out the door, go play ball or tag with them. That way the energy is expended playfully & they can attend to the garden more readily. Depending on their ages my kids played in the backyard alone while I was in the vegetable garden working. They'd come over to me when they were ready or when they were curious about my work. If kid inspired they worked better than when it became a chore to complete. You'll have to find out what works best with your kids.

Appeal to the child's nature and sense of discovery.
Give them a harvest basket to carry when empty, but you carry it when full if delicate vegetables or fruits. Alternatively, give them a basket of a few napkins & a lidded container of fresh water for a quick dunk/swish to eat strawberries in the garden.
Give them a tool to use. If they're too sloppy with a trowel try a kitchen spoon or a fork. My parents bought my son a kid sized shovel. He preferred to dig out rocks with it rather than move soil I wanted to moved, but I had to let him do his own gardening, too. Use a ruler or yardstick to the growth of plants & record. Label a 1x1 stick & plant that in the garden as a visual measuring tool to compare. Fingernail polish lasts well, but permanent marker fades.

Ask questions.
Who can find the cucumber?
How many cucumbers can you find that are finger size?

Play hide & seek games.
Hide animals or characters in the garden for them to find. You can also let them put the characters where they'd wish to find themselves the next garden visit.

Give them their own space in the garden.
We made a small fairy garden in a container with my great niece. Not fancy like what you see now, but some plants she found growing here then added some small plastic strawberry shortcake toys. I let her arrange it her way even though the presentation wasn't the way I'd do it. I think that's the key to give them an area to do what they want whether a corner by the compost bin or a container.

Have a purpose for each garden visit & don't work on it all day long.
Observation, planting, harvesting, watering, weeding or? They're not sure what to do 1st, so you direct them. When I was a beginning gardener I couldn't direct much because I was figuring it out, too. Discover together. Sometimes, I had to say 1st we'll play ...., then we'll work. Then I'd say what I needed done in the garden that day. Sometimes, I'd state our objective then when it was done we'd do a special activity. My kids learned that it was necessary to work the garden, but didn't have to do all of it all the time. It was especially helpful for my son to have work 1st then we'd go to the lake or park. He worked fast, so I had to supervise carefully, too.

Be prepared for accidents.
Children helping leads to some plant damage when they cut corners on rows or fall into plants. Teach them not to pull up plants to "see how they're doing." Give them a small cup & a bucket of water rather than a spray nozzle on the hose for watering. Try not to scold too much as they're learning, but helping them correct the mistakes that happen. Plant more than you need, but not more than you can tend. That way you have extra to cover the mistakes & some to give away. Kids love giving away their homegrown produce especially, if they don't like that particular vegetable or are tired of eating it.

Have well marked beds & walking paths.
Use raised beds or lay out stakes with string. Lay out mulch on paths or whatever you have available. Kids don't intuitively know to not step close to plants and may overstep to only squish your lettuce plant. I started doing raised mounded beds not only for the benefit to the plants, but so my kids knew where to step. I realized I liked the wide rows within the beds & the plants grew well. It was easier to water the beds & not the rows that way, too.


    Bookmark   January 14, 2014 at 11:13AM
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persimmons(6b Southern Mass)

You say that you're concerned for space. Here's some things I grow in my garden that take up little space (so far):

Sunflowers: My 4 yr. old niece Jocie was SO EXCITED to go outside and dig holes to plant her favorite flower, sunflower. She learned about them in school and knew I had space to grow them. I dug up the grass with the shovel, but using a small trowel she dug holes to plant the seeds. To see her face when she came back to my house was priceless--the sunflower grew to be taller than her, and had not one seed to give back to her but thousands. I highly recommend sunflowers because you can plant a single row, and they mainly take up vertical space! You can grow them against the house, against a sunny fence, or just grow one for the heck of it.

Green Bean (bush or vining): Jocie also helped me plant the beans. Like someone said earlier, bean seeds are large enough that they instill some sort of mystery in children, it seems. Whenever she'd visit my house, it became her 'chore' to pick the green beans from the bean bushes. They grew low enough to the ground that she had an easy time hunting for the beans, and I was able to interplant some catnip and rosemary which made the experience a bit more sensory. We didn't realize why we weren't getting a green bean crop until we noticed that she was eating every last bean she'd pick! The plants grow low to the ground, and didn't bush out more than maybe 2'x2'. I've read about making bean teepee with trailing beans, and including a small door so that children her age can walk into the teepee to pick the dangling beans. This would be LOADS of fun for a child, but would take up considerable amounts of space.

Stevia: If you can get your hands on it, and if you can provide it a moist, not-too-hot place, stevia is a winner. I grew a lot of herbs in my garden, and one of Jocie's favorite things was to rub the leaves and guess which plant was which based on the odor. Stevia, on the other hand, is a leaf you'd have to taste to identify. This was a good learning experience for her (some plants are safe to eat, others must be identified by smelling/etc first). The leaves do not have a particular odor, but taste of sugar cubes. The bush grows as big as you'll let it grow (it did well when clipped, ripped, eaten, etc) and it is a FAVORITE with Jocie, and probably all kids. What kid wouldn't love a sugary treat in the garden?!

    Bookmark   January 22, 2014 at 11:03AM
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