Gardening with Kids

When I was a teen, my young nephews Bill and James asked my father if they could have a vegetable garden “just like Grandpa’s.” My dad, who raised much of the family’s food, obligingly turned over two small patches of good, fertile soil; located rakes and hoes and other implements of gardening suitable for small hands; and provided enough seeds to plant the most basic of gardens – beans, carrots, and lettuce. Under his tutelage the little boys raked and smoothed the soil, marked the rows with hand-lettered signs and carefully planted their seeds; immensely pleased with their very own tiny plots.

In a few weeks, James’ garden was thriving with seedlings struggling to the light but Bill’s patch, well-marked and well-weeded, was devoid of discernable vegetation. This is when my father discovered that Bill was re-digging his garden every few days in an effort to “see what the seeds were doing.” Once my father explained that part of gardening was waiting for results, Bill let the seeds do their thing and managed to harvest produce that he was thrilled to share with the family.

Gardening with children (or grandchildren) can be a positive experience for families interested in getting some exercise as well as home-grown produce. From the creative educators and dietitians at the website, I’ve found some basic, kid-friendly guidelines for getting started in gardening. It’s not too soon to start looking for a sunny patch of back (or front) yard that might well be put to good use for the 2009 Family Garden.

Start small – perhaps with a salad bowl garden. If you have been gardening for years, you probably know how much work you can reasonably take on. If you’ve never been much of a gardener, start small – in containers or a few square feet in the yard. Concentrate easy-to-grow items for salads: a variety of leaf lettuces, some radishes, a cherry tomato plant or two, and a few fragrant herbs (such as parley and basil). Window boxes and other containers (clean bleach or milk bottles with tops cut off) work especially well for kids.

Choose child-sized tools, plants, and produce. Children do best with things that fit well into their hands – and their mouths. Get child-sized hoes, rakes, and shovels at a nursery or garden center. Try to find strong, genuine looking tools so that little ones feel like “real” gardeners. Can’t afford new tools this summer? Large recycled plastic spoons from the kitchen work great in containers. Look for specific miniature or baby vegetables plants – such as corn, radishes, tomatoes, and zucchini – just the right-size for small eaters!

Be prepared for less-than-perfect plantings. Let’s face it: gardening can be messy business. And most children love to dig in dirt, so save a small area for digging, even after planting is complete. It’s important for children to feel like the garden is really theirs – so be willing to put up with crooked rows and mixed plantings. Children can also get attached to “their” weeds and want to care for them right along with the veggies and fruits. Bottom line: It doesn’t have to look perfect to produce perfectly delicious produce!

Make gardening an outdoor adventure. The most important aspect of family gardening is spending active time together – away from TVs, DVDs, video games, computers, and cell phones. Have reasonable expectations about what children will do in the garden and about how much produce you may actually get (you can always find a farmer’s market if you need to). Take time to smell the herbs, roll in the grass, run in the sprinkler, and leave the garden behind for a long walk around the neighborhood.

Questions or comments on this or other columns? Nancy Yergin can be reached via email at NLY1@PSU.EDU.

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