By Jennifer Pitterle
If you’ve ever had a garden, even a window box or a little container of tomatoes on the patio, you know all the benefits. Gardening teaches us about patience; about being humble next to nature; about when to offer care and when to step back. It also offers real physical effects, from encouraging exercise and increasing your intake of veggies to offering vitamin D exposure and social interaction.
We want all of those things for our kids or grandkids, too. I love working in the garden with my young children—partly because it’s effortless! We spend quality time together without any fancy toys or expensive outings; we move our bodies; we chat as we pull weeds; and I get to watch their sense of wonder as they see how our plants move through the seasons and produce literal fruit that—gasp!—you can eat right then and there.
If you’re ready to include gardening in your family’s list of spring and summer pastimes, here are my favorite tips and tricks to get you started.
Just Dig In: Grow a Small Garden Anywhere
Dig right in (pardon the pun), and be confident that you can grow a small garden anywhere. Raised garden beds are great for folks with mobility issues who can’t kneel or bend, and can be put up close to your house. Even a few containers on your deck or patio can offer a great introduction to gardening for kids.
Before it’s time to plant, my kids draw a rough map of our garden, and color in the crops they want to try that year. It’s a great chance to talk about climate zones (so we know which plants will grow in our area, and which ones won’t) and how to arrange our garden so everything gets enough sun—for example, we plant sunflowers on the north side so they don’t shade smaller crops.
Guidelines for Gardening With Little Ones
Our family has a few “garden rules” that help us maximize joy and learning. Feel free to borrow this list, or create your own:
- No limits on snacks! Eat as many fruits and veggies from the garden as you like.
- Check with a grownup to make sure something is ripe enough to pick.
- Pull at least one weed every time you visit the garden.
- Say thanks to the birds and spiders who help keep hungry bugs away.
- Check to see if any plants look thirsty. If they do, give them a quick drink! (Water in the morning and evening to limit evaporation and conserve resources.)
Head to the Garden Center
Turn your visit to the garden center into a field trip! Try reading the back of each seed packet together—it’ll tell you when (approximately) to plant each crop, how far apart to plant the seeds, and how many seeds should go in each hole. That’s data my 6-year-old loves to help us remember when it’s planting time.
In addition to seeds, we pick up seedlings, especially for crops that need more time to mature or are finicky to get started. Check out the USDA’s Plant Hardiness Zones if you’re not sure what your zone is; that can help guide your picks.
Here are a few of our family’s favorite kid-friendly crops:
- Strawberries are hardy and fairly low-maintenance. Trim off the runners (the shoots that will root themselves as new baby plants) to increase your berry yield. Kids can eat these beauties right from the vine!
- Tomatoes are satisfying to watch grow, tasty, and come in tons of varieties, from cute little “cherries” to big heirlooms. Plant them with a fence, trellis, or cage so you can support heavy branches as the summer goes on.
- Herbs are the ultimate in kid-friendly gardening, because each one is so distinct! Have your child rub a leaf between their palms and describe the smell; discuss the medicinal or culinary uses for each herb. Our favorites are lavender, basil, mint, sage, and cilantro.
- Sunflowers are magnificent! You can find giant varieties—if you have space, plant them in a circle and make a sunflower hut—or more petite ones. In the fall, let birds feast on the flowerhead’s seeds.
- Lettuce grows fast (which is great for small gardeners who aren’t so patient) and can be harvested with a quick snip of the scissors for salads or sandwiches. If you get bored with lettuce partway through the summer, it’s easy to pull up the plants and put something else in its place.
- Marigolds look beautiful and help deter bunnies who might nibble the rest of your veggies.
If it’s your first gardening season—and especially if you’re using containers or a small space—keep the list of plants manageable to set everyone up for success.
Gather Basic Gardening Gear
It doesn’t take much to equip children to help in the garden. My kids use a trowel for planting, and a handheld rake (also called a fork or a cultivator) to loosen the soil for planting and weeding. They need a sturdy pair of gloves to protect hands from scratches (and minimize dirt). As with all children’s tools, find a watering can that’s scaled for small hands, or use a fun watering wand on your garden hose. Last but not least, offer each child their own gathering basket so they can participate in the joy of picking their own harvest for a snack or meal.
Don’t Just Garden in the Garden
I love to find creative ways to get our family out to the garden—even if it isn’t chore time! We set up a small picnic table near our sunflowers, where I can bring a cup of coffee or the kids can work on their nature journals. (Keeping track of how the crops are doing, a few times a week, is a great project for older children.) We also bring books out to the garden for story time.
Here are a few of my favorite titles to read together.
Happy gardening! May your harvest this year—and your quality time with your kids and grandkids—be bountiful and delicious.
Jennifer Pitterle is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor. Pre-parenthood, she was a longtime editor for a lifestyle magazine group. She writes about parenting, nature, children's literacy, and more. She's always working with her children to bring a sense of natural enchantment to their suburban home and backyard.