How to Introduce Your Child to Gardening
“One of the most important things we can teach our children is how to nurture and care for living things, and there is no better way to do that than by gardening together.” – Dr. Jane Goodall, Primatologist and Anthropologist.
Gardening is a wonderful way to teach children. The basic skills required to grow a tasty tomato or beautiful flower can easily be mastered by even a very young child; as the child matures, gardening can be a gateway to learning about a vast range of topics, such as botany, chemistry, genetics, entomology, the ecosystem, climate, and even astronomy. The American Institute for Research (AIR) found that school gardens can help improve students’ science test scores by up to 15% (AIR, 2015).
A child who knows how to grow their own food is a child that has mastered one of life’s essential skills. Gardening allows a child to be successful and feel like they are contributing to the household, which increases their confidence and self-worth. In fact, a study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology found that children who participate in gardening activities show a significant improvement in self-esteem, mood, and overall mental health (Van den Berg & Custers, 2011).
Of course, another advantage of teaching a child to garden is that they can help with the gardening chores and take some of the burdens off their parents. If you are convinced it’s time to teach your child to garden, here are some tips about how to get started.
Choose the Right Plants
You want to set your child up for success from the start, so you’ll want to select plants that you know will grow where you live. This is not the time to try out some delicate, exotic plant. Select plants you have successfully grown in your garden in the past, plants that like your climate and are robust and forgiving. You’ll also want to grow plants that provide an obvious reward, such as a tasty snack, so select vegetables that your child likes to eat. Some good plants to consider are:
Try to plant an assortment of vegetables, some that mature quickly and provide an immediate reward and others that keep the child eagerly anticipating the harvest, such as pumpkins. Pumpkins are really fun for children to grow since the pumpkins form early in the summer, and the child can eagerly watch them getting larger and oranger as Halloween approaches.
A more long-term project is to help the child plant a fruit tree. It usually takes several years before a tree starts to produce fruit, but the child can see the tree growing and responding to their nurturing care. The delay will make the fruit taste even better when it is finally time to eat the tree’s first crop.
Where Should the Garden Be?
You’ll get the best results if you plant vegetables and flowers in full sunlight. The development of very realistic artificial turf has revolutionized landscaping. In the past, homeowners who wanted a nice lawn for the children to play on had to sacrifice the sunniest part of their backyard to grow the lawn. If you opt for artificial turf, you can put the lawn in the shadiest part of the yard and use the sunniest part to grow vegetables and flowers instead. As a bonus, instead of wasting time watering and mowing grass, you can completely ignore the artificial turf and spend all of your outside time tending the garden and enjoying the flowers.
Gather the Necessary Tools
You’ll want to invest in some quality kid-sized gardening tools. A basic set should include:
- Leaf rake
- Watering can
- Spray bottle
Prepare the Soil
Building a raised bed garden is the easiest way to ensure vegetable gardening success. You can fill the raised beds with high-quality soil and not be foiled by the poor-quality soil in the yard. Alternatively, you can use the necessary task of improving your soil as a way to teach your child all about chemistry, compost, and worms. Children are usually quite enthusiastic about worms.
Before planting anything, you’ll need to prepare the soil. Invest in a soil-testing kit and help your child test the soil. This is a great opportunity to introduce your child to some basic chemistry and botany. Once you know what your soil is lacking, you can correct the problem. You and your child can also discuss and decide together whether you want to garden organically or conventionally, and whether you want to try the no-till method of gardening or go with the traditional approach.
Discussing the pros and cons of these options is a fantastic way to teach your child about the ecosystem and how to make wise decisions. And, as Jamie Durie, Horticulturist and Television Host says, “Get kids involved in every step of the gardening process, from planning and planting to watering, weeding, and harvesting. The more they participate, the more invested they’ll be in the garden’s success.”
Time for the Plants
Some plants, such as peas and radishes, grow well from seeds planted directly outdoors. Most other plants grow best if started indoors and transplanted outside as seedlings. While an older child might enjoy starting seeds indoors, most younger children would much rather go to the gardening center and select pre-started seedlings.
Each species of plant has a specific time when it should be planted. Some plants, like tomatoes, will need a support system. The plants will need to be properly spaced to allow room to grow and to make it easy to find and remove weeds. You can help your child look up the various plants and learn how to cultivate them.
Seeds and seedlings will need to be frequently watered until they get established. After that, how often to water depends on the local climate. You’ll need a soil hygrometer to water properly. Most people water too often, which can cause plant roots to rot.
Weeds should be removed as soon as they are noticed. They should be dug up, roots and all, or they will grow back.
Mulching reduces the need to water and helps suppress weed growth. For a vegetable garden, select organic matter for mulching, such as dead leaves, grass clippings, or wood shavings. This material will decay and naturally improve the soil. For flower gardens, commercial rubber or bark mulch in the appropriate color will provide the best aesthetics.
Pest control in the garden is another great educational opportunity. You can explain how spraying the yard down with pesticides is counter-productive because it kills beneficial insects, such as bees, as well as pests. Garden-friendly approaches to pest control include carefully spraying a soap-based insecticide directly on the affected leaves. Marigolds planted strategically in the garden will repel many pests while attracting ladybugs and bees. Ladybugs, which eat aphids and other pests, are also attracted by:
If you plan your garden carefully, you can start harvesting radishes, peas, strawberries, and lettuce by late spring. Tomatoes will start to ripen in mid-summer. The pumpkins should begin to turn orange in September. Turning the pumpkin to expose any green areas to the sun should cause the entire pumpkin to turn orange.
Most home gardeners end up with more produce than they can eat. Excess tomatoes can be turned into sun-dried tomatoes or tomato sauce, which can be frozen for use over the winter. Fridge pickles are a fun project for children, and an astonishing variety of vegetables can be pickled.
Canning can be hazardous and should be left to experienced adults.
In conclusion, teaching children how to garden is beneficial in so many ways. It’s very educational and can introduce children to many different fields of science in a fun, motivating way. It’s a highly rewarding endeavor since children can see, smell, and taste the results of their labors within a fairly short time frame. Caring for a garden boosts self-esteem and empathy. According to a study conducted by the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), children who participate in gardening have a 12% higher overall well-being score and a 10% higher score in their ability to form relationships with others (RHS, 2010). Letting your child help with the gardening chores also takes some of the burdens off you and allows the child to feel like they are actively contributing to the household.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. What age is appropriate for kids to start gardening?
Children as young as three can start helping with the garden. They can pull up a few weeds, dig holes, and listen to educational stories about how plants grow and what worms do.
2. How can I make gardening more fun and engaging for my child?
Let the child make as many of the decisions as possible, with some guidance. The more the garden belongs to the child, the more engaged the child will get. If the child wants to only grow beets and watermelon in their garden space, let them. You can plant your tomatoes in a separate space.
3. Are there any plants that are unsafe for children?
Poison ivy and deadly nightshade are fairly common weeds in many parts of the country. You should teach your child what they look like and explain why they should never touch poison ivy and should never eat the berries that grow on deadly nightshades.
4. How do I teach my child about garden safety?
Explain to the child that sharp tools, such as loppers and pruners, pesticides and herbicides, and power tools should never be used without permission and supervision by an adult. Carefully point out which tools and products you are talking about. Consider keeping these items locked up where children cannot access them. Teach your child to put their tools away carefully as soon as they are done because stepping on a gardening tool carelessly tossed into the grass can cause an injury.
5. Can gardening help with my child’s development?
Gardening can definitely help children develop. Gardening improves empathy, self-esteem, and confidence. Gardening improves manual dexterity and thinking skills. Gardening also offers a gateway to a lifetime of learning.