What child doesn't like plucking raspberries off the bush, pulling a carrot out of the ground or picking a red cherry tomato and popping it into their mouth?
It's the ultimate home-garden reward, and it's even more satisfying if kids have a hand in the creation.
“As soon as you can trust your child not to eat dirt, rocks, bugs and plants [without permission], you can start exposing them to gardening,” said Ellen McAuliffe, an avid gardener who led a kids' garden club in her Clintonville neighborhood in 2015 and 2016. “If children are growing edibles, there is pride in growing food and knowing that they can.”
April Hoy, education director at Stratford Ecological Center in Delaware Township, said the benefits are wide-ranging. “A garden is a wonderfully alive experience for children,” she said. “It's exercise, fresh air and an experience that gets them outside fully engaging all their senses. And they learn the natural processes of the earth, a gratitude for nature and an appreciation for the land.”
If possible, set up separate gardens rather than sharing. “Let the child have their own plot, because the more control a kid has over the plot, the more it is theirs,” McAuliffe said.
Deciding what to grow is the first step. “Anything they can go out and continuously pick is good,” Hoy said. “And anything they like to eat is a good thing to grow. I would say start small, start simple, but just start.”
Seeds can be obtained for free at a seed swap or by asking friends and neighbors if they have extras, Hoy said. After the first year, save seeds from what you've grown and use them next season, she said. Be sure to follow recommended planting times; seeds won't germinate if it's too cold.
For novice gardeners, McAuliffe recommends fast-growing plants including radishes, greens such as lettuce, arugula, chard, kale and sorrel, and herbs such as dill, parsley, cilantro and chives. Peas and green onions also mature fairly quickly and are fun for youngsters to harvest, she said. Other good choices are cucumbers, pumpkins, beans, squash and carrots.
After deciding what to grow, kids can help choose a sunny spot in the yard, dig the dirt to a depth of about a foot and spice up the soil with amendments such as peat moss and sand, especially if there's a lot of clay.
Got a compost pile? Have your child mix some compost into the garden. If not, show them how to make a compost pile using dead leaves, grass clippings and fruit and vegetable waste—a useful and educational endeavor, Hoy said. “Kids can bury things in the compost pile, then turn it and look at the piles over time,” she said. “They learn how to recycle dead matter into living and alive soil.”
Once the garden plot is ready, show children how to plant seeds and water them. A metal trowel with a wood handle is the go-to tool for planting (plastic shovels break too easily, McAuliffe said). A watering can often works better than a hose to moisten seeds without washing them away.
Children can check the garden a few times a week to see what's growing, whether fencing is necessary to keep rabbits out and if there are weeds to pull. “Keep the gardening sessions short,” McAuliffe advised. “If they don't want to water, don't make them. They'll end up learning that, next year, they had better water a bit more.”
For those who don't have backyard space, container gardening is a good starting point. Peppers and tomatoes will grow well in large, deep pots beginning in May, while lettuce and spinach—both cool-weather crops—can be grown in smaller, shallow pots in the spring and fall. Even potatoes can be grown on a patio in a deep pot, a burlap bag or a reusable grocery bag, Hoy said. “Children love to grow potatoes because they're easy to grow and it's a big treasure hunt when you collect them,” she said.
Jodi Kushins has gardened with her daughter Cora at her side since the 6-year-old was a baby. “I used to bring her out into the yard in her bouncy seat,” said Kushins, who grows a variety of vegetables and some fruit on a 2,000-square-foot plot on property next to her Clintonville home.
Now, Cora helps drop seeds into holes and holds transplants in place while her mom covers their roots with dirt. And she eats what she sows. “My daughter will eat a bowl of salad greens that most adults I know will not,” Kushins said. “They're not foreign to her palate at all. She's not afraid.”
Resources for young gardeners and families:
- Gardening with children, from Eartheasy (a website focused on sustainable living) – eartheasy.com/grow_gardening_children.htm
- The Great Plant Escape, an online game about learning to garden, from the University of Illinois Extension – extension.illinois.edu/gpe/index.cfm
- My First Garden, from the University of Illinois Extension – extension.illinois.edu/firstgarden
- Stratford Ecological Center – stratfordecologicalcenter.org
- Westerville Public Library list of gardening books for kids – westervillelibrary.org/kidsgarden