A few years ago my husband and I moved into a house. There was a sunny flat garden bed out back, and (to my surprise) I found myself getting interested in gardening. Growing vegetables has been surprisingly rewarding and often frustrating. I figure it’s good for me as a person.
When my daughter outgrew babyhood, and started turning into her own little child full of ideas and interests, I thought it would be interesting to get her involved in the garden. But how?
Luckily the internet has no shortage of people ready and willing to give you advice (including me). Here’s what we were told and what worked for us.
1. Get your child some dedicated tools sized to their hands
This one was hit and miss. On the one hand, the chunky plastic trowel was easy for my daughter to use. On the other hand, have you ever tried using a full-sized shovel around a toddler? That’s what they want to use, right now, no substitutions. Also, is it sharp? Even better. Little kids might have little hands, but their enthusiasm is enough for ten grown women.
What worked for us: work with tools you can both use. If you’re working outside with your child, put away the shovel and the pruners, leave out the trowels and the hand rake. With the more dangerous tools out of sight, you can both make use of what you have out. The little tools will still get used (sometimes by you when you can’t find anything else), but you will definitely have to learn to share.
One thing that was surprisingly popular? Child sized gardening gloves. My grey hairs may be from trying to line up tiny fingers inside a tiny glove, but they have been the uncontested hit of gardening.
2. Children are great at harvesting fruit and veggies, and then they can eat them
This one was so true for us. Last year we had a record tomato harvest. The plants outgrew their supports, tilted precariously, and grew together enthusiastically in a tangle in the middle of the garden. I couldn’t reach in or squeeze behind behind the plants to harvest half the tomatoes. But who could? That’s right, my 2-year-old. She loved it. That kid filled colanders and sand buckets full of red tomatoes week after week. This year she asks nightly to go out and check to see if the tomatoes are ripe or there are any new cucumbers.
A caveat: she may have harvested the tomatoes, but would she eat a single raw one? Yes. But only one, and never again.
3. Plant some impressive plants for your toddler
Sounds good, I thought. So I planted giant sunflowers. They grew to 8 feet tall and had flowers the size of dinner plates. That’s impressive, I thought. Who else was impressed by the sunflowers? Adults. Zero small children found them interesting.
I find that little kids don’t have context for these sorts of things. Everything in their lives are over-sized and brand new. When you’re 2.5 feet tall, and you’ve only been around for a couple of years, all things are equally novel and interesting. They don’t know that flowers aren’t always that big. (See also: trips to the zoo, trips to the aquarium, endless interest in the tupperware drawer)
What do I say? Plant sunflowers. They’re awesome. But do it for yourself.
4. Keep some outdoor toys by your garden, you can get some work done while they play
I like purchasing things to solve a problem as much as the next person…but I really should have known better. My daughter has a swing, a slide, and a sandbox in the backyard. Only in the last few months, as she nears her 4th birthday, has she been willing to play with any of those (spoiler: only the swing) while I work in the garden (warning: parent must be willing to drop all activities and and push the swing every 2 minutes).
What works for us: pick tasks you can both do. This is dependent heavily on the age, ability and the temperament of your child. My daughter is excellent in the garden at spring and fall cleanup. There’s nothing delicate growing the the garden that can get trampled and the perennials are dormant, or near so. I can pull weeds and hand them to her to take to the weed pile. She can dig without me fearing she will enthusiastically unearth newly planted seeds. Plus, give a small child a task and they will worker harder, and far more inefficiently, than anyone you’ve ever met. But you’ll be glad you did it.
5. Give your child a garden of their own
This one was brought on by parental guilt and had some success. After months of being told not to step on mommy’s plants, my child turned to me and said, “Mommy I want garden for me.” Oh, right. Off to the gardening store. I picked up 2 cheap plastic pots (similar). Pick something big enough that they’ll be too heavy to easily tip over, and won’t dry out too fast. 8+ inches is my recommendation. Fill with potting soil, and plant.
What to plant? Learn from my mistakes. I chose radish seeds, because they germinate quickly. But they are also teeny tiny little seeds and when 100+ of them are planted in an 8 inch pot they will grow into a tangled mess that cannot be thinned and will not thrive. Bush beans worked much better. The fat beans were easier for little hands to pick up, and they actually produced a reasonable harvest. For flowers I recommend annuals from your local nursery. They can guide you to something suitable depending on your location, but we had great luck with pink vinca. They bloomed happily all summer. Marigolds would also be adorable and long lasting.
What next? Step back and let the child do what they will. My daughter lost interest in the pots fairly quickly, other than an occasional harvesting of beans or enthusiastic plucking of flowers. And that was fine. It was a good lesson for me in relaxing, stepping back, and learning to use the phrase “our garden”.
That’s all the advice, I can offer, other than to have low expectations, and try and enjoy the experience.
Like everything with a child, figuring out what works for you is an ever changing process. Each gardening season they’re nearly a full year older. Plus, get them interested now and when they’re big and strong you can use them to lug bags of compost.
Quick safety note:
Have your child wash their hands with soap and water when you get back inside.
Do a tick check if they’re an issue in your area.
Be aware that many plants, or plant parts, are dangerous if ingested. But so are dirt, rocks, and that dead bumblebee on the ground. While you should pay attention to what you grow, that doesn’t mean you have to avoid certain plants entirely.