One of the great joys of gardening is the opportunity to introduce children to its pleasures. We want them to be able to experience the thrill of watching what happens when a seed is exposed to good soil, water, and sunlight. That tiny little seed can become a great big plant, and give something back to you – something to eat, like fruits or vegetables, or something pretty, like a flower.
Children of any age benefit from being outdoors, breathing fresh air, having the opportunity to examine bugs, bees, earthworms, and butterflies. Some aspects to remember:
Select an area for the child’s garden. Make the garden area accessible and start small. Make a map of the garden with the child, seek the child’s input on what to grow. Quick growers like radishes allow children to see rapid progress.
Keep it short. Children have a limited attention span, work in different areas of the garden about 10 minutes each day.
Plant seeds or seedlings. Special child-size garden tool sets are available, but a fork and a spoon are completely adequate for most tasks. Demonstrate how to make a row and plant a seed, how to dig a hole and plant a seedling. Then, let the child take over. We are after process, not perfection. Most kids love to get wet and play in the dirt.
Feed the future plant. Use an organic, slow release fertilizer or compost tea on the plantings. Explain to your child that this material is like “vitamins” for plants, to help them grow big and strong.
Water the seeds or plants. Water immediately after planting to get things started. Water gently, just slow streams from a garden hose or a watering can. As seeds grow into plants, the plants will get thirsty just like people do. Teach your child to do the “poke test”, stick a finger into the soil and feel for wetness to determine if the soil is dry. If it is, then water the seeds or plants.
Apply some mulch. According to author Sharon Lovejoy, mulch is like “earth’s quilt”. It will conserve moisture, deter weeds and prevent erosion. Assist your child in spreading hay, straw, or wood chips around plants as they begin to grow.
Weeding. Explain the difference between a desirable plant in the garden and a weed in terms the child can understand. Show them examples in their own garden plot. Use your own judgement in deciding if the child is able to differentiate between weed seedlings and desirable plants.
Deadheading. For kid humor, what’s not to love about this word. This is a good teaching moment. If your child is growing some flowers, as the flowers fade, explain to the child that plants want to make flowers in order to make seeds to make new flowers. But, if we cut off the old flowers, the plant will make more flowers, to keep trying to make seeds. Judicious supervision will prevent good blooms from being removed.
Make an insect bath. There are good bugs in the garden, and they need water too. Select a drainage saucer from a ceramic or plastic pot or an old, shallow pan from the kitchen. Put a pile of rocks or gravel in the center of the saucer or pan for the bugs to land upon. Gently pour water into the saucer or pan so that the top of the pile of rocks or gravel remains out of the water and dry. Put the insect bath on the ground out of the way, so it won’t be stepped on. Refill with water when the level gets low.
No room for a garden? Plant in containers instead. You can make it a project. Select several sizes of containers, wash inside and out with soap and water, then rinse. Make sure the pots have drainage holes, and put a screen of some type over the hole (a small piece of a mesh bag from produce works fine). Put potting soil in the containers, dampen it, and proceed to plant. Tend the containers as you would plants in the garden, checking frequently for adequate moisture and sunlight.
This should get you started for spring and summer. Children are much more likely to eat produce which they have grown themselves, so enlist their help in the kitchen when harvesting begins.
Gardening does not stop in the fall, children can assist in the cleanup after frosts. Encourage them to plan for next year’s garden, let them help pick out selections when the garden catalogues start arriving in the winter. Who knows, you just may discover you have started a gardener for life!
by Mary Beth Cooper, Denver County Master Gardener