In theory, gardening with kids should be easy. It involves some fundamental elements that many kids love: soil to dig in, water to pour, structures to build, flowers to pick, and then at some point there’s the novelty of eating fruits and vegetables straight from the sun-warmed plant.
To get to the point where your child enjoys gardening, however, you might have to let go of some perfectionist tendencies and embrace how the process evolves on a small, moment-to-moment basis.
When you bring your child into the garden with you, for however long, you have the opportunity to provide them with some truly singular moments that stay with them for a lifetime. I love that my daughter still talks about the “bean teepee” I created for her out of a bamboo tripod and Scarlet Runner beans.
Take the long view: what’s one lettuce plant pulled up too soon, when, in the same instant, you watch your toddler eating the freshest possible greens? Your garden can be a safe place to make mistakes, and mistakes here can easily be renamed as blessings.
Let’s explore how to involve kids in gardening at their own pace. I think you’ll enjoy it, too.
Start while they’re young with these easy crops
When my daughter was a baby, I started a container garden on our balcony. It was a group of the basics: tomatoes, peas, lettuce, radishes, round ball carrots, nasturtium, some tiny alpine strawberry plants. I didn’t have or need more tools than one well-worn trowel I’d picked up at a collectibles shop.
For plant supports I used bamboo or reeds gathered from a nearby walking trail. It wasn’t a lot, and it didn’t need to be. It was just fun to see the full life cycle of a plant, from seed to flowering to harvest. We discovered—together—how the lettuce sent up yellow button flowers when they bolted, and watched the faded pansy flowers fold back to reveal seed pods the shape of tiny paper airplanes.
Take your toddler into the garden
There are an infinite number of ways to charm kids in the garden—most of which I wish I’d thought of sooner. Maybe you can benefit from my hindsight. Think of how pea pods can be opened like a zipper, how a nasturtium flower can be worn on a fingertip, how a tomato can be eaten like an apple—and with a better mess!
I was lucky that as my daughter Freya grew to be a toddler, she never tore up our plants. Maybe that’s because she saw me grow them slowly in these containers before she ever witnessed me yanking up weeds. The point is, sometimes those tiny plastic gardens can be just the place to begin.
Make a happy, muddy mess
When Freya was a toddler, we got a community garden plot, which I worked industriously. Freya had her own square of soil, planted with radishes and lettuce, which if I had it to do over again would opt instead for peas and tomato and pepper plants, depending on what your child likes to eat. Or try a small squash plant with grand, buttery flowers.
There are mini pumpkins that are just the right size for kids—and that allow you to serve pumpkin soup in the bowl of your wee harvested cucurbit.
For the most part, Freya used to dig and make mud while I gardened around her, and I remember us both being pretty happy. It’s relatively easy to expose kids to gardening early like this. Never mind if it doesn’t feel like real gardening.
Freya has always loved playing with water, so that’s a great way to involve kids in the garden from the age of about 2 and up. Start with a small watering can and, when they’re more coordinated, hand them the hose—you’ll be hot enough to enjoy the spraying you’re bound to get! As for tools, you might want to look into buying a child-sized hoe, rake and shovel.
Feel free to play games
Once it’s time to harvest, you can play a game of “who can find the biggest” (or the reddest, the softest, etc.) to get your child thinking about picking what’s fully ripe. You might encourage school-age kids to harvest a small amount of kale or greens with scissors so that they can learn to select stem-by-stem.
Back in the kitchen, your kids might like to operate a salad spinner. Or use the hand spin method: put the greens in a mesh bag, and then put the whole thing in a larger plastic bag, then spin it around until the water collects.
Remember that pretty much anything is a step in the right direction. Gardening for some kids might be very freeform; others might need frequent encouragement, while still others might immediately take to tasks.
Above all, watch your kids in the garden as they learn from you and from the plants, soil, and sun—it’s their unique reactions, moment by moment, little by little, that will keep you both coming back for more.
Are your children gardeners? How did they start? Tell us in the comments.