Tips for Gardening with Kids

By DONNA DeFORBES/ecoRI News contributor

As a sustainable source of healthy food and outdoor exercise, gardening is an ideal activity. But how do you get your children involved while also making it fun for them?

Start early. An early introduction to gardening is more likely to spawn a lifelong appreciation of nature. Two- and 3-year-olds love to mimic their parents. Take advantage of that by giving your toddler a shovel, so she can dig in the dirt beside you. Offer your kids opportunities to search for worms, hold the hose while watering or sprinkle seeds — and watch them get excited when green shoots pop up later on. Keep your frustration to a minimum by giving little ones their own garden space. Then every time you work in the family garden, your child gets to “work” on her own pile of dirt.

Let them choose the plants. The more investment kids have in a garden, the more they’ll remain interested. Have a brainstorming session early in the season where each child has input into what should be in the family garden. Take kids along to the farm or nursery so they can choose plants that appeal to them, whether it’s based on a favorite fruit, a pretty flower or a fairytale name (Rapunzel tomato).

Sow in odd containers. If you’re starting seeds indoors, you can sow them in a variety of containers found around the house. This sustainable option adds an extra dose of fun for the kids. Seeds can be sown in newspaper, toilet paper tubes, egg cartons (or egg shells), yogurt cups or roasted chicken containers. Younger children can choose a container, sprinkle their own seeds and wait for shoots to sprout. Older children might be interested in observing and comparing how well the plants grow in different containers.

Choose fast-growing, large or unusual plants. While the time lapse of gardening is an important lesson for kids to learn, incorporating a few fast-growing vegetables — beans, peas or arugula — will capture short attention spans. Young children are also enticed by plants that grow bigger than they are (sunflowers) or ones that have a magical quality (pumpkins). Unusual plants to introduce might include purple cauliflower, blue potatoes, furled fiddleheads or itty, bitty cucamelons.

Create a children’s garden. This expands that toddler-sized pile of dirt to an entire outdoor greenspace just for the kids. They can design the garden themselves, from digging up the earth to placing rocks, borders and pathways. Hit yard sales and thrift shops for child-sized watering cans and garden tools. Then let your child’s imagination soar. Upcycle old toys into plant pots. Paint plant labels onto rocks. Build a mini-pergola from wood pallets. Create a sunflower playhouse or a vegetable teepee.

Think themes. Whether it’s a fairy garden of moss, twigs and stones or a pizza patch of toppings — oregano, tomatoes, broccoli, peppers — to put on homemade pizzas, you can stimulate your kids’ gardening interest with a fun theme. You might design a flower garden in a rainbow shape or make a garden of edible flowers such as nasturtium, clover and sweet alyssum. Older children might like to learn about medicinal plants and create an outdoor “medicine cabinet” of aloe vera, chamomile, lavender and yarrow.

Whatever kind of garden your child becomes engaged in, keep it light and easy and let him take the lead. Gardening provides an environmental awareness that can only come from getting your hands dirty and observing the cycle of life.

Rhode Island resident Donna DeForbes is founder of Eco-Mothering.com, a blog that explores ways to make going green fun and easy for the whole family. She is a contributor to Earth911, MammaBaby and author of the e-book “The Guilt-Free Guide to Greening Your Holidays.”