When Summer rolls around, we watch our garden green. In May, the phlox and bulbs bloom, the leaves come out, and we begin planting, but our yard doesn't look like it's happy until at least June. This is when things get interesting, when our children rediscover the outdoors. As my daughter has grown, her interaction with our backyard has changed a lot, from tripping over garden stones, eating dirt, and picking every single flower to being terrified of any flying insect to spending a lot of time, well, gardening. It's not what I would have called gardening before kids. As we — the adults — have tried to cultivate new plants, vegetables, and fruit, added trees, and moved existing flowers around, I've grown my concept of gardening. It's basically about being in the yard. About doing nothing lazily or picking a specific task and then engaging in a bit of wait and see. There's some watering management, some weeding, and some replacement of things like mulch, but after a few Summers of training kids and the green stuff, there's a whole lot of enjoyment.
For kids, gardening is one big sensory experiment. They lead with their mouths, fingers, and noses. If it's blooming, in my yard or yours, it's an irresistibly pickable flower. You cannot really tell a child that some plants are weeds and some are not OK to pick. I mean, you can, but they are all attractive. They notice all of the insects and interact with them. My daughter went from sheer terror to creating houses for bugs and worms. Rocks are always movable. Water belongs everywhere. Children are very capable monitors of growth. They see change up close. For my children, the garden is not just a space but an outdoor home, for lounging and puttering and being very close to ground. It's a feeling I barely remember. It's one I guess I'm trying to remember, as I dig and plant, or bend and kneel to rip up the rampant mint, thick in the dirty labor of gardening, but over the Summers, I've begun to see that my children's version of gardening is preferable. Who cares if the grass is wet? You sit on it. Things are there — insects or clouds — to be observed. You might as well pay attention. One can spend an hour plunking river stones in and out of buckets and painting with chalk. Sometimes we spend a Saturday really working in the garden, but now I also like to simply observe my children move around the garden. They know what they're doing.
While there are no rules for gardening with kids, here's a few things to think about.
- The first rule of thumb is that gardening with kids is messy, very messy. Dirt and water equals mess.
- They will taste everything and drink the dirty water.
- They will step on plants.
- They will stomp bugs and cry about stomped bugs.
- They will pick the fruit too early.
- They will turn the hose on you and dump out all the buckets.
- They will steal the wheelbarrow for their own purposes.
- They will move all of the landscaping rock out of the landscaping.
- They will turn the garden furniture into some kind of fort.
There are rules for gardening safely with kids. Soil can have both chemicals such as lead and germs (such as the parasite toxoplasma gondii). While you can't prevent your child from contacting dirt, you can emphasize handwashing afterward and buy a pair of children's gloves and a good nail brush. You can also have your soil tested. Know which plants are toxic and teach your children to ask before eating. Here is a great list of what to grow with children and what to avoid. Don't treat your garden with toxic fertilizers. Keep tools and chemicals out of children's reach. Cover up for sun protection.
You don't need a yard to introduce gardening. If you have a stoop or a back porch or a sunny windowsill, you can still grow plants, such as strawberries, that will interest your child, too.
Recipe One (Toddler)
- First, get out the hose.
- Turn the hose on.
- Add some buckets.
- Add some dirt or rocks.
- Start with mud pies.
- Put leaves, sticks, or toys in them, and let them dry.
Recipe Two (Preschooler)
In May, buy small strawberry plants, herbs, lettuce, or a really fragrant plant such as catmint. Have your child pick out a really ridiculous garden ornament.
- Plant in pots, boxes, or your backyard.
- Show your kid how to water and or feed them.
- Smell them each week.
- Let the child cut, harvest, munch, and play "cook" with them.
- Really cook with them.