By Judy Sedbrook, master gardener, Colorado State University Cooperative Extension, Denver County
There are few things children enjoy more than digging in the dirt and making mud pies. They are fascinated by looking for worms and bugs and love to water the garden and anything else in the near vicinity. Children also enjoy planting seeds, watching them grow and harvesting what they have grown. By cultivating their curiosity about these things, you can help them to develop a love of nature and gardening. They will also enjoy the special time they get to spend with you.
Encourage their enthusiasm by planting seeds that mature quickly and are large enough for a child to easily handle.
Vegetables are a good choice for young children. They germinate quickly and can be eaten when mature. Some popular choices are radishes, zucchini, pumpkins, carrots, lettuce, peas, broccoli and potatoes Children may even be encouraged to eat vegetables that they have grown and would otherwise avoid. If you have enough room in the garden, gourds are a good choice. After harvesting, they can be decorated and used as birdhouses or autumn table decorations.
To add interest and color to the vegetable garden, you might want to add some flowers such as marigolds, nasturtiums and sweet peas. Be sure any flowers you plant are non-toxic.
Children love to choose the seed packets or starter plants for their garden and should be allowed to do the planting themselves. They can then proudly say it is "their" garden. After the planting has been done, be sure to put the empty seed packet or plastic insert in the soil next to the plants to mark their spot.
It is also important to include the child when deciding where to put the garden. This can be a good time to talk about what is required for a successful garden. Teach the young gardener that growing a healthy garden begins with good soil. Explain that plants, just like people, need to eat and drink. Make sure that the chosen spot gets enough sun and has a readily available source of water. The garden should be located where it is easily accessible to the child and can be admired by others.
When a place is chosen, remember to keep it small. Measuring out a "yardstick" garden keeps the size easily manageable for most children. If you live in an apartment or don't have much space, gardening in pots and containers can be fun and productive. Allow the child to use his or her imagination in choosing containers to be used as planters. Just about anything that holds soil and has good drainage can be used as pot.
Watering and weeding their garden may not hold as much interest for children as the planning and planting did. Garden tasks will be easier to remember if you put a garden calendar in your child's room or on the refrigerator. That way he or she can take charge of completing the tasks and crossing off the days when each task has been completed.
Activities in the garden do not have to be limited to springtime. Fall is a good time to have children assist in the planting of trees and spring-blooming flower bulbs. According to the U. S. Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center (NFBIC), tulips, daffodils, hyacinths and crocuses are among the easiest plants for beginners to grow successfully.
Re-seeding small areas of the lawn can be a fun activity for children. They will be more likely to stay off of the newly seeded areas if allowed to contribute to the project.
Children should have their own tools to use in the garden. Child-sized rakes, hoes, spades, and gloves can be found in most garden shops, home improvement centers, and catalogues. Less expensive alternatives might include old, heavy kitchen spoons for digging and measuring cups for scoops.
Sometimes waiting for spring to plant a garden is just too long for a child. Many plants can be successfully grown indoors by children, including the pits and seeds of items purchased at the grocery store. Avocado pits can be grown in a glass in the window, and the top cut off of a pineapple and grown in a piepan can make a nice houseplant.
Herbs are a good choice to plant indoors for children. They grow fast and can then be tasted. With pruning, herbs will grow all winter and can be planted outdoors in the spring. If there's a cat in the house, children may enjoy growing catnip on a windowsill in a pot.
One of the most fun and satisfying indoor gardening projects is forcing flower bulbs. This is an easy, inexpensive way to keep children busy in the winter when they can't play outdoors and can be done as a family activity.
Bulbs started in the house in late fall (forced bulbs) can be given as holiday gifts to friends, teachers or grandparents. The two most easily forced bulbs, according to the NCBIC, are paperwhites and amaryllis. They can be purchased at garden shops, home improvement centers, in the floral section of the supermarket or ordered from catalogues. Because they require no special preparation, these bulbs can be potted as soon as you get them.
Gardens do not have to be planted in a square or rectangle. A "pizza" garden can be planted in a circle and divided into wedge-shaped sections. Assign each child his or her own section or plant different plants in each section. Or use a tripod support to train climbing plants such as sugar snap peas, beans or nasturtiums to grow a live teepee. Planting sunflowers in a circle or square, leaving space for entry, and tying the tops loosely together near the heads can make sunflower houses or "hideouts". The floor can be covered with a section of old carpet or planted with clover or thyme.
Sunflower House painting courtesy of Elspeth Young
Complete planting instructions can be found at: Growing a Sunflower House For Your Kids.
Gardening activities do not have to be limited to just planting a garden. Raking fallen leaves into piles, for example, is work to an adult but can be great fun for a child. Children also enjoy making decorations, like scarecrows, for their gardens.
More than just plants grow out of helping a child tend a garden. Gardening gives children a sense of responsibility and accomplishment and enables them to learn about the environment and about the relationship between plants and people. And most importantly, gardening is a great way to spend time together as a family.
Some interested internet sites to visit with children:
Photograph courtesy of Judy Sedbrook.
© CSU/Denver County Extension Master Gardener 2010
888 E. Iliff Avenue, Denver, CO 80210
Date last revised: 01/05/2010