Ear to the Ground: The Insider Dirt to Gardening in Upstate NY

Planning your Spring Garden with Children in Tow

by janem on May 6, 2018

by Valerie E. Shaw

Child in garden. Photo courtesy Flickr: Tzuhsun Hsu

Your garden is amazing to your children, whether it’s a potted plant on the patio or a ten-acre farm. While they’re out there, your kids are increasing their physical health, learning about all sorts of great science concepts, and getting good and dirty—which we all know is great for their immune systems. As if that wasn’t enough, research has also shown that kids who plant veggies eat a lot more of them. Here are some tips to make this spring’s planning easier and more fun.

First, get real. If your kids are anything like mine, they don’t have super long attention spans, and they can destroy a room in less than five minutes. The same thing’s going to apply in your garden, so be prepared. For tots five and under, try giving them some silk flowers to practice with. They can “plant” them in a sandbox, poke them into a dirt-filled flowerpot, or stick them in the yard. Accept (take deep breaths if you need them) that your garden isn’t going to be picture perfect for a few years. It might, in fact, become invaded by flower-picking, dinosaur-stomping, hole-digging adventurers. It is, however, going to be something your kids will remember for their whole lives, and that’s pretty amazing too.

Have them help you plant seeds. Larger seeds like peas, beans, sunflower or calendula flowers are easier for little fingers to grab. Expect that many seeds are going to be dropped and squeezed, and if there’s potting soil, it’s going to be dumped. That’s what brooms are for.

Choose dependable varieties. You want their attempts to succeed, so choose easy to grow flowers and vegetables that won’t need daily fussing. Cosmos, zinnias, bachelor’s buttons, marigolds and sunflowers are always easy flower favorites; cherry tomatoes, peas, strawberries, and most squash are good producers too. The mini pumpkins like Jack Be Little are always a huge hit with kids—they color up bright and fast, and make enough happy little pumpkins to give away to family and friends. Fruit bushes or trees, if you have the space, are terrific. Lamb’s ear is darling to children; silver mound begs to be petted.

Herbs and succulents are often a kid favorite, and are usually easy to grow. The mint family is loaded with crazy and wonderful varieties that smell great, taste good and grow practically anywhere. Chocolate mint, pineapple mint, ginger mint, and apple mint—the list is huge! My daughter takes any guest outside to sample her mint patch. It makes tons of babies she can pot up and give away, and it doesn’t matter how clumsily she yanks them out of the ground. Mint is hardy with a capital H. She also has loved chives since she was two, and can’t get enough of basil. My son, on the other hand, is all about the succulents. His has a large hens’n’chicks collection that he is very fond of. They are simple to grow, need very little care, and like Pokémon have a lot of varieties out there to find.

Get them decent tools. Those plastic trowels and diggers look colorful and cute, but often, unless they’re very high quality, they won’t last. Trying to dig a nice hole with a floppy plastic trowel will lead to frustration, and kids love, love, love to dig! Teach your kids how to be careful with tools and respectful of those around them, and equip them with safe, sturdy tools that fit their hands well. Look for metal trowels with rounded edges and avoid blades. And try to be a good example. They’ll be copying you in no time.

Look for easy jobs. Children love to water plants. Find a child-sized water pot, or use a thoroughly rinsed out dish soap bottle – it’s great for gently squirting water. Relocating earthworms into safe garden soil can be another easy chore for very small helpers—as is looking for “bad guy” Japanese beetle grubs. Giving children easy tasks such as making rock borders, making butterfly “waterers,” and squirting aphids with soapy water lets them feel like a part of the picture, and they’ll be more willing to help with bigger stuff as they grow older.

Pace yourself. Although you may desire a garden laden with cheerful foxglove, wait until your kids are old enough to keep themselves safe. Toxic or painful plants with thorns aren’t a good mix with small children. The same goes for any dangerous garden decor. I once saw a lovely sculpture made from recycled shovel blades. I admired it, until I imagined my kiddos falling on it during a game of tag. Yikes! If there’s anything a gardener knows well, it’s that time certainly doesn’t stop, and that everything has a season.

This year, get on out there with your kiddos! I promise, it’ll be fun! And remember, as one of my favorite gardening authors once said…

“In spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt”.
~ Margaret Atwood.


Valerie Shaw is a mom, writer, and gardening addict who lives in West Monroe, NY, with her family, some goats, and too many ducks.

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