Updated: Jun 9, 2022
I'm often asked how I am able to grow so much of my own food while caring for three young kids. The answer is pretty simple - I involve them in the gardening whenever possible. I have learned to embrace and channel the chaos in order to reap the literal and figurative benefits of gardening with kids. It took me awhile to come up with a formula that works for me and for them, so I wanted to share what I have learned with those who are new gardeners or new parents or both...
Make the garden fun.
If you want your kids to like the garden, you need to make it fun. Plant easy, edible plants early and often, like herbs and snack foods. I plant chives, oregano, thyme, lovage, basil, mint, and other herbs there to entice them into trying new flavors. Snap peas, cherry tomatoes, picnic peppers, pumpkins, and cucumbers are a big hit with my kids and their friends. I've even seen them grabbing handfuls of kale and spinach to munch on just because they can. And you'd be amazed how much kids of all ages like pulling carrots and digging for potatoes.
I also let the kids play in the garden. They build forts, create pretend gardens, stage battles with old stalks, and make bouquets from volunteer flowers. Giving them the freedom to play in the garden means you can have the freedom to work. They may not be helping, but they are outside having fun and they will begin to see what it means to garden. And your kids come to the garden to snack and play, but they will often end up learning and helping a bit too.
Give them ownership.
Kids like being in charge. Giving them their own bit of earth and a choice about what to put in it is one of the greatest gifts you can give them. Each of my kids has had their own garden since they were three or four. My mom made each of them a three-foot circular bed from stones and filled them with soil. Early on I brought them to the garden store and let them pick out their own potted plants - herbs, flowers, tomatoes, whatever. Now I let them choose seeds from the catalogue and the kids help me plant them in trays. The two older kids have six foot by four foot beds with total freedom as to what they plant. Last year it was tomatoes and sunflowers. Two years ago it was strawberries. This year it is flowers and herbs. They prepare the beds, plant, water, and weed.
My daughter and I planted a square foot garden last year to try it out and she loved marking out the grid, but didn't like planting in such an organized way. This year she said she wanted it to look "natural". Sometimes the kids' gardens look better than mine and sometimes they go to weeds. I help them when I can, but I don't obsess over their plots (or mine, for that matter).
Use the right tools.
There are a lot of cute plastic gardening sets out there. Don't waste your money. Not only are they going to break and end up in the landfill, but they are going to frustrate your kids to no end. There is a reason why you don't see any real farmers walking around with plastic tools. I'm not saying you need to get your kids special hand-forged, kid-sized tools. Just let them use your hand trowel and rake. You can also choose a couple of used kid-sized metal tools, like a shovel and rake. We have those, though, and honestly, the kids never choose to use them. It's just easier to use their hands or hand tools.
Especially if you're a beginner gardener yourself, it can be really hard to let kids help you. Your kids will overwater, underwater, pull up plants, unearth seeds, pick unripe fruits and vegetables. They will trample your plants, lose your tools, and break your watering can. But they will also learn. They will begin to care for plants, wait for seeds to sprout, and even start teaching you things. If you put in the time, they can't help but learn. You may have to sacrifice time, energy, and plants now, but you won't regret it later on.
My nine-year-old son, who stated gardening with me when he was three, was hanging out at the garden with me today. He told me he wasn't going to help and had a book to read, but five minutes in, he looked over at the bed I was weeding and casually said, "Hey, mom, I see potato bug eggs under that leaf there." I spotted the volunteer potato plant he was pointing to and, sure enough, he was right. He might not have helped me weed, but he certainly saved me a lot of trouble later on!
Have a plan. Don't stick to it.
It's always a good idea to have a list of kid-friendly tasks in mind for when your kids help you in the garden. Harvesting is an obvious choice, but kids also like planting, watering, digging, squashing pests, and even pulling weeds, if you choose the right weeds (no tough grasses or deep roots). I haven't met the kid yet who enjoys spreading mulch, turning soil, or trellising vines. Show your kids how to do the tasks and give them choices, but if they want to do something else, let them do it!
The whole point is to get them gardening. My kids have spent many hours doing tasks that are only minimally helpful to me, but they felt a great sense of satisfaction is doing them and so they were worth it. My older daughter likes to tap the tomato flowers with a magic wand (which allows them to pollinate without a bee). My son likes to squash squash bugs a little too much (they do emit a really satisfying blue goo when stepped on). My three-year-old loves planting seeds, so I give her old sunflower, nasturtium, and calendula seeds to plant all over the garden. She's busy and happy and she's not pulling up all the carrots, so I'm happy.
Gardening with your children is a wonderful gift for you and for them. I hope you try it!
Stay Green, New Hampshire!