Backyard Gardening with Kids
One of my favorite memories from my first few years as a father came the summer my daughter turned two. She was outside “helping” me in our vegetable plot when she sauntered over to one of our Snow White cherry tomato plants, plucked a plump orb from the vine and devoured it on the spot. Another followed suit. Then another. And another. Until she polished off at least a dozen.
Her gorgeous hazel eyes wide, she looked at me and said:
I “might” have swooned a little.
As an avid gardener and a dad, spending time with my monkeys in the garden is as close to heaven as I can imagine. Time in the garden teaches kids lessons about where food comes from and nature, provides healthy snacks and exercise, and most importantly, it keeps them from watching Caillou.
I swear kids get whinier when they watch Caillou. Am I right? Am I right? If that was the only benefit to gardening with kids, it would totally be worth it.
Back to gardening. Anyhoo, I’ve found that planting and harvest are the times when it is easiest to secure help. Maintenance, especially weeding, requires a different tactic that I call “Tom Sawyering” and is covered extensively on my own blog. Check that out if you are interested.
All difficulties in getting help with weeding aside, I’ve found that kids of all ages tend to love helping in the garden all year round if you invest a little time in planning. It also helps if you can find tasks for your helpers to do that will make them feel a sense of accomplishment and pride.
In terms of planning, the easiest way is to look at a planting calendar for your area to see when the optimal times are to plant things you are interested in growing. In the greater Sacramento area, we are extraordinarily gifted with a long growing season for a variety of foods.
Summer is particularly amazing, however, and you can easily stagger your planting and harvesting so there is always something fun for kids to do beginning as early as January. That is, as early as January or February if you’re obsessed like I am and start seeds indoors or in a cold frame or mini greenhouse (available at any self-respecting nursery or big box store). My kids have always loved to count out tiny seeds to carefully push down into cups or pots. No need to spend money on these, as I’ve found that rinsed single serving yogurt containers filled with potting soil work just as well.
Preparing garden beds can be fun too, as you can get shovels and other implements of destruction in sizes small enough that everyone can turn over the soil. Finding worms is a particular highlight with this activity.
My daughter loves to transplant seedlings too. I dig the hole and get the plant out of the pot, and she gingerly puts it in the hole and fills it in so only the top is sticking out. This might not be the best thing to do with really little kids, as plant decapitation can be rampant if they aren’t gentle.
Summer harvest time is really the most fun though. There’s something about sending a 4 year old outside by themselves (!) to pick some basil for pasta, or carefully picking tomatoes or sweet peppers for dinner that night that is satisfying to parents and kids alike. If you have space for a couple of zucchini plants, a cherry tomato vine or two and basil, you can quite literally have something to harvest every day from June to August.
Another way to keep your apprentice gardeners interested is the construction of a backyard fort that doubles as a trellis on which to grow pole beans. Ours takes the form of a tepee, and it serves as a shady place to hide out when we’re outside that gets progressively shadier as it gets hotter.
Construction of a bean tepee is easy. Simply get some long 6 or 8 foot long garden poles (also available at any self-respecting nursery or big box store) and stick them in a ground in a circle about 3 or 4 feet wide. Then lean the tops together and secure them with twine. Around the base of the circle, plant pole bean transplants or seeds inside and outside the edge of your circle. As the plants grow, they send out tendrils that climb the poles.
Be sure to leave an opening so kids can go in and out of their fort to hang out, or even better, harvest beans!
Many of these tips work well to get kids involved in gardening. I know this, because my dear ol’ Dad utilized them to get my siblings and me to help when we were kids. And I still think gardening is the bee’s knees—so give it a try.
In fact, I love gardening with my kids so much that I wrote a little children’s book about it called “Our Garden.” It takes readers through the entire arc of a summer gardening season and features a father and kiddo as they build and tend their garden together. It also has a burp joke, a pesky raccoon and a German Shepherd Dog that may occasionally squash a squash plant. You can get more info on it at OurGardenBook.com if you are so inclined.
**Special thanks to Andy Domek for taking the time to guest post! I’m proud to say that Andy and I were Falcons at Christian Brother’s High School. Aside from being an alum of one of the greatest high schools ever, he’s a father and husband, works for the California State Assembly, he’s an amazing gardener, blogger, and now Andy’s published his own book Our Garden. It’s an adorable story about getting children in the garden you can get your copy here. For more of Andy’s gardening wisdom you can follow his blog here. And, if you like pretty pictures of gardens you can follow him on Instagram @westsacurbangardener to see more of his enviable garden.