It’s important that children connect with their food, and a garden is the perfect way to foster that. To a gardener, the garden is a place of peace and tranquility. To a child, the garden is a place of wonder and discovery. Sometimes those two places crash when they meet.
Gardening is a process to a child (digging in dirt, playing with water, watching for bugs), while the adult gardener may be focused on accomplishing tasks (getting the seeds in, planting trees, weeding, harvesting food).
By creating a destination garden, you set yourself and your child up for success in the garden. There are a number of things you can design into your garden to keep your child busy while you accomplish tasks alone, and engaged while you work on things together.
A little bit of planning is essential. Begin by setting aside an area of the garden that belongs to your child. Let them pick out foods they want to grow, but help them choose varieties that will do well in your area. If you live in the rainy northwest as I do, that may mean growing cherry tomatoes or tiny cucumbers so that the fruit ripens faster with less sunlight.
By letting your child select the vegetables, you are increasing your odds dramatically that they will eat them, especially if they are allowed to harvest them at will. Most kids enjoy carrots, peas, beans, cherry tomatoes and cucumbers. Some kids enjoy basil and lettuce. All kids enjoy growing pumpkins for Jack-o-Lanterns.
If you have room, you may want to consider adding strawberry and blueberry bushes, columnar fruit trees, mint and edible flowers like sunflowers, Johnny jump-ups, nasturtiums and chamomile. Fresh mint leaves and chamomile flowers or leaves can be used to make teas, mint can be steeped in warming milk to flavor it, sunflower seeds can be roasted for snacking, and Johnny jump-ups and nasturtiums can grace summer salads.
When it comes time to sow seeds you can make furrows in the dirt, then poke your finger or a stick where the seeds should go. Most children will then be able to plant the seeds unassisted. Lettuce and carrot seeds are tiny, so let them sprinkle along your furrow, then plan to later go back and thin them. It’s important that your child get involved in the planting so they see the process from start to finish.
You can let them water with a watering can. A rain gauge will help them to see how much water is enough and give them something to check on after storms. Print off pictures of garden bugs, and make a little booklet that your child can use to identify bugs in the garden.
Lady beetles, earthworms, green caterpillars, sow bugs and aphids are all common garden bugs, and giving your child the job of identifying good and bad bugs is an empowering experience. Build a spider orb by gluing Popsicle sticks together in a hexagonal shape then tying it in a tree.
Your child can check daily to see if a spider has moved in yet. Once a spider moves in your child can check daily progress. It’s very exciting to catch a spider in the act of stunning and wrapping a fly! Adding a simple water feature will provide your child hours of enjoyment as well as support beneficial insects.
This can be as simple as caulking the drainage hole in flower pot and filling it with water daily. Do be sure and change the water frequently though, so it doesn’t become a nesting place for mosquitoes. Let you child harvest with you.
Encourage them to use two handed picking so as not to disturb the plant, and let them help you prepare the food they grew to feed the family. Jobs like these are important milestones for children, and go a long way towards fostering independence and emotional security.