Around here, spring brings not only hope of warm sunshine but also ever-changing plans for our vegetable garden. Every year, it’s something slightly different; year one, our boys were small but eager, planting seeds with pudgy fingers deep into the mud, then tromping over them clumsily and forgetting. Year two brought the overzealous weeding that resulted in fewer kale plants but plenty of “weed” piles added to a large compost heap full of fat earthworms happy for the abundance of organic material to devour. Year three resulted in an expanded garden that included a stick teepee hideout with bean plants climbing high to shade the little boys squatting within. During year four, strawberry plants were stripped daily; not a single berry made it to the kitchen, but instead were devoured by sticky little hands eager to taste sun-ripened fruit. This year we will plant our usual cucumbers and tomatoes, beans, kale, spinach, beets, carrots, squash, and peppers with hope that it will teach our boys the delicate process of where our food comes from, and also inspire them to taste and enjoy a wide variety of vegetables.
Gardening is a lot of work — it’s muddy and messy, and sometimes pests or weather can destroy best laid plans. So why bother? The benefits of gardening on children are many. Children learn responsibility, cause-and-effect, and a greater understanding and appreciation for nature and its workings. A child who gardens has a better understanding of where her food comes from and an appreciation of the process and work that goes into producing healthy food. A seed patiently nurtured and protected will grow and produce and give back, and all that hard work can boost a child’s confidence. Plus, gardening is excellent physical activity: there’s activity in tilling the soil, carting fresh compost by wheelbarrow, seed-planting, then weeding and watering, and maintenance of the garden.
Another benefit to gardening is obvious: nutrition. Our boys are hesitant to eat many vegetables placed on their plates at dinner time, but they willingly and happily munch on fresh cucumbers, berries, snap peas, peppers, mint, basil, and even raw kale leaves they have plucked from the garden themselves. Sun-warmed cherry tomatoes are sweet as candy; sugar snap peas split open to reveal tender peas within. It takes serious restraint to refrain from doing a happy dance every time I catch my boys harvesting and enjoying a vegetable from the garden.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of all was the discovery that our children would seek out the garden just to spend time there. There is so much life to explore! Crouched amid kale plants three feet high, they pick caterpillars off the leaves and collect them in small buckets. They gently scoop up ladybugs and earthworms to examine them. The occasional praying mantis brings shrieks of glee. Last summer they even befriended a large toad, named it “Big Mama,” and habitually fed her small slugs by hand every morning until she was fat and round as a peach. With so much time spent in the garden, our boys began to learn about the flora and fauna within; by July, they could each identify every plant, including the many herbs, and differentiate between what was a weed and what was food. They knew to spray the white cabbage butterflies with the hose whenever they saw them landing on the kale to lay their eggs — lovely creatures whose offspring would devour an entire crop of kale within weeks.
All in all, gardening brings our family tremendous joy. Here are some tips on introducing simple gardening to your children or starting a vegetable garden of your own.
Start small. Before you introduce a full-out garden to your children, you can show them the basics through simple projects. A growing jar is a great way to start: fill a medium-sized jar with a damp paper towel, place a few dry beans between the inside of the jar and the moist paper towel, and place in a sunny window. Leave the jar lid off and add water every few days to keep the towel moist, then note the changes in the bean as it sprouts and begins to grow.
Try container gardening. You don’t need a yard or large plot of land to reap the benefits of gardening. A sunny patio or apartment balcony can hold a few pots with herbs, strawberries, or cherry tomatoes. Just be sure to water them often, as containers tend to dry out more quickly in the middle of a hot summer.
Encourage exploration in the dirt. Let your child get messy, dig in the dirt, hold earthworms, turn compost, and make mud pies. Part of the fun of gardening is the sensory exploration involved. Child-sized shovels, hoes, rakes, and wheelbarrows are available and encourage children to work alongside you.
Help children plant fun plants. Plants that grow quickly are really rewarding for children who can become impatient easily. Sunflowers grow quickly, seemingly before your eyes, and have large seeds that are easy for children to plant. Let your child plant a row of sunflowers in a sunny spot and count the days until they grow taller than your child! Plus, the large blooms will attract all sorts of pollinators to your garden.
Don’t forget about the insects. Part of the joy of gardening for children is learning about all the insects that inhabit them, beneficial and pest alike. Order a praying mantis egg sack or ladybugs online and release them in your garden. Children will enjoy learning about natural ways to control pests by pointing out the “good guys” as they do their job controlling pests.
Check out children’s gardening books. There are so many great books introducing children to gardening. Here are a few of our favorites:
1. Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt, by Kate Messner, illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal
2. Frog and Toad Together, by Arnold Lobel
3. Compost Stew, by Mary McKenna Siddals, illustrated by Ashely Wolff
4. Water, Weed, and Wait, by Edith Hope Fine and Angela Halpin, illustrated by Colleen M. Madden
5. Plant a Little Seed, by Bonnie Christensen
6. The Carrot Seed, by Ruth Krauss, illustrated by Crockett Johnson
7. Sunflower House, by Eve Bunting, illustrated by Kathryn Hewitt
8. The Curious Garden, by Peter Brown
9. Planting a Rainbow, by Lois Ehlert
10. The Tiny Seed, by Eric Carle
Visit Gardens and Farms. A great way to become inspired and knowledgeable about gardening is to visit established gardens or farms in your area. A trip to the Botanical Garden in your city or a talk with a member of your city’s local gardener’s association can give you great ideas on where to start.
Lauren Knight blogs at Crumb Bums.
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