Your growing family: Children and gardening go well together

Last modified: Thursday, December 03, 2015
Claude Monet knew it. Frances Hodgson Burnett knew it. And the early Americans sure as heck knew it. Children and gardens just naturally go together.

If you’ve got little people, a little patience and even a smidge of sunny yard, you can know the joys of nurturing a plot of earth with your family.

No, you won’t feel as though you’re living in an Impressionist’s paradise, nor can you expect a ready-made labor force like the colonial folks enjoyed. But if you do it right, the payoff of gardening with your children is pretty sweet.

“It gives families access to fresh vegetables, and when kids are involved in the process, the excitement leads them to try things they might not otherwise try,” said Catherine Violette, a nutrition and food safety specialist at the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension. “It gives parents an opportunity to talk about healthy eating . . . and I think the best part about it is it’s just fun.”

If you’ve never mixed kids and gardening – or you’ve tried before without much success – here are a few tips.

Farm to mouth

Just as bird lovers plant flora that’s known for attracting feathered friends, parents should consider the types of veggies and plants that will attract their children. Cherry tomatoes, sweet peppers, sugar snap peas, green beans and English cucumbers are good choices. On the other hand, pickling cukes can be prickly for kids to handle, greens and squashes are less enticing, and carrots may be a bit too tempting to pull before they’re ready. Also, be sure to caution your kids against sampling veggies before washing them – fun as that may be. Rinsing them in water is sufficient, Violette says, and be sure your kids wash their hands after gardening as well.

Natural wonders

That advice about hand washing is all fine and good, but in reality, no kid on Earth has ever stayed clean for more than 45 seconds. Whatever a child is playing with, eating or working on, he is also wearing: guaranteed. So try to go easy on the pesticides and fertilizers and try organic gardening techniques as much as possible. Experimenting with garden- friendly critters – earth worms, lady bugs, etc. – can be a blast for some kids too.

To each his own

One of the great things about introducing kids to gardening is that there are so many facets to it; kids can dig into whatever aspect interests them most. Spend some time thinking about your children’s interests and strengths, then tailor some gardening projects to them.

Some kids love nothing better than to feel dirt in their hands, while others may enjoy planning meals around the week’s harvest, doing battle with pests, measuring and plotting the physical aspects of the garden, reading up on organic gardening practices they can try, or doing the actual hands-on nurturing.

On the other hand, the start-to-
finish approach can also work well.

“Giving your kids ownership of a section of the garden is fun because they feel like they have a vested interest,” said Charlie Cole, general manager at Cole Gardens. “Just be careful not to give them too big of a space because you don’t want them to get overwhelmed.”

Spin it

Of course, the whole point of gardening is to produce fresh food for your family. Most parents find that their children are more likely to eat vegetables they help grow themselves. If, however, they still need some prodding to sample the harvest, try getting creative. When my own kids were little, I let them in on the “super powers” the produce on their plates endowed them with – things like super speedy feet and monkey bar arms. These “powers” were based in the real scientific benefits the vegetables provided, with a wee bit of poetic embellishment.

Older kids may need to see the real value of their efforts, whether it’s a $10 savings on the grocery bill that goes into their pocket or a fun science experiment that aims to capture the physical benefits of a veggie-centric diet.

Easy does it

Hopefully, you already know that cajoling your kid into kneeling in the hot sun with a weed bucket for hours at a time is the best way to build a lifelong loathing of gardening. Apply the same logic to yourself. If gardening with your kids becomes too onerous, you aren’t likely to stick with it. A little strategizing can make the project more pleasant. Put your garden as close as possible to your house (for those frequent potty and snack breaks), or try simple deck containers. Consider things like an outdoor sink or a little cart to carry your tools. And by all means, buy or designate a pair of shoes for gardening only.

Simplify and strategize your meal prep too. Don’t worry about what traditionally goes with what: Have fun experimenting with whatever you harvested that day. Let the family members snap their own peas at the table or assemble their own veggie kabobs. It’s all part of the allure.