We’ve been spending some time in the dirt getting the soil ready to start a garden. And no surprise, children are drawn to dirt like nothing else! You mean you want me to dig holes? I’m allowed to get filthy and mucky? To direct that childish energy and wonder into a productive endeavor like a garden is not only smart on the part of the parent, it’s a lifelong gift to both of you.
This picture here is my little JoJo who spent several hours last week with her pint-sized rake and shovel. I was working on the main garden area, while she staked out a small spot of her own. The other children were doing likewise. I hesitated a moment when suddenly all the children wanted their own garden space in addition to the main garden. Was this okay? Would I be teaching them to be selfish and looking out only for themselves? I ended up deciding that the sense of community and family in the main garden would not at all be diminished by each child’s ownership in their own scratch of earth. In fact, it would probably deepen their respect for the family garden, knowing the responsibility and effort their own gardens require.
I found a wonderful book to guide me through some activities to do in the garden with children. It’s called Roots, Shoots, Buckets & Boots: gardening together with children, by Sharon Lovejoy. The book covers not only the basics of how to plan, plant, and care for your garden, but the top 20 plants for kids, theme garden ideas, and many little bits of garden wisdom. (I’m giving away a copy – leave me a comment on this post to enter.)
Here in Central Oregon, we’re still in the planning stages. We’re working with virgin land that’s never been planted and we have our own obstacles to maneuver. We have a lot of land to work with and can experiment with several ideas, but the ground itself has some limitations. Giant boulders being one. A very short growing season being another.
I would say that my first tip for gardening with children is to involve them in every decision. Where should we put the garden? Is this spot too shady or too sunny? This area is nice and level, but we’ll have to dig up some rocks, is that okay? What shape do we want the garden to be? What should we plant that will thrive in our region? Let’s test the soil and decide what supplements we may need. All of the issues that arise in the planning of the garden are incredible teaching tools, and there’s no better way for your kids to really understand the complexity – and joy – of it all than to walk through it with you step by step. And the sense of ownership will be there from the start – the greatest motivator I know. I never have to twist their arms to go work on the garden.
Let’s jump right in to the top 20 plants for children to grow. This list comes from Roots, Shoots, Buckets & Boots, based on the fact they are proven winners:
They have personality, fragrance, texture, and color — vibrant color. They grow quickly — something kids need in response to their work. And they’re versatile; they can be used as jewelry, toys, clothes, musical instruments, and household utensils.
14. Woolly Lamb’s Ear
16. Evening Primroses
19. Moon Plant
20. Lemon Verbena
Do keep in mind your climate – some of these will fare better than others depending on where you live. In Central Oregon, for example, root crops like potatoes and carrots grow well with our short growing season and cool nights; but for some vegetables like corn or tomatoes, a short-season variety is a must for your plant to mature.
Theme gardens can be a joy for children, and I’ll highlight just one of the themes from Roots, Shoots, Buckets & Boots: the pizza patch.
The Pizza Patch: gardening in the round is sure to delight children who are used to seeing a straight-row vegetable garden. This pizza patch garden is a giant sized six-foot-wide wheel shaped plot, divided into seven great wedges and edged with a thick rock crust. Ms. Lovejoy suggests the following ingredients for your pizza patch garden, but you can add other favorites as well:
3 seedlings plum tomatoes
6 seedlings cherry tomatoes
3 seedlings small eggplants
3 seedlings bell peppers
1 seedling zucchini
1 seedling rosemary
3 seedlings oregano
3 seedlings basil
3 seedlings onions
3 seedlings garlic
6 seedlings “Lemon Gem” marigolds
6 seedlings “Kablouna” Calendulas
Aged, bagged manure
To begin this project, select a flat 10×10 foot plot of ground that gets at least 6 hours of sun a day. Place a stake in the center of the area, and tie a 3-foot string to it. Your child can take hold of the very end of the string and walk in a circle, while another child walks behind with a hoe to mark what will be the outer boundary of the garden bed.
Divide the garden into slices: mark spots at 32 inch intervals along the outer edge. Draw a line with a stick from each of the seven marks to the center stake, to denote the seven slices. Then place rocks along those lines for a permanent boundary, and you can remove the center stake.
Place the five tall vegetables in each of the five slices on the northern side of the wheel – the plum tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, eggplants, bell peppers, and zucchini. In a slice on the south side, plant the herbs, onions, and garlic. Set aside one slice to be the pathway for the little feet tending the garden. The bright gold marigolds and Calendulas can be filled in around the vegetables and herbs, the “cheese” of the pizza.
To plant each slice, start from the center and work your way out. Plant tomatoes, eggplants, bell peppers, and zucchini 12-18 inches apart. In the small herb slice, space them 6 inches apart from the onions and garlic. The flowers are scattered throughout each slice, but allow 3 inches between them and other plants.
When harvest time comes, you can throw a big pizza party with toppings straight from the garden!
You can find more fabulous garden ideas and activities to do with children, such as a sunflower house, container gardens, and a moon garden, in Roots, Shoots, Buckets & Boots. Would you like to win a free copy? Leave me a comment and let me know you’d like this book! I’ll draw a random winner next week.