Gardening With Children

JoJo gardeningWe’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.)

digging up rocksHere 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.

1. Pumpkins
2. Sunflowers
3. Gourds
4. Corn
5. Berries
6. Hollyhocks
7. Carrots
8. Mimosa
9. Poppies
10. Tomatoes
11. Trees
12. Alliums
13. Potatoes
14. Woolly Lamb’s Ear
15. Four-O’Clocks
16. Evening Primroses
17. Radishes
18. Nasturtium
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

pizza patch gardenTo 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!

Roots, Shoots, Buckets & BootsYou 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.

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37 Responses to Gardening With Children

  1. Jane says:

    Jo-Jo looks very focused. I love gardening. We are in the process of moving ours- we basically live on sand, so we are changing over to garden boxes. As soon as my man gets home, one of his projects will be to make more. We save most of our planting till May in these parts, just to be sure the morning frosts are gone. The kids like to help, but we could use some fresh ideas. I don’t know if you are mailing to Canada, but regardless of your contest, I will be looking around for this book. Sounds great!

  2. Linnet says:

    Cute photo. And I love the pizza patch idea, how cool.

  3. jeff-nhn says:

    What a cool idea,the pizza patch. Maybe for some of us adults that haven’t grown up yet? I love the idea and while I do not have any kids I think I will plant a pizza patch myself!

  4. She looks like she is very intent–my kids seldom last that long.

    We went to the library yesterday and Rachel and Issac got out a pile of gardening books. We didn’t see that one. They are having fun with their little raised gardens –we will see how they turn out. If it works well we will likely add a bigger family garden to the mix. (Our soil is completely fill and PA clay. Nothing grows except crab grass. Raised gardens are a big thing around here.)

  5. SmallWorld says:

    Fantastic post! I am so ready to get my hands in the dirt!

  6. Sher :) says:

    What an inspiring post. I love the idea of including the kids. There’s just something about watching that little plant grow into something we can eat. Awesome.

  7. SmallWorld says:

    Hi Jennifer:
    I commented back on my blog, but if you’re like me, you forget where you commented and never check back again!
    So here is my response to you about American Heritage Girls:

    To see if there is a troop in your area, go here:

    To read more about starting a troop, go here:

    About AHG vs. GSUSA: There are lots of good articles here, some of them include comparisons of AHG and GSUSA. Hey, you can even read my article that was in The Old Schoolhouse Magazine! (That’s the one titled “Homeschooling and AHG.”)

    You can read about our journey from GSUSA to AHG here:

    I’d love to help you get started!

  8. mandi says:

    Hey Jen,
    Great post! And thanks for the giveaway – I hope I win! ( : I have looked at this book and wondered if it was good – the title alone makes me want to own a copy! Fun! So glad to hear your review of it. ( :
    I think giving your children little plots of their own is a great idea too – they can learn the principle of reaping and sowing through their own individual enterprise. We have been discussing communism vs. individual enterprise in our history class lately. A garden is a great way to illustrate Biblical truths in so many ways! ( :
    I love having a garden – the best is harvesting the potatoes. I don’t know why it is so much fun – its like digging up buried treasure.
    May your family garden flourish and provide you with an abundant crop!


  9. SmallWorld says:

    Always happy to spread the word about AHG! We also loved our local Daisy/Brownie troop many years ago, but when we realized most of our money was going to the national GSUSA, we just couldn’t continue! I’ll be praying for you!

  10. Jen says:

    Jane, that girl can focus, you’re right! The others did get distracted after a bit and began building a tree fort instead, but that’s okay! I should have noted that yes, I will ship this to Canada! Your garden boxes sound wonderful. We can’t plant until May here either, and even into June for some things. That frost. grrrr :-)

    Linnet and Jeff, I agree, the pizza patch garden was my favorite from the book. The sunflower house is also one of my favorites – sort of a little fairyland for kids – and adults!

    Heather, sounds like you and Jane both have soil issues! We do too, to a degree. The volcanic content of my soil is what saves us, but I’ll still be needing to feed it quite a bit. I didn’t know Pennsylvania soil was so difficult! Your kids look like they’re having so much fun with their gardens.

    SmallWorld, what do you folks plant? When do you start? And thanks a ton for answering my American Heritage Girls questions!!

    Sher, I agree, it’s AMAZING that I plant a seed and can get a meal (many meals) out of it. Wow. If we didn’t know it to be true by experience, we may never believe it.

    Mandi, yes, there’s not much better than a garden for teaching some important truths! And your comments about communism vs. individual enterprise are right on target. I love how you described harvesting potatoes as digging up treasures! You are an Idaho girl for sure! Okay, now you’re in Washington, but still. :-)

  11. Jen says:

    Mandi, I forgot to mention something about the book. I’m recommending it (obviously!), but, as with most gardening books, especially it seems those geared toward children, it has a little too much “mother earth” stuff for me. We are immersed in a culture that currently has a new “green religion,” and it’s really hard to find great nature books that don’t cross that line. So, there’s my caveat. BUT compared to most other books in this genre, it was still filled with wonderful ideas and projects (and not completely pagan) so I bought it and I think you’d enjoy it.

  12. LianaO says:

    What a great book. I have an untended plot of yard space perfect for a garden, a sandbox frame from a neighbor, and a 6-year old daughter. All the fixings I need, apparently. Now I just need a place to start seedlings, and this book. Ha ha.

  13. Marilyn G in Virgina says:

    How Fab that ur Kiddies are gardening. We have finally purchased a Home here and My 3 Girls are sooo dang excited that they can each a garden/digging spot of thier own!

  14. TopVeg says:

    Thanks for the introduction to Roots, Shoots, Buckets & Boots – sounds ideal. Gardening with children is so important – & the pizza patch sounds a great way to get them hooked!

  15. mrs darling says:

    Your dirt looks so hard. Ours is all clay. Are you going to have to add a bunch of stuff to the soil?

  16. Jen says:

    Liana, I like how put it – you have all the fixings you need!

    Marilyn, congrats on your new home; now you get to make it your own by digging to your heart’s content. :-)

    TopVeg, hey, I visited your site and appreciated your potato patch information – there is a crop that’s successful where I live.

    Mrs. Darling, oh, do you have to remind me that my dirt is hard?! Yes, I’ll have to work with it. Luckily, my neighbor has a lot of cows that do a lot of business. :-)

  17. What fun! My 5yo and I just planted some beans and she’s all excited to see them growing. Thanks for sharing the list and link. She would have so much fun planting a Pizza garden.

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  19. My dear,

    You seem to be doing a wonderful job with JoJo. I loved that photo and I loved it that you like my book Roots Shoots Buckets & Boots. Check out my new blog at, I am writing from Sunflower House and A Little Green Island. Now working on the Green Granny Gospels due out in ’09. Lots of projects in nature, gardening, art, cooking, and traditions. I hope you will enjoy it as I enjoy your blog. Keep up the great work!
    Blessings, Sharon Lovejoy

  20. Bebemiqui says:

    Great giveaway! Count me in. bebemiqui82(at)yahoo(dot)com

  21. Tara R says:

    Oh I’d love to win this! I have 3 kiddos and I could use some tips!

  22. Cindi says:

    Hello, I must live under a rock! Books like this, I never find. It is wonderful and such fun ideas. My dad is 89 and has been gardening since he was a young boy. He still plants a vegetable garden with me, my sons, and my older sister! The boys help in every stage of the garden. They love to pick the snow peas and eat them right off the vine! It is a very enriching time when they work and laugh with their grandpa. Please enter me in your book drawing. It is never too late for great new ideas. Many thanks, Cindi

  23. Leah says:

    My children (3 sons and a baby on the way) would love to win this book! They love working with us in our veggie, herb, and flower gardens. :) They’d love having a book full of ideas to use in their own little gardens, too! Please enter us for the drawing! :)

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  25. Renae says:

    Thanks for the opportunity to win this book. It looks like it has great ideas.

    Our little garden is doing fairly well, considering the animals continue to walk through it. We need to replant some seeds, but my daughter is thrilled with her strawberry plants.

  26. Tipper says:

    Last year life hit a rough patch for my family and I didn’t have the heart to fool with a garden. My daughter, Chitter, decided she would handle it. And she did! She didn’t plant much, but the things she did plant she took care of. On a funny note-her green peppers did well, however, it seemed every time one would get ready to be picked-Granny called and asked if Chitter had any peppers cause she needed one for super. Chitter was torn between hording her prize peppers or sharing with Granny. Granny won.

  27. Jen says:

    AreWeThereYetMom, beans are so fun for kids! We still haven’t put seeds in the ground because that’s just the planting timetable for Central Oregon. It’s okay, I need the extra time to get the soil ready!

    Sharon, I’m very honored to have you stop by here! I’m having great fun with your book and look forward to the next one. We’re planting the garden and also will make the sunflower house – I’m personally most excited about that project! Your artwork is beautiful, too – really completes the book.

    Bebemiqui and Tara, thanks for stopping by, and best wishes for your gardens.

    Cindi, wow, what an amazing father – still gardening at nearly 90! Wonderful traditions to pass down, and your own children will have special memories of gardening with Grandpa.

    Leah, first, congrats on the new baby coming! It sounds like you all are doing a fabulous job with your gardens!!

    Renae, we aren’t quite sure how we’ll handle the animals. There is so much wildlife out there, and the deer and jackrabbits are voracious eaters, and quite skilled at getting to stuff they want. I have visions of me breaking down in tears when the deer munch up my sunflower house and the rabbits chew up my carrots. Maybe deer don’t like sunflowers?

    Tipper, I’m so sorry you had a rough spell. Hope you are stronger for it. Chitter’s story makes me smile. :-) Good for her for having a generous heart in the end.

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  29. Jen:

    This jogged a memory in my long forgotten inventory. In approx 1973 when my middle son was approximately 2+ we planted a huge garden on our 5 acres on Oakhill Rd. I will never forget we were pretty inexperienced and planted 48 tomatoe plants, corn, zucchini etc. We anxiously watched our plants and soon had little green tomatoes popping out everywhere. The purpose of this comment is to let you know deer evidently love tomatoe plants. We woke up one morning to 48 chewed off plants. It may have been a blessing because I have no clue what I would have done with that many tomatoes.

  30. Jen says:

    Tana, Uh-oh! I know we’re going to have a major deer problem!! How sad, but I wouldn’t know what to do with that many tomatoes either.

    We plan on building some kind of deer fence around the garden. We don’t know what to do about the jackrabbits – they dig and climb, I’m just thinking of the poor old farmer in the Peter Rabbit stories. We’ll see if this whole thing works. It might just take a couple of years before we get it right!

    Hope everyone’s doing well. Love you, Jen

  31. Amanda says:

    Hi Jen! I loved your post and linked to it from my site. I don’t have trackbacks so I wanted to leave you a comment to let you know! Oh, and I’ve loved this book from the library, so I’d love to enter your giveaway :)

  32. Naomi says:

    This book looks fantastic and we are just planting our garden, so it would be nice to have!

  33. Erin H. says:

    I’d love to read this book and put some of the ideas into action. For various reasons, next year will work better for us to begin gardening, but that’s all right—we’ll have a whole year to prepare! Thanks so much for your giveaway.

  34. Olivia says:

    I am so inspired by your article. I am presenting “Gardening with Children” at our next school parent group meeting. I will share some of your thoughts…thank you!

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  37. jamesp says:

    Absolutely brilliant idea, kids waste lodes of energy running around doing nothing useful, but taking care of a garden is very useful and extremely rewarding.

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