In the Garden with Children

Little L with his sunflower

{Parts of this post were previously published here at Diary of 1 on April 6, 2008.}

Planning, planting, nurturing, enjoying the beauty and the bounty~there are so many facets to a child’s gardening experience that makes planting a garden one of the most treasured gifts you can give your child.

You should have no trouble in getting a child to garden with you. 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 wise on the part of the parent, it’s a lifelong blessing to both of you.

Jo diggingJoJo spent several hours some time ago with her pint-sized rake and shovel. I was working on the main garden area while she staked out a spot of her own. The other children were doing likewise. I hesitated a moment when suddenly all the kids wanted their own garden space in addition to the main garden. Was this okay? Would I be teaching them to be selfish and look 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 required.

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 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.

JoJo watering

Here are 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.

the kids harvesting potatoes

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.

Don’t forget to teach your children about the use and care of gardening equipment, about watering requirements for various plants, and about safe weed/pest control. You can also measure plants, make growth predictions, learn about pollination, visit with a master gardener…the opportunities in a garden are endless. Mostly, just have fun!

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7 Responses to In the Garden with Children

  1. Becky says:

    Love this post!!!
    My son has grown out of the garden thing. But I hope someday when he’s older and out on his own, he will grow a garden of his own. And remember all that I have taught him through the years about gardening.

  2. Jen says:

    Thank you, Becky! Aww, he grew out of gardening? Yes, I’m sure he’ll return to it at some point~~it’s part of that “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”

  3. tipper says:

    A great post-loved the pics-good info even for kids as old as mine : )

  4. Jen says:

    Tipper, you’re an expert gardener and I doubt you learned anything new here, but thank you! I’ve been thinking about your planting by the signs calendar and hope to try that sometime.

  5. Yay! I love this post – especially the pizza garden. What a fun idea. Thanks for writing this. Today is typical spring – sun, rain, snow, hail, wind……and then we do it all again. But I’m getting excited to start doing some garden prep. woo woo!!

  6. Jen says:

    Debi, There’s a sunflower house she has directions for that is super cool also. It creates a little fort for the kids, mostly made with sunflowers planted in the right place.

    Yeah, today has been cRazY weather, it just started hailing again over here.

  7. Pingback: The Carnival of Homeschooling – The Green Edition

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