Having a garden with your children is an amazing experience. You learn, your children learn, and you work together as a team to grow things. After three years of gardening with my children from zero to seven I have found that there are things that can help make the experience less frustrating and more rewarding.
1. Manage Your Expectations
When an adult has a garden it will generally be easier to plan for. You will know more or less how much time you have to devote to your garden and you’ll be able to carefully plan out your garden space. When a child is involved suddenly there are going to be a lot more variables. There will be days that your child doesn’t want to go out into the backyard to play. There will be days where you are so busy with errands or with taking care of a sick child that you won’t have the time to devote to your garden. I want to have a very big garden, but at the same time I know that my life won’t always support a very big garden. So I have a few “main” plants that I lovingly tend to (sometimes by flashlight in the dark after the kids have gone to sleep), and a lot of “how much neglect can these plants take and still survive?” plants that I consider experimental.
2. Accept Destruction
With any child under 4 there will generally be some amount of destruction. I’ve had seedlings¬† helpfully “transplanted” from their seed starting cups to the sandbox. (minus the roots). I’ve had all my carefully started seeds dumped onto the floor in a gigantic pile of starting mix and random seeds. So I’ve dumped handfuls of seeds and soil back into the cups. I tease apart the entangled seedlings before transplanting them. I am growing 6 types of tomatoes and haven’t the foggiest clue which plant will give me which sort of tomatoes. My daughter has stuck my plant markers through my plants, and has done other random helpful things. It just is what it is. Some plants will make it, other plants will be sat upon. And some plants will surprisingly rebound with vigor after being pretty well mangled.
3. Remember that learning doesn’t look like adult efforts. Your child may be yanking a seedling out of the tray now, but as you talk to your child about being gentle with the plants and how to hold them and move them, your child IS learning. This year they might bury the entire seedling under a hill of dirt. Next year they’ll be able to do things a little bit closer to what you want.
4. Have multiples of your garden tools. I have many small shovels because I know that mine will be used. I also have an awesome set of children’s garden tools that were given to my daughter for her birthday. Often I end up using the brightly colored duller-edged implements because my kids want to use what mommy is using. I accept this and teach them how and we try and take turns. Toddlers like to hoard, though.
5. Give jobs. If you are telling your child to “STOP THAT” and “no no no don’t move that plant, don’t step there! AIE!” then you’re going to have a hard time. Have your child be a fetcher, a tote-carrier, a stomper of that dirt pile over there. A dandelion picker.¬† Give them something helpful to do that will let them be involved in a possibly less destructive way.
6. Remember safety. Be careful that your two year old doesn’t abscond with the pruning shears. Make sure you put your tools away when you’re done, and don’t leave pronged tools facing up. Stepping on a hoe makes it flip up with enough force to break your nose. That’s not something you want your child to discover.
7. Have your child “practice” with sacrificial plants. You don’t want them practicing watering a delicate seedling with the hose. Pick plants that they can water without loss so that you can get an idea for where they’re at. If they’re stepping on the plant, up-ending the watering can and dumping a pint of water onto the plant, etc. you might not want them watering your seedlings without more practice. I have my children tend to weeds first. I have some very well loved dandelion plants in my yard.
8. Recognize your child’s good intentions. When your child runs over to the seedlings that you just planted and pats them into the ground and cheers “yay I did it!” they don’t see themselves as being destructive. They’re copying something that you have just done. Cheer with them, then show them how to be more gentle, and how aggressive efforts break the stems. “Yay! You did it! Look? See? This stem is a bit broken. Let’s try again with gentle hands…”
9. Have a dirt box. Those raised bed gardens look like sandboxes and your child IS going to want to play in them. Give them a space to play. Have a bucket of cheap seeds (beans and peas are awesome for this. Or even bird food..) and a raised bed garden with inexpensive topsoil.¬† I keep a dollar store laundry basket of child safe tools and plastic animals next to our dirt pile. This weekend we’re building a frame for it that we’ll paint a bright red. This is where our kids can practice planting things, sit on their plants, transplant their plants, and learn without worry.
10. Talk about everything and show your child everything. Don’t worry about “being over their heads”. Talk to them about the different weeds, what the plants are, what they look like. Pinch off bits and let them smell. Tell them “This plant is not good to eat. Foo!” and “this plant is mint… Do you smell it?” Talk about the worms and how they eat things in the dirt and break down leaves. Talk about invasive species. Talk about the helpful bugs and the destructive bugs and the balance. Show them plants as they grow and what they can look for. Point out the shapes of leaves and that a plant is “herbaceous” and not “woody”. They absorb things.