Children’s gardening has become huge all across the country. Many educators, parents, and public officials see gardening as a way to reconnect kids with nature, get them outside for some healthy exercise, and teach them about healthy eating habits.
You don’t have to sign your kids up in an official gardening program to get them involved in a little patch of heaven. You can find many ways to encourage and entice your children to be involved in the garden at home. Actually, if it’s not seen as a chore, kids love to garden. They often are amazed at the great taste of home-grown vegetables, fruits, and herbs; look in wonder at insects, butterflies, and birds; and develop a sense of belonging and responsibility for their prized plants.
So include your child, grandchild, or neighbor’s child in your gardening plans.
Garden at School
Thousands of schools in all 50 states now have some form of school gardening program. Many of these schools are in cities, where they have gotten creative about where to garden. Often these programs are combined with health education, exercise, and environmental studies classes. Educators have seen many benefits from involving school kids in a hands-on gardening program. Evidence shows that students who participate in school gardening programs score significantly higher on standardized science achievement tests. Teachers have also noted that kids involved in school gardening programs exhibit better cooperation with other students, demonstrate a higher level of responsibility toward others, and show fewer behavioral problems.
If your local school doesn’t have a school garden program, you can become involved in the PTO and form a group to encourage teachers to offer them.
Garden at a Community Garden
Many urban dwellers would love to garden but don’t have the room. Luckily, there are more than 18,000 community gardens in cities and towns across the United States and Canada.
Planting a community garden with your child is a great way to initiate them into the fun of gardening. Community gardening isn’t just about growing food and flowers on your small parcel of land. It’s also a way for you and your child to get to know neighbors and make new friends. It will help them, and you, feel more a part of your community. Involve your child in the plant selection, lay out, and planting of the garden. Depending on his age, let your child help decorate the garden, make plant labels, and add personal touches. It might look a bit messy and chaotic, but your child will be more invested in the garden if she knows she had a hand in its creation.
For old kids, a number of the community gardens now offer kids’ gardens as part of their plots. You can rent a small garden for your child and instead of working together with you, he will have his own plot to plant and care for.
Garden at a Local Botanic Garden
Botanical gardens are local treasures. They are beautifully landscaped with a variety of plant collections, often from around the world. They are education centers and places of peace in a busy urban environment. Many of the more than 1,700 botanic gardens around the world are located in or close to an urban setting.
While botanic gardens are great places to go and relax, get some exercise, and learn about plants, many offer educational programs for members and the general public. These programs often include kids’ gardening. Some gardens have plots available on the grounds for kids to use as part of a summer program to teach children about growing food and flowers. Check out the local botanic gardens in your area to see if they have a kids’ gardening program or summer camp.
Grow a Sunflower House
Kids love hiding places in the garden. One way to build a hiding place without having to resort to building a structure is to grow a sunflower house. Sunflowers grow tall and by creating a hiding place in the middle of planting, kids feel like they have their own room to play.
To create a sunflower house, grow a 6- to 10-foot-diameter ring of tall sunflowers in the garden (the diameter will depend on your garden’s size). Leave a space for an entrance. As these quick-growing annuals grow and eventually start to flower, tie the tops of the sunflowers heads together to create the roof of the house. Wait until the flower heads form before tying the heads together. The heads don’t need to be closely tied together, just enough to create the effect of a ceiling. Have your kids decorate the inside room any way they like with small chairs, tables, toys, signs, and anything else that will foster a sense of excitement for their house.
Select tall varieties of sunflowers to create the house. ‘Mammoth Russian’ is a particularly good variety because it grows 8 to 10 feet tall and produces 1- to 2-foot-diameter yellow flower heads, but any tall variety will do.
Plant the sunflowers on a raised bed, clearly marking where they are growing. This will help your kids know where the path is and where the sunflowers will be popping up. Sow seeds after all danger of frost has passed in your area.
When the sunflowers mature, teach kids how to harvest and roast the seeds, or let birds, like finches, enjoy the harvest.
Let Kids Decorate the Garden
In order to make a garden their own, kids will often want to help “decorate” it with toys, containers, and personal items. Unless you are in a community garden where these items may disappear, let your kids put their stamp on the garden. They will be more likely to visit and play in the garden if they have familiar objects in there. Once in the garden, it’s more likely your child will help with watering, weeding, and harvesting. The garden should be a fun place to learn and live.
You may have to censor some of the objects your child wants to play with outdoors. Stuffed pets, special blankets, or breakable games may not be good items for outside, especially if they are forgotten during a rainstorm. It might be devastating for a child if her favorite stuffed pet is ruined in the rain. Encourage children to use waterproof objects like plastic animals and plastic signs to decorate the garden.
Create a Child’s Window Box Garden
Windowsills are great places to grow small, kid-sized gardens. If you have a south, east, or west-facing window, consider building a window box to hang from the sill. Work with your children to pick out the best plants for their window box. Select medium-sized or cascading annual plants. They can pick out annual flowers by favorite colors, shapes, or their names. They may love growing flowers with names such as clown flower, money flower, and fan flower.
Work with your children to design, buy plants, and plant the window box. Encourage them to keep up with watering and fertilizing the plants. Let them give their flower names and suggest making up stories about their flowers. There are so many ways to engage your children in a fantasy world using a small window box garden.
Create a Windowsill Herb Garden
If you can’t attach a window box on your building’s exterior, consider an indoor windowsill garden. Have a specific windowsill dedicated to your child. Work with her to select herbs that will grow best in that window. In most areas, it would be ideal if the window is facing south to get the most light. However, even a west or east-facing window will be able to support some herbs.
Some of the best herbs to grow in pots on a windowsill include chives, parsley, oregano, thyme, and rosemary. Work with your child to pick out the seeds or plants and pots. Have your child paint the pots and give the plants names. Help him water and care for the herbs and come up with specific recipes to use them. Have an herb garden party using the herbs in a meal with family and friends.
Grow a Terrarium Garden
Winter doesn’t have to mean the end of the garden. There are other ways to grow plants with your kids indoors in winter. One of the easiest and most fun is to grow a terrarium garden. Here’s how.
1. Use a fishbowl or a glass jar of almost any size with a large mouth as the growing container. Wash it with soapy water and let it dry.
2. Create a 1-inch-deep layer of crushed stones, a 1-half-inch layer of horticultural charcoal (available at garden centers) on top of the stones, and a 2-inch-thick layer of potting soil as the top layer of your growing medium.
3. Select plants that will grow well in low light, humid environments such as begonia, fern, mini-orchid, moss, and African violet.
Select small-sized plants that will fit well in the container and have room to grow. Make small holes in the soil medium and gently place and tuck in the new plants.
4. Decorate the terrarium also with small rocks, sticks, and even your child’s plastic toys.
Keep the soil moist, but not too wet and grow your terrarium in a room with indirect light. Prune plants as needed so no one plant grows large and takes over.
Grow a Potato Barrel
If you have space for a garbage can in your yard, you can grow potatoes in a barrel. It’s fun, and kids will get a big kick out of the results.
Use a 5-gallon pot, an old garbage can, or a wooden barrel. Make sure it has adequate drainage holes in the bottom. Place 6 to 8 inches of potting soil on the bottom and two to three seed potatoes on top of the soil. Cover the spuds with more potting soil and water well. As the spuds grow, keep covering them with soil until you reach the top of the container. Keep the potatoes well watered all summer, and once the vines yellow and die, turn over the container with your kids and let them hunt for all the potatoes in the soil.
Grow Plants from Store Produce
Another fun way to get kids interested in gardening and growing food is to grow plants from vegetables and fruits you buy in the store. You may not be able to eat all the plants you create, but it fascinates kids that you can create new plants from produce in the grocery store. Here are some popular vegetables and fruits to grow:
Avocado. Let an avocado pit dry out for a day or two, then plant it, pointed end up, in a 6-inch-diameter plastic pot filled with moistened potting soil. Leave the tip of the pit exposed to air. A fun way to sprout avocadoes is to suspend a pit over a glass of water. Poke three toothpicks around the middle of a pit and rest the toothpicks on the rim of the glass. Add water until it just touches the bottom of the pit. Kids can watch the roots and sprout emerge. It can take a month or two for roots to appear. If you’re using the glass method, plant the pit in potting soil once a sprout emerges.
Carrots and beets. Slice off the head end along with 1 to 2 inches of root and place it in a saucer filled with pebbles for support and water. In a week or so new greens should appear from the top. Then snug the root into a container filled with potting soil for a carrot or beet houseplant.
Pineapple. The same technique used for carrots and beets can be used for pineapples. They take longer to regrow, but sure look cool.
Potatoes. Take an old, shriveled potato. Prop up the potato with toothpicks (like an avocado pit) with its bottom end in a water-filled glass or place a potato piece with one to two eyes in a container of moistened potting soil. Within a week a new sprout will emerge.