by Linda McGurk – When Noreen Greimann of West Chester, Pennsylvania, was a child she loved digging holes in the dirt and watching plants grow in the gardens that her mother and grandparents carefully tended to. In adulthood, Greimann’s passion for growing her own crops only grew stronger, so when she had children of her own she couldn’t wait to share her love of gardening with them.
Little did she know that the organized gardener in her was in for a big shock. “Before my children were born, I meticulously planned my garden. Every seed and plant was carefully placed in its spot,” Greimann recalls. “All that changed when my children became interested in gardening. My initial enthusiasm waned as they had their very own vision for where the seeds should go. Why would you ever want to plant seeds in a straight line?”
Gardening With Kids is Good For the Soul
As Greimann quickly learned, gardening with kids can definitely throw you some curveballs in the beginning. But if you can only get past children’s natural propensity for chaos, the rewards of this hobby are plentiful, for adults and children alike. Research suggests that when we ingest certain bacteria in the soil, specifically Mycobacterium vaccae, the brain releases serotonin, which in turn can reduce anxiety and increase feelings of happiness. As many seasoned gardeners will testify, this makes gardening a therapeutic and even mood enhancing experience.
For children, the garden is also a perfect place to get physical activity, gain healthy eating habits and learn about the world. One study even showed that children who participated in a garden project scored higher in science achievement than children who didn’t. “Gardening with kids benefits them (and adults) in innumerable ways that you don’t see on the surface – fine motor skills, color recognition, science, math and anything else you can think of,” says Christina Kemp, an Oklahoma mom and home childcare provider who chronicles her gardening adventures with children on her blog Little Sprouts Learning. “The garden is the best teacher I’ve found in my lifetime of working with kids.”
Beginner Tools for Gardening With Kids
This all sounds great. But what if you’ve never gardened before, let alone alongside children? What if you don’t have a big backyard? Or worse, struggle to keep the cactus in your office alive? The consensus among gardening gurus is to try it anyway. (Find the top five reasons why here.) “Be excited yourself and make it a learning adventure for everyone,” suggests Greimann, who often uses storytelling as a way to introduce children to gardening. “If you go in doubting yourself and wondering if you have what it takes to grow vegetables, your children are going to pick up on that.”
Experts suggest beginning gardeners keep the garden small and simple, to avoid getting overwhelmed. If space is an issue, consider planting some vegetables in existing flower beds or even in pots on a balcony or deck. Soil, seeds, trowels, a watering can or hose, and some compost is all it takes to get started. Also, skip the colorful gardening tools especially marketed toward children, since they break easily, and let them use the real deal from the hardware store instead.
Kemp, who says she had a black thumb until she learned how to garden seven years ago, recommends paying extra close attention to the soil. “Your soil is the most important thing in the garden, so spend your time and money on that. It will make or break your results,” she says. Add to that plenty of patience when gardening with kids. “They will make mistakes – we do too – so don’t expect perfection. They’re learning,” says Kemp, whose daycare children, aged 1-4, help plant everything in her garden.
Gardening With Kids Should Be Organic
Kemp says she uses her own awe and wonder to get the children in her care excited about the garden, and the enthusiasm is contagious. “I don’t force the kids to work the garden; we have toys available for when they want to do something else,” she says. “They aren’t all sitting in a row planting and harvesting everything at the same time together. They come in and out of the activity just like any other thing we do.”
Another way to encourage children to take ownership of the garden is to include them in the planning process, and incorporate their ideas, according to the American Community Gardening Association’s gardening with kids resource page. Older kids can even be involved in a site analysis, to help them understand the importance of light, soil, drainage and other important environmental factors that will affect the crop.
The ACGA also suggests focusing more on the function of the garden than the aesthetics: “Gardens that serve as hands-on learning laboratories for kids will be beautiful because they are well-used and well-loved spaces. Also remember that the children’s sense of what is pretty may not be yours; that’s ok because the garden is their space.”
Gardening With Kids Teaches Parents, Too
Greimann, who initially struggled with her children’s rampages in the garden, says that they eventually found some middle ground. She realized that seeds still sprout even if they’re not in a perfectly straight line, and that bush beans actually can be harvested by pulling out the entire plant instead of picking off the beans. But her best tip for peace of mind while gardening with kids is to give them their own separate space to experiment with. “That way the children can dig and grow to their heart’s desire, while also learning about growing vegetables from seed to harvest in the family garden,” she says.
Now she enjoys gardening again, even if every plant doesn’t always make it. Learning to deal with failed crops is part of the learning process for gardeners of all ages and skill levels. “Yes, plants are going to die. But the magic of gardening with kids far outweighs the sadness of a dying plant if you’re prepared to see it. Just watch the wonder in your child’s eyes as they plant their first seeds or pick fresh peas for a snack. The rest will fall into place.”
Linda McGurk is a Swedish-born journalist and author, who writes the blog Rain or Shine Mamma to inspire outdoor play and adventure every day, regardless of the weather. She is the author of There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather. Follow her on Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, and Twitter.