Ever met a kid who didn’t like to get dirty? Who didn’t want to play with a hose or run through a sprinkler as a child? Honestly, it’s just a hop from making mud pies to gardening, and many school-age kids have the ability to start digging, planting, and tending both flowers and produce. Below, agriculture expert Suzanne Balet-Haight, mother of two and owner of Balet Flowers and Design in Malta, New York, reveals how to get started.
1. Create a right-size garden. Kids don’t require huge blocks of time or wide-open spaces to get involved in gardening. In fact, according to Suzanne Balet-Haight, whose upstate New York greenhouse and flower farm produces annuals, perennials, vegetable and herb plants, cut flowers, and more, there are lots of ways to introduce kids to planting and growing. Alternatives include community gardens, just-for-kids-only spaces within family gardens, and container gardens that can be both crop and flower friendly. “There’s so much you can grow in pots, planters, tubs, or barrels set on stoops, windowsills, even driveways. You just need soil, sun, and some seeds or starter plants,” Balet-Haight says. Schools, too, offer programs that combine gardening, physical activity, healthy eating, and reality-based learning.
2. Empower young growers. Children need to feel invested in an activity to keep their spirits high and continue plugging away at it—and gardening is no exception. That’s why Balet-Haight suggests letting kids decide what to plant in their little plot of land, community space, or container garden. Ownership, she says, is key to holding their interest. So it’s OK, she explains, if a kid decides he wants to grow vegetables, and it’s OK if he wants to grow flowers. It doesn’t take much to get newbie gardeners excited about their progress and eager to consume the fruits of their labor. Says the grower, “I often hear from kids, ‘Come look! The kale is six inches taller today than it was yesterday!’” Kids like to brag—and this is a great time to let them go at it. Often, Balet-Haight tells kids, “Wow, you grew that whole big head of lettuce from a tiny seed?!” Harvesting brings out such pride. It’s just natural to feel good about eating what you grew yourself.”
3. Think inside the (tool) box. It’s often a good idea to buy or borrow a few age-appropriate, kid-safe tools to motivate your child if the tools you select drive your kid to do even more digging, weeding, pruning, planting, and watering. Keep in mind that your little gardener-in-training may not be able to rake the whole yard or weed for hours. However, she will feel good if you praise what she does accomplish, and you let her spend as much time as she likes on tasks she enjoys.
4. Prioritize safety. You must be vigilant to keep your child safe while digging and planting, but a few basic rules may help reduce mishaps and injuries—as long as you state the guidelines clearly and repeat them often. Several websites, including KidsGardening.org and KidsGrowingStrong.org, offer tips on topics including tool storage and safety; protective clothing; supervision of young children; handwashing (before and after gardening); soil safety and dangers; treatment for stings, bites, and cuts; and info on composting and organic gardening. Read the posts together and encourage your child to share the tips with others in your family.
5. Fast-track the edibles you plant. Gardening rarely results in instant gratification, which can be a bit of a problem for children. But you can speed up the process (and lower the bar) by planting easy-to-grow herbs and veggies that tend to grow quickly. If you’re willing to start with seeds, Balet-Haight says, try beans, which sprout all season. Parsley, basil, and thyme also are easy to grow. Ditto cherry tomatoes. “You can get a 56-day plant, and kids will see results,” she says. “Sweet banana peppers are easy to grow too. They may not be huge, but kids tend to like them, and they are so reliable. It’s important for kids to see and feel success from their gardening efforts.”