How to Get Kids into Gardening
Getting children involved in gardening is easy, and the bonus is that they’re more likely to want to eat their fruits and vegetables come harvest time!
There is food all around us. Whether you live in the city or the country, in a house or an apartment, you have access to way more fresh healthy food than you think. I divide this into two categories: A) food you grow with foresight, and B) food that grows voluntarily or on public land. For category A you might be picturing tomatoes, lettuce, or herbs. For category B you may not have a clue, or maybe you think of raspberries or Saskatoon berries. This is a good start but there are so many more possibilities and an amazing opportunity to teach kids about the value of fresh, local food.
Keeping it in your own back yard
Have you noticed the word locavore being thrown around in the last few years? It refers to people who prefer to purchase food that was grown close to home. They do this for a number of reasons including greater nutritional value and taste, reduced environmental footprint, support for the local economy, and the sense of community that comes with a direct connection to the producer. You can cultivate your inner locavore by shopping at farmer’s markets, making farm gate purchases, becoming a member of a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) venture, or growing your own food.
How much more local can it get than from your own backyard or community garden? How much fresher than when it was picked minutes ago? The nutritional value of food diminishes rapidly once it is picked, as does the flavour. With most of the food in grocery stores being shipped 2400 km and sitting for weeks from picking time to eating time there are enormous benefits to growing it yourself or foraging from the wilds around your home. Let’s talk first about growing your own, then we’ll delve into wild crafting.
Your personal grocery store
Growing food with your children is lots of fun. At 34, I still get all giddy with excitement every time a seed I planted pushes up through the soil. It is magical, and even though the seed did all the hard work I still get an enormous sense of accomplishment like I helped somehow. Having a role in creating life teaches children care and respect for the natural world. Gardening is an easy activity in which to involve children of all ages. And the bonus of letting them pick which fruits and vegetables to grow is that they are often more likely to want to eat them come harvest time. My friend Monica had her daughter Alexa out in the garden with her before she was a year old. She was helping pick asparagus, beans, raspberries and blueberries. That fall she helped remove the dead plants. In her second year she helped with the planting. This year for Christmas, she got a ‘green’ doll house and insisted that all the carrots had to be planted before she could go to bed. They taught her about composting with the book The Little Composter and she now knows where the compost goes in the garden.
Kids are natural gardeners!
Get pint sized tools for your kids. They love to help out. Mini watering cans. Mini shovels and trowels. Give them tasks such as counting how many tomatoes are red, harvesting 6 beans or 10 strawberries, planting seeds and watering them, and as they get a little older, weeding. There will be some trial and error with this and they may pull up a carrot instead of a dandelion but with guidance they will eventually get it right and you can use it as a teachable moment, letting them know that dandelions are edible too (more on that in the ‘expert’ section).
...and natural foragers!
This leads us to our next topic—foraging for wild foods. Children can readily learn to identify plants and it is important to teach them what is NOT edible as well. A friend who had an entirely edible garden was shocked when his daughter just started eating random things in a friend’s backyard. As far as she knew, all plants were edible and safe because that was all she had known munching her way through her own yard. They had to explain that you always have to check with an adult before eating something unfamiliar.
Many native plants are edible and many ‘invasive’ species were actually brought over by settlers as food stock when they first came to the Americas. For some reason they have fallen out of favour and we are suspicious of anything that isn’t pre-packaged from a grocery store. Berries are the obvious and most delicious place to start with your kids. Here it is very important to stress that you ONLY eat berries you are positive are safe. If you don’t know, don’t touch it. There are poisonous ones out there. In an urban area you should be able to find raspberries, blackberries, Saskatoon or serviceberries, and depending on your whereabouts, mulberries, blueberries, and high bush cranberry. Look along riverside trails, the scruffy edges of parks, and even in the landscaped frontages of businesses. I pick an abundance of Saskatoon berries on the grounds of the sports stadium in my city.
Eats and leaves
Leafy greens are also not hard to find. There are many spring delicacies that can be found in settled areas. Some of these get bitter as the season warms so get out early and chase away that cabin fever with some vigourous foraging. Examples include dandelions, purslane, and garlic mustard. Get a good guide book for your local area and start slowly by learning 1 or 2 new plants a year with your kids. You don’t have to be an expert. You can do plant ID together with your field guide and the internet. Soon your kids may be teaching you! One word of caution is to consider what may have been sprayed on the plants. Avoid manicured areas that are highly maintained and former industrial lands where there may be contaminants.
Starting a kid-friendly garden
- Make the germination process visible for children by starting your seeds in damp paper towels
- Show kids pictures of the fully grown plant so they can look forward to seeing it (or even better, with something like a tomato, cut one open and show them the seeds)
- Let kids create labels to identify the seeds and the plants once they have been moved to the garden or windowsill
- Set up germination experiments with older kids. Germinate some in paper towels and seed others directly into soil. Keep the plants in the same area of the house or garden and compare how well they do
Easy crops to start with
Lettuce, swiss chard, beans, cherry tomatoes, radishes, and sunflowers are all easy and satisfying to grow. Sunflowers allow the opportunity to harvest the seeds later and replant next year.
Rhubarb is a favorite and a good teaching tool for a discussion around ‘edibility.’ The nice red stalks are delicious and nutritious, but the leaves are toxic! Make it clear to children that even if a plant is ‘edible,’ not all parts of it necessarily are
Herbs are wonderful for growing to use as both additions to cooking, for teas, and for healing applications. Make sure you're planting herbs that are safe for children first.
- Mint is great for munching on while working in the garden or for crushing into drinks. It can take over a space so you may want to plant it in a pot to keep it contained!
- Calendula has both edible leaves and flowers.
If you start your seeds indoors ensure you ‘harden off’ your plants before moving them to the garden for the summer. Carry the pots in and out each day, exposing them to full sun and wind a little more each day. After about a week you should be able to transplant them into their new home.
Pick one or two new species to grow each year. Once you’ve mastered the easy ones, start branching out!
Getting deeper into gardening
Once your kids develop a familiarity and comfort with basic gardening, you can teach them some of the more esoteric aspects of how earth works.
The soil food web
- Every time you till or disturb the soil you spark a massive die off that takes the soil years to recover from.
- The soil food web means you can let the billions of critters down there do the work of tilling and fertilizing for you. Feed the soil, and it will feed your plants.
Learning to love and control weeds
- Don't be so particular about weeds—they can actually perform a service! They are filling a void space (e.g. wood sorrel), they are healing compacted soil (e.g. dandelions), and/or they are making vital trace nutrients available to other plants in poor soil (comfrey is a dynamic accumulator for K, P, Ca, Cu, Fe, and Mg).
- Weeds are excellent opportunists when there is open ground so either plant densely so there is no room for them or mulch heavily between your plants so they cannot establish themselves.
- Many weeds are edible—if you can’t beat ‘em, eat ‘em! A brief list includes burdock, dandelion, sorrel, Queen Anne’s Lace, garlic mustard, nettle, and goutweed. An edible wild plant guidebook will tell you how to prepare them.
The Little Composter by Jan Geradi
Roots, Shoots, Buckets & Boots. Gardening Together with Children by Sharon Lovejoy
Gaia's Garden. A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture by Toby Hemenway
Edible Wild Plants. Peterson Field Guides, by Lee Allen Peterson.
Teaming with Microbes by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis