Growing Tomorrow’s Gardeners

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Welcoming Children In The Garden

I’ve been getting a lot of questions about involving children in the garden. While the youngest may work willingly side by side with a parent or older sibling, tweens and teens seem harder to engage. Well, yes. Those are some complicated years, with a lot going on in pretty much every way. It certainly seems easier to capture them young, but it’s never too late. When a local nature preserve began accepting high school kids into an intern program, nearly all of the participants were transformed by the experience of working directly with plants. Some, including several who had never willingly wielded a shovel before, have gone on to pursue careers in horticulture.

Most avid gardeners have a story about a parent, grandparent, or neighbor who made them welcome in the garden as a child or as a tween or teen. Lifelong gardeners also credit their love of growing, cooking, and eating their own food crops to the encouragement of that older generation. It’s well established that food-fussy children who are invited to help plant and pick edible crops are more likely to eat things they grow themselves.

Room For Exploratory Play

By the same token, children who are free to play and explore in a garden setting are likely to become lifelong gardeners themselves. Perhaps the best way to engage children in gardening is to begin not with chores but with pleasurable projects. Small children love to help and they delight in working closely with adults. To promote these simple pleasures, set aside an area where enthusiastic but unskilled garden activities won’t wreak havoc with your main crops. A low picket fence can delineate ‘kid space’ and keep the joyful activity safely contained.

If more than one child will be in the garden with you, find a spot for each child to make their own. Toddlers will love a space that combines a sandbox and digging tools with a bit of planting ground. My grandson’s sandbox, which can double as a fire pit with the addition of a large metal fire bowl, is full of dinosaurs and dump trucks, with kale and carrots on the side. A short hose (drinking-quality) with an easy-to-use spray nozzle provides endless pleasure in watering plants, filling buckets, and occasionally soaking an unsuspecting granny. In a tiny garden, give each child a huge tree pot filled with sand (for playing) or soil (for growing). Tiered strawberry and lettuce planters can fit on the smallest deck or terrace, and many edibles can be grown in vertical gardening structures and containers designed to hang over fence railings.

Each One Teach One

My own boys, when very young,  delighted in creating a ‘truck garden’ filled with both toy trucks and easily grown, delicious crops like strawberries and baby carrots. The oldest, then aged four, loved working alongside me, and after a lengthy bulb planting session, I was enchanted to overhear him patiently instructing his little brother, then going on two. They had a bucket of compost and a box of bulbs and were industriously digging little holes, working in some compost, and tucking in bulbs together. Peter watched as Andrew plunked in a bulb, then gently tweaked its position saying, “Remember, Andrew; pointy side up!”

Similarly, there were usually a few peer leaders in each of the groups of children who planted together at Owen’s Playground, but the planting process was entirely collaborative. As the sensory gardens came into being, we could hear happy chatter as kids decided together how to arrange each bed. One group decided to make a magic forest of tall amaranth, and another proudly showed me a bright ribbon of calendulas weaving around a spiraling path.

When Work Meets Play

Just last week, my grandson, who just turned three, joined me for an early morning planting session at Owen’s Playground. After some discussion, he decided to plant some of his favorite foods, notably strawberries and several kinds of kale. After we planted a few together, he eagerly dug the holes himself, easily done in the newly shaped beds. We tipped out each plant one by one, then I showed him how to gently loosen the roots before planting. After that, he worked merrily along, singing a little song that went,”Dig dig dig, wake up, roots, tickle tickle tickle! Soil soil soil, pat pat pat.”

After tucking a strawberry plant on the edge of a bed, he said, “Let’s plant some more strawberries over here, so they can be friends.” I was enchanted by his companionable feeling for these little plants, with the instinctive recognition of the colonizing nature of plants. I’ve noticed that many children begin planting with a preference for things they enjoy eating. Even older kids usually enjoy choosing and growing particularly tasty varieties of a few favorite foods, such as raspberries and sweet corn. They may also be delighted by compact fruit trees, perhaps grafted with several choice kinds of apples or pears, and low-pruned for easy picking. As their skills improve, young people may proudly serve their very own produce, fresh or canned or made into jam or pies, at family meals and holiday feasts.

Gimme Shelter

Youngsters of all ages will appreciate the shelter of a garden shed that offers shade and a place to sit and shell peas, play quietly, or even take a nap. Make sure that sharp tools and any fertilizers and sprays (even safe, organic ones) are kept on high shelves, out of reach of the curious. Have water available for rinsing off small hands and yummy edibles. Water play is always fun for small children, so keep a few unbreakable bowls or pans on hand for rinsing produce or sailing pea pod boats. A tall, sturdy fence around the garden as a whole keeps deer and other critters out of the garden and wandering toddlers safely in.

Impromptu structures such as a bean teepee can be a fun first project for children, since little fingers can easily grasp plump bean seeds. Use tall branches, bamboo poles, or even pvc pipe to create the frame. Make your teepee tall enough that small people can stand up inside, and wide enough to accommodate several children at a time. As the beans clamber up the supports, the teepee becomes a leafy green hideout where imaginative play is sparked. Keep the area immediately around the teepee clear of precious plants, so children don’t have to worry about harming important crops. Mulch the interior and surrounding paths with soft, forgiving materials such as straw, sawdust or wood shavings rather than wood chips, which tend to be splintery.

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