I began gardening with my father when I was very little. I don’t really remember much about it actually, as if it was so commonplace as to not be special. But special it was because my love of the garden as well as the woods both came from my father and directly led to my passions for seeds. He, in turn, was raised on an early organic farm in California in the 30′s and 40′s and told me stories all about it as I was growing up. I feel connected to that farm but when I drove past it two years ago, it was all houses – like a lot of houses! But his childhood gardening and farming led him to do the same with me. When I first had kids, I couldn’t wait to do the same.
My girls, Ruby and Cora, are 11 and 9 now and have gardened every year of their lives. Maybe they’ve done it so much and for so long that they don’t think it is special. Maybe they even don’t like it sometimes. But I’ve learned a few things along the way that I thought I would pass on to other parents about gardening with kids. Please comment with your ideas and experiences too – I’d love to hear them.
So, when they are under three, freedom is the name if the game. When our girls were really little, we gave them total freedom; freedom to spill seeds (good thing I had a plentiful source), freedom to kill seedlings by loving them too hard, and certainly freedom to eat dirt. I think that we don’t eat enough real dirt in this country anymore, but that is another topic entirely. Little kids pretty much just mess things up in the garden and you just have to let them or else they won’t like it and you’ll never have the chance to teach them some helpful skills.
By the time our girls hit about three years old, they knew how to plant seeds (we would usually make the rows) and how to handle seedlings pretty safely. While planting seeds is super cool, something about setting a little plant in the ground and tucking it in always seemed a bit more satisfying for Ruby and Cora. And harvesting their favorite veggies took on a new level of joy once they became more mobile.
When the girls got to be about 4 and 6 or so, they were regularly getting sent on missions to the garden by Heather and I. Carrying a basket and scissors with a little list in their heads was really fun for them. Many times when we had friends or extended family over for dinner, our girls were very proud to show them “their” garden and would very capably snap off kale and chard leaves or pull some carrots. Imagine being a grown-up and having a five year old identify veggies that you don’t know? That’s a special kind of pride that always made me smile. It also made me question how far we can get in life sometimes without knowing such basic things as how to harvest. When a plant is ready, which leaves do you pick, how do you get them out of the ground without breaking the tops off? My girls seemed like little geniuses in a country of food system illiterates. I could tell that they were proud of themselves and what they knew. And it was a good motivator for them too.
From 6 years old and up, our girls started having their own gardens. They sometimes didn’t want us “messing up” their space. And they didn’t want to bother planting veggies they didn’t like. Potatoes, carrots, edamame, snap peas and cabbage seemed to be the favorites. They even started saving their own seeds and totally “got it” when we talked about saving from the sweetest or strongest plants.
Now that they are 11 and 9 I am a bit unsure about what this gardening season will be like. They love coming to the High Mowing trials fields and certainly have their favorites that they want to plant at home too. Ruby began taking photos of everything last year as a way of making it more interesting to her. And Cora loves to cook and harvest anything.
I expect that it will change even more in the coming years, but the most important thing in my mind is that they don’t think of it as a chore. I try to have fun whenever I am working in the garden so that is what they will remember when they think back as much as the specific tasks that they did. Oh, and one last thing: bugs. Kids of all ages love bugs and a garden is an awesome place to attract them. So, let a few broccoli plants bolt this year and see who it brings into your garden.