Eat More Dirt: Raising Kids in the Garden

Gardening with KidsI 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.


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20 Responses to Eat More Dirt: Raising Kids in the Garden

  1. says:

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  2. Interesting topic for a blog. I have been searching the Internet for fun and came upon your website. Fabulous post. Thanks a ton for sharing your knowledge! It is great to see that some people still put in an effort into managing their websites. I’ll be sure to check back again real soon.

  3. Pingback: Growing Wonder: Spending Time with Kids in the Garden | High Mowing Organic Seeds' Blog – The Seed Hopper

  4. Holly says:

    Growing up all I did was weed the flower gardens…every Saturday. I always dreamed of having a cellar full of canned goods but I associated gardening with hours upon hours of weed pulling. Thankfully I married someone who absolutely loves gardening. His passion for growing vegetables and fruit is so contagious that Paul, our 5 year old son, is following in his footsteps. Paul picks out his own fruit trees and vegetable varieties. He is an active helper planting the seeds, digging holes, and even pulling weeds. (We don’t force the help upon him, he is eager to assist.) Letting him eat whatever he wants, whenever he wants from the garden is something Jon and I encourage him to do all summer. When he is hungry, he helps himself to the cherry tomatoes, beans, peas, and even broccoli! I want to add that our son is not a picky eater and we never have to ask him to eat his vegetables.

  5. Margit Van Schaick says:

    Love how you stress freedom to be a child and having fun as essentials in teaching our children the joys of gardening. My girls and I would garden together and also cook together, so there was a seamless connection between garden and dinner. We had a big salad every day, trying to see how many different veggies we would use–often, there would be nine or ten! One lucky thing possibly connected, is that they never went through a “picky eater” phase. You bring back wonderful memories. I’m now looking forward to gardening with my grandson who’ll be two years old June 27.

  6. Christi Kotus says:

    What a wonderful article. I love it. For as long as I remember there was a garden in my life. I remember gathering produce to make meals with my grandma, weeding and canning with my mom, and now my kids. I had to laugh when you said that they might not like it, as I hear “I don’t wanna pick the tomatoes!” from my oldest. While you pretty much wrote our story, there is a slight variance, as we are living with autism here. We do the farmers market, we have a CSA, we are 4Hers. There are chickens, bunnies, horses….. We are a working farm. While I am proud of the skills I can give my children, I am more proud of giving them a future. We will always need food.

  7. Rebecca says:

    We are building up our organic farm and our daughter has been in the field since she was 6 months old. She rode in a sling, in a backpack, and now at 4 is truly a naturalist, and terrific eater. She would nap under a red twig dogwood and wake up to watch the swaying branches and hear the birds. I always saved weeding near the hedgerow for nap time. She would crawl to me upon awakening, showing up with a soil goatee, and to this day she is never sick. She would nurse in the field too. She ate organic soil from the beginning, and still eats it on carrots she competently pulls. In the beginning I was shy about telling folks these family field moments, but now I am proud that she’s so healthy and enthused about all the plants and creatures. She is a radiant country girl and we’re so happy to raise her in this environment. Kids and farms go together!

  8. Den says:

    Thank you for posting this! I grow up with gardening in my blood. Each part is amazing. Keep posting.

  9. says:

    I loved this particular blog! I didn’t ‘get to’ the farm until my parents bought a 5 acre farm right as I entered jr.hi! The farm came with an acre of fenced off cow lot. My parents decided what a great place to till under, create rows (long continuous rows), and throw down some seeds. It was the late 70′s and up til then I had been raised completely in the city! I was expected to help in the garden and despite myself, DID actually learn some things about vegetable gardening, seeds, and canning/preserving. Dad also bought a few calves to raise for the freezer, so we also had what now would be organic, free range, antibiotic free beef. Later, my husband and I had 3 sons and lived ‘in town’. The boys saw farming up close but we didn’t have a garden at home. Funny thing happened, I began to have a giant itch to have a garden. The kids are grown and we moved to a 1924 Prairie style home closer to my mother- guess what? I put in my very first vegetable garden very recently! The need for my two week old grandson to have organic, pesticide free food rides heavy on my heart! So, Hudson’s garden went in the week he was born! It’s going to be amazing! Then next year I want to put in a much larger garden! I can’t wait for him to get big enough to make a ‘mess’ in the garden with Nana! Some lessons follow you for a lifetime!

  10. My husband and I were raised with gardens and compost piles. This environment shaped our souls. Our young family struggled in the early years to find enough soil to love. We recently found a sterile 1/2 acre property in town. After 3 years of hard work, we have a thriving organic property with as little lawn as possible. Our kids (10,11,16) each find different joys in what we have created. Though they don’t always enjoy the hands on work. Our oldest daughter loves taking pictures of the plants and creatures they bring. The youngest daughter loves planting , picking and educating other kids. Our son is all about the flavors of the food we grow. I dream of gardening with my grandchildren someday, they will be the true fruits of our labors.

  11. Bob Bradley says:

    When I was a kid, my dad always planted a garden. Every spring we’d get a load of cow manure from our neighbor and dad would till it in. He’d also dump the 55 gal. drum we used as a compost ‘bin” into the garden. The drum was only open on the top, with no other ventilation holes in, which resulted in anaerobic rather than aerobic breakdown of the food scrapes in it. As he rolled it to the garden, the smell that came out of it was enough to gag a maggot!
    We’d go to the local garden store where they had loose larger seeds in bins and buy peas, beans, corn, beets. He’d also get tomatoes for transplanting. To avoid frost, and have the soil warm enough for planting, his rule of thumb was to wait until Memorial Day to plant the garden. To this day I still use that same rule. Us kids helped put the seeds and transplants in (until we got bored) and dad would finish the job. I still have a vivid memory from almost 50 years ago of dad’s red sunburned back as he finished planting at the end of the day. (No such thing as sunscreen then). So that’s my story of how I became interested in gardening. As a teen, my interest waned, but after getting married I got back into it.
    When my kids were young they helped with the gardening. One year I put in two cherry tomato plants. I made a deal with the kids, who were 3 & 6, that one plant was theirs and the other was mine. The kids enjoyed being able to pick the small fruits from their plant. In the meantime, I had this crazy idea that I’d keep track of the number of tomatoes I picked from my plant. Some days I’d pick over 100. When I reached 2000, I had the kids stand in front of the plant with a sign that read “cherry tomato #2000″. The eventual total was 2216.
    Some friends suggested I send the picture, along with a short story, to Fine Gardening magazine (which I’d never heard of). Eventually the editor called and asked me for permission to publish the story. Sure enough within a couple of months it was in the magazine. My sister-in-law had the page framed for me and it’s still hanging on my wall.
    Now my daughter, who’s 25, has started gardening. She and her wife are planning on having kids at some point and I hope the gardening bug gets passed on to them.

  12. Elizabeth Henson says:

    You posted my life’s story. And when my Dad passed, his youngest grandchild (six) said, “I’ll always remember Grandpa because he taught me how to plant.” What a legacy!

  13. Liz says:

    Thank you for posting this, it truly is a sweet story. I look forward to being able to share my husbands and my passion with our own family soon.

  14. Good advice, especially the bit about smaller children destroying things. It’s true & you just have to be ok with it or plant enough so that a little loss is OK. On our farm my kids each have their own raised bed that they plant and take care of with a little help. Still at 4 and 6 their attention span is short. To keep them busy while I work I let them dig a pit. When it’s hot, they add water & make mud pies. Other times its a spaceship, a bunker, a mysterious crater in the ground, a hide out to play in with their friends. They stay occupied, I get the chores done. Everyone’s happy.

  15. Whitney M says:

    I had a garden for a few years as a kid and loved it. I loved to leave the carrots too long and see how big they could get (huge!). As I got into my teens, I was focused on other things and didn’t garden for years. However, at 25 I got back into gardening and heard about the Master Gardening program. I completed the program and am just as hooked as I was as a kid. When I have kids, I think I’ll follow your idea for a ‘kids’ garden, and maybe they’ll stick with it :)

  16. kristn Michalak says:

    Pole bean teepees and strawberry patches are my 6 year old’s favorite.

  17. Jezibels says:

    Great post! We also let our little girls run wild in the garden they help me pick things, they plant things and love to water the garden, they love to start seeds indoors in the wintertime. The girls are 5 and 6 now and learn more and more each year and Im thankful that they show such a great interest still. Im suppose their interest will wain in years to come from time to time but Im glad I got to show them how much fun it is to grow your own food!

  18. Mev says:

    We live in Los Angeles and have converted part of our front yard to raised veggie boxes. My two kids, aged 7 and 4, have been helping plant them since before they could walk. We have learned a lot in a few short years and our gardens have grown and changed with us. I’ve learned about the secret gardener in everyone who walks past and my kids love eating kale, sweet peas, corn, tomatoes, blueberries and flowers straight from the garden. My maternal pride has never been higher as when my four year old proudly showed off “his” strawberries and showed a neighbor’s two year old how to shell a pea and how to pick the best carrots right out of the ground. The kids know when a blackberry is ripe and which flowers taste like cucumber and which ones are spicy and they love love love releasing ladybugs to save the crop from aphids. Our little veggie boxes are giving them a connection to the earth and encouraging them to eat more veggies at the same time!

  19. Jennifer Wing says:

    Thank you for posting this! I didn’t grow up with gardening in my blood…but somewhere along the way I have been bitten by the garden bug. Each ear we increase our raised bed garden and try to grow new things. My children are involved in every step. buying seeds, starting seedlings, buying plants, tending, weeding, harvesting. Each part is amazing. Through this we have learned so much about all the nature that it attracts and get excited to see new things. This year my oldest will have her own 4×4 bed. She is in charge of what plants get to go in there and everything. Eventually all 4 kids will get their own. I cannot wait!! :)

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