For a lot of us, a favorite activity this time of year is hitting the garden. But this is also a great experience to share with your kids. Lisa Taylor, program manager for children’s education at Seattle Tilth, has tips on how to get started.
Besides growing yummy, healthy food, what are the benefits to kids learning about gardening?
Gardens do a number of things for children. They are a connection to nature. I think we have this notion that nature is somewhere else – in a park, wildlife reserve or forest – but nature is right here, all around us. For those of us who live in the city, we can experience nature right outside our doors -- in the garden.
An organic garden is a thriving ecosystem with all the creatures and plants that exist in natural or wild places. Working in and observing a garden can teach us a lot about how things grow, about weather, life cycles and so much more. If you think gardening is just about the plants, you are missing some of the most exciting parts. Creatures, whether they crawl, squiggle or fly are just fascinating and learning about them while tending a garden is the best. It’s kind of like the Nature Channel right out in the backyard.
For families that don't have much space, have never planted veggies or edible plants before, how can they get past those initial hurdles?
Classes, camps and visits to farms and farmers’ markets are great ways to get inspired about growing a garden. Going on garden tours and visiting community gardens are also great ways to learn and see what others are doing.
If you are a beginner and are just starting out, my advice is to start small and get some success right away. Locate your garden close to your outdoor living space, make sure it gets at least 6 hours of sunlight and make sure water is nearby.
Cultivate a small garden bed or a couple of large containers. Buy some veggie starts at your local nursery or farmers’ market. Select crops that your family likes to eat and that are easy to grow. Try growing salad greens, kale or green beans – tomatoes, peppers and pumpkins are more difficult to grow in our temperate climate so wait a year before you try those. Then get started. Visit your garden frequently; the best fertilizer is the gardener’s shadow. Keep your veggies watered –- the soil should be moist but not soggy.
There are two books that I think every veggie gardener in the Puget Sound should have – “The Maritime Northwest Garden Guide” and “Your Farm in the City.” “The Garden Guide” is a planting calendar for our region so it takes the guesswork out of when to plant different crops. “Your Farm in the City” includes all the information you need to grow a garden without being over complicated or intimidating.
How does growing their own food excite kids about eating healthy things?
It just isn’t a huge stretch to get kids interested in eating veggies and fruit if they have a hand in growing and harvesting them. I am amazed at what kids will eat in the garden. Crazy flavors, leaves and flowers – stuff that doesn’t look like “food” – they can’t get enough.
The other day, we were with a group of 2nd and 5th graders who had visited the Children’s Garden when they were in Kindergarten. All they wanted to do was eat the fennel, sweet cicely and sorrel. They were very interested in the wild and medicinal plants we were studying but you should have seen them pushing and shoving each other to get at the sweet cicely seedpods. They just reeked of licorice afterward!
You know you are doing something right when you have to stop the children from eating all the plants in sight!
Most kids love digging in the dirt, but are particular aged kids better suited for different kinds of gardening or plantings? (for instance, children's gardens) Do you have other tips for getting going?
- Teach Kids Garden Etiquette: Working in the garden is a level playing field. Everyone, no matter the age, can participate in the garden. Children can do just about every garden task. There are a few jobs that require heavy lifting or more finesse such as pruning that are more “adult” jobs – everything else kids can do. We have to teach children how to be in the garden . . . how to walk in the garden, how to harvest, how to use tools and how to water or weed.
- Make garden Family-Friendly: Setting up your garden so that it works for everyone in the family is important. Family gardens are different than gardens inhabited solely by adults. Family gardens should include edible, durable plants – nothing deadly. Keep garden beds narrow so that kids can successfully jump across them. Make your paths wide and cover them with a recognizable material such as wood chips or straw.
- Get good quality Kids Tools: Find some high quality, kid-sized tools such as a small spading shovel or sturdy hand trowel. Most of the tools that are marketed as “children’s tools” aren’t very sturdy and will break if used to do real garden chores.
- Avoid the term “Yard Work!” Keep work fun and avoid the word “yard work!” When my son was young, he would come out and join me in the garden; he would plant a couple things and he was done. What he really liked was to hangout and build bughouses while I worked in the veggie beds. Now he has his own garden space and is pursuing his own interests in horticulture.