I grew up on the eastern stretches of Long Island on a small family homestead. We raised animals and kept a huge vegetable garden in the backyard, and even as children we were expected to pitch in, working off of a list of daily chores. For the garden, that meant weeding. I remember sitting on a small bench in the soil, sun beating down on me, and ripping out weeds. I intentionally left some roots behind, and felt both guilty and utterly empowered. I smugly passed over small pieces of dandelion root, knowing they would come back again to taunt us. Above all other chores, I hated working in the garden.
I do keenly remember loving what the garden produced. Come spring I would sneak snap peas off the vine, thinking I’d get in trouble if I got caught eating one. I taught myself to squeeze the pod between my fingers and decide which would offer the sweetest peas. Too big and they lost their flavor; too small and I felt cheated.
Involving kids in the garden is thought to inspire an interest in food, but the real trick is finding the right task for the right kid. I’ve seen plenty of children grow weary of weeding or hauling around wheelbarrows of mulch. That sort of work is okay for teenagers, but for younger kids, the tedium quickly produces boredom. It also pays off to spend time thinking about the big plan for your yard, including if you may want to add animals at some point – see "Tips and Tricks for Creating an Urban Farms."
If you want your kids to love gardening, here are some ideas regarding both what to grow and which jobs to assign, at three different ages. Younger kids get short tasks that — let’s face it, you could do faster yourself — but will inspire their interest. Older children are assigned plants that need long-term care: allowing them to nurture plants along a life cycle not only cultivates green thumbs, it can also help foster feelings of self-worth and achievement. Not a terrible way to spend a summer!
With a short attention span and growing motor skills, toddlers do best with short tasks and fast, fun results.
Arugula: This cool-weather-tolerant plant goes in as soon as garden space clears up in late winter. Arugula has no specific planting requirements — kids can sprinkle a handful of seeds on the ground, poke a rake around and call it done. (For adults, we’d call this erratic flinging of seeds onto topsoil “broadcast sowing.”) Arugula produces fast results, maturing in about 45 days. Toddlers may not love the “spicy” flavor, but having grown it themselves, they just might.
Nasturtiums: These vining flowers are vigorous, prolific growers, producing lilypad-like leaves and bright flowers, both of which are edible. The seeds are large and easy to handle. They do well in most any soil — poor, rich, containers — and need only a regular spritz of water. Plant anytime in spring or early summer, as nasturtiums have a nice long window of opportunity (a perk for busy parents). These plants also make great seed savers: Allow flowers to die back and hard, large seeds will form that are easy for even toddlers to harvest, store and keep for next year.
As new readers, elementary-school-aged children can pick and choose their own seeds, reading growing requirements off the label. This allows them the independence they crave, and parents need only be on hand for questions.
Peas: One of the first seeds to be planted in spring, peas are quick-growing plants that produce both edible vines and pods. Choose from shelling peas, snap peas (eat the whole pod), or snow peas. Pea seeds are large enough to handle with ease, and a small handful is all any family of four will need to plant. After plants are 6 inches tall, children will need some assistance trellising up the vines, but it’s simple work that can be completed in an hour, and children can practice tying knots using twine.
Zinnias: Zinnias are a summer crop, allowing kids to actively monitor their progress. With a strong stem that won’t break easily and petal-color options that span the rainbow, these flowers are captivating and joyful. Small children can easily cut and make bouquets on their own — a fun addition to the annual lemonade stand. Owing to the flower’s fat head and large seeds, young children can easily collect the seeds. As an extra project to keep them busy, young ones can make and decorate their own seed packets after harvest.
Older kids have defined palates and preferences, and are also capable of more demanding tasks. With more patience as well, older children can choose from long-season crops that take months to mature and need a bit of attention along the way.
Carrots: Carrots need concerted attention during growing and harvest. Rows must be thinned about three weeks into maturation in order to make room for the root to develop. (Some strategy is required: thin too many and you won’t have many carrots to harvest; don’t thin enough, and they’ll compete for space, producing small, unsatisfying carrots.) It’s not always clear when carrots are ready to harvest, but older kids are capable of both making the assessment and learning from it. As a rule of thumb, when the tops start to push out from the soil and you can clearly see some carrot crowning, they are ready.
Sunflowers: Sunflowers take some time to grow, but their height and grandeur is worth it. Some require early staking, and many will require netting or some sort of bird diversion tactic. An excellent excuse to haul a ladder into the garden, harvesting sunflowers is a real joy. Be sure to steer children into choosing varieties that produce seeds (some are strictly ornamental) if sunflower seed snacks is what they are after.
More about gardening with kids in and around Seattle: