It doesn’t take much to fire up the imagination of a youngster. As a young lad it was my grandad who ignited my passion for growing vegetables. By helping him dib holes for his leeks, drop them in, then later (after an incredibly patient wait!) dig them up, he instilled in me a raw excitement that only comes with growing your own. And guess who polished off every last scrap of home-grown vegetables come dinner time?
I fondly remember running down to the bottom of the garden to pick pole beans for a family meal, or eagerly topping up the compost heap with fresh scraps from the kitchen; simple responsibilities that pricked my curiosity and kick-started a lifetime’s fascination.
Now it’s time for me to pass the baton to my own two-and-a-half-year-old daughter. She’s already helping me to water the plants (and my feet!) and will often assist with the weeding, albeit with the occasional gasp from her dad as a row of seedlings undergoes an ill-timed thinning instead! When Isla entered the world we planted a crab apple in her honour. A couple of years on and she’s learning about its blossom and admiring the early bees drawn to the delicate blooms.
Getting Children Involved in Gardening
There’s no secret to getting children interested in gardening. Encourage them to help with what you’re doing and, to use an appropriate metaphor, the seeds will be sown.
As well as watering, children love to help with the picking, digging up and – under supervision – cutting of ready-to-eat produce. Give toddlers a child’s tool set and they can dig, scratch about and potter alongside you.
When they’re a little older, it’s time to offer them some space of their own. My parents encouraged me with a small area of garden that was entirely my responsibility. It wasn’t big - but it was mine and that was very exciting! In it I grew some spinach and radishes, which successfully produced a harvest, despite my obsessive prodding, preening and poking. By the age of ten I had a full-blown vegetable garden to call my own.
Of course, you will need to encourage and guide your youngsters. So start them off with crops that are easy: radishes and spinach can be joined by just about any salad leaves, scallions, beans – especially pole beans that put on height almost by the hour, beets, zucchini and, of course, potatoes. Many seed companies sell seeds specifically aimed at a younger audience, so try these easy-to-grow options first.
In all but the hottest climates a sunny part of the garden will give the strongest growth and, hence, the best results. You may be tempted to tuck their plot out of the way, but a prime position will avoid disappointment and help make enthusiastic gardeners out of them! By offering a clean slate – a patch of fertile ground that’s clear of weeds and ready to sow – you can get them off to a flying start; maintaining their plants and keeping on top of weeds will be a lot less daunting as a result.
Gardening Projects for Children
As well as assigning an area of the garden for your youngsters to indulge their horticultural ambitions, it’s great fun to try a few simple gardening projects too.
First on the list has to be growing potatoes in containers. Kids love the excitement of rooting around in the soil for the tubers, a bit like digging for buried treasure! Strawberries are another favorite. You can grow them just about anywhere, but a really fun and quirky way is to recycle old junk into unexpected containers that can be planted up: try strawberries popping out from an old pair of boots, cascading from a chest of drawers, or perhaps planted into car tyres repurposed as raised beds.
Salad leaves such as any cut-and-come-again mix or naturally sprawling watercress will look the business bursting forth from troughs, metal watering cans or in a pot that your little ones have painted and decorated themselves.
In fact, children love to get crafty and make just about anything. So ask them to help you make upcycled and recycled items that can be used around the garden: pots and seed-sowing containers, propagation aids and gardening essentials such as miniature cloches made from drinks bottles. If they can make their own seed-sowing pots, then sow, plant out, tend and harvest, they’ll have had a hand at every step of the way and will be justly proud of their achievements.
Of course, there’s a legion of other child-friendly gardening ideas. But the underlying way to get them interested is simply to encourage them to help you in your garden. Children love being outside – it’s innate within them. All you have to do is provide them with the opportunity to express that affinity with the Great Outdoors. In time your youngster will grow up with an appreciation of the natural world, wildlife, and where good, tasty food originates.
Please share your own ideas for engaging children by leaving a comment below – I’m looking for child-friendly crops and fun projects you’ve tried and that have had the thumbs up from your little ones.