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David Trinklein
University of Missouri
Plant Science & Technology
(573) 882-9631

Gardening with Kids

David Trinklein
University of Missouri
(573) 882-9631

April 6, 2022

minute read

child with open arms in a garden

credit: Garden 'n Grow

"In every gardener is a child who loves to play in the dirt. In every child is a gardener ready to grow."

– Anonymous

Of all the things found growing in a garden, children are the most important. Although they constitute only one-third of our present, children represent 100 percent of our future. April is observed annually across the United States as National Gardening Month. It is an ideal time to talk about the need to teach youngsters about what (unfortunately) is becoming a lost art–gardening. The benefits (both immediate and long-term) of encouraging a child to plant his/her own garden are numerous and will last a lifetime.

Curious by nature, children love to be active and involved. Gardening is an excellent way for youngsters to explore nature and the plant world through "hands-on" learning. Gardening encourages creativity and self-discipline, while leading to a sense of accomplishment and self-worth. Additionally, children who grow their own vegetables in a garden have been found to consume more of them. The result is a healthier diet and more active life style. In short, there is no better way for children to grow than to grow a garden.

two children with an adult in a garden

credit: MU Extension via Shutterstock.

Nothing builds self-confidence like success. Therefore, setting attainable goals are important, especially when working with children. Be careful not to "overdo it" when involving them with gardening for the first time. Even a relatively small garden plot planted with a mix of flowers and vegetables can instill not only an appreciation of nature, but also provide a place for fun learning activities. Although there is a chance that a child's garden might not be as neatly tended as that of their parents, give the choicest garden spot you can to the child. The positive reinforcement that comes with success is important for children. When growing plants, that begins with good soil along, abundant amounts of sunshine and adequate water.

A section of the family garden or a separate child's garden next to it can make gardening a family affair. Kids love to play in the "dirt." Therefore, to foster a sense of ownership, it is important to let children help prepare the garden plot. Soil can be turned over with a small shovel or trowel, with larger clumps broken up by hand. Whatever method is used, make sure soil is well-prepared before planting.

children planting lettuce

credit: Garden 'n Grow

Since success is important for building self-esteem, choose easy-to-grow plants and as many different ones as you can get into the small space. Carrot, radish, lettuce and tomato are good vegetable choices. If there is room in the garden for vining crops, consider planting a pumpkin whose fruit can be used at Halloween. This can make the garden experience last a little longer. Also, consider "theme gardens" (e.g., a salsa garden) which can help children understand where their food comes from.

girl holding bunch of carrots

When selecting flowers for a child's garden, select annuals that are relatively easy to grow. Be sure to include at least a few that can be used as cut flowers or decorations for the dinner table or for special gifts. Zinnia, marigold, celosia and sunflower are a few species that are relatively easy to grow and make excellent cut flowers.

For those who live in a city, do not despair if an outdoor garden plot for children is not available. Both vegetables and flowers can be grown successfully grown in pots and containers that occupy very little space. A container garden on a balcony, patio or deck can produce a lot of flowers and vegetables, and it often makes the task of tending plants simpler. Since certain of the principles of container garden differ from "traditional" gardening, consult online resources or publications on the topic. Again, success starts with the soil which in the case of container gardening should be a soilless, peat-lite growing medium.

child watering flowers

Children take special pride in having something that is their very own. Consider promoting a sense of ownership and pride by placing a sign in a child's garden that lists the child's name (e.g., "Olivia's Garden"). For real personalization, make plant stakes or labels that say "Olivia's zinnias," "Jacob's lettuce," etc. Individual labeling can also help prevent disputes concerning ownership, if more than one child has plants growing in the same garden. However, when gardening with several children, avoid pitting one child against another to see whose garden is best.

Robert Brault of the Garden Gate Child Development Center is quoted as saying: "Why try to explain miracles to your kids when you can just have them plant a garden." The "miracle" of watching a plant emerge from a seed is a process that fascinates most children. When establishing plants by directly seeding them in the garden, select species with relatively large seeds which are easy to handle (e.g. bean and sunflower). Colorful pictures help children imagine what will eventually grow where the seeds have been sown. The empty seed packet stapled to a stake with the child's name written on it is a good way to identify the crop and personalize it. Started (bedding) plants usually come with a care tag that can be used for the same purpose.

girl bent over touching dormant tall grass

credit: Mo via Flickr Creative Commons

Since most kids like to play in water, they likely will be more than eager to water their garden. The garden hose can be a helpful tool or a destructive device, depending upon how it is used. Remind children that rain usually falls very gently and they should imitate the rain when watering with a hose. A personalized sprinkling can is a good idea for younger children.

Keeping a child's garden weed free can be a bit of a challenge, since at first it can be difficult to distinguish small garden plants from small weeds. Therefore, allow plants to grow a little before showing youngsters the difference between garden plants and weeds. Occasionally, children might question why any plant (weed or otherwise) should be eliminated from their garden. Characterizing weeds as "garden bullies" that want to take food and water away from the "good" plants may ease the trauma of pulling out some plants from their garden plot.

Gardening teaches patience to young and old alike. The wait for flowers and vegetables to mature can teach children the rewards of patience. Watching a garden grow may not be easy: children may want to pull up young carrots and radishes to see if they are "ready." Even if they do pull up a few young plants, they may be far enough along to wash off and give a taste of bigger things to come.

credit: Jennifer Schutter

In an era where quality "family time" grows scarcer, gardening provides an ideal opportunity for parents to talk with their children. Of course talking about how plants grow, and other aspects of nature associated with a garden is important. But the privacy and quiet of a garden is also an excellent place to just talk about "things" such as school and friends, hopes and dreams, etc. It is surprising what parents can learn about their child in their garden. The opportunity to hear their child's thoughts will help parents guide their personal growth as well as their gardening growth.

So, whether you are in a city, suburb or rural area, the future of our children is a concern to all. Instilling love, respect and understanding of how nature works by gardening produces results that last a lifetime. Encouraging children to garden is important not only for their future but also for the future of the world at large.

For additional information on establishing a children's gardening program in your community visit University of Missouri Extension's Garden 'n Grow website: https://extension.missouri.edu/programs/garden-n-grow/.

Acknowledgement: Adapted from an article by the National Garden Bureau.

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REVISED: April 7, 2022