Gardens are magical, fun, and always full of surprises. Watch a child pull a carrot from the earth, brush off the soil, and take a bite, or see the anticipation in the eyes of a youngster creating a bouquet of flowers she grew. There is a natural magnetic attraction between children and the earth, whether it's making mud or discovering a germinating seed emerge from the earth. Gardening with children, from toddlers to adolescents, opens new windows in a world dominated by technology.
Whether you are an accomplished gardener or a novice, gardening with children is your chance to partner with Mother Nature to make magic. Don't worry about achieving horticultural perfection. Just dig in and grow something beautiful or good to eat. Your garden is your treasure chest; you and your young gardener—exploring together—can discover its priceless bounty for an afternoon's delight or for a lifetime.
Memories last longer than one season. Adults who fondly remember a childhood spent in a garden often recall a parent, grandparent, or neighbor who guided and encouraged them to explore the natural world. Jim Flint, executive director of Friends of Burlington Gardens, in Vermont, takes pride in planting a straight row, which he learned from his father, and in preparing food he's grown himself, which his mother taught him. His strongest memory of gardening in childhood, however, is of being with his grandmother. In the garden, "she talked and explained things, and not just gardening."
Flint gardens with his own children and has helped hundreds of other children become involved in school and community gardening. At first, he says, they just play in the garden, "grazing" on vegetables. Incorporate planting and play, and kids become more comfortable. We can teach even the tiniest child garden etiquette, such as where to walk. Later, they learn the consequences of good (or poor) care: watering, weeding, cultivating.
Moreover, both kids and adults learn patience in the garden. We have to wait for nature to take its course. "Keep kids' gardens simple," Flint advises, "and a manageable size, about 6 by 10 feet." Begin with only a few seed or plant varieties that grow quickly, and give the children tasks appropriate to their age and skill level. Watering is a favorite and even weeding can be. The pathway to better health and nutrition is right outside the door. Of course gardening offers great opportunities for exercise, fresh air, and good food. "Growing their own food expands a young person's choice of foods, a key to good nutrition," Flint notes. "If they have grown up on home-grown and homemade food, they can taste the difference." Most Americans live in cities and are removed from their food sources. Will Allen, director of Growing Power, a nationally recognized nonprofit organization that promotes urban agriculture, believes we need to reconnect our youth with the land-right now. For him, it all comes down to the soil. "It's just such a healthy, therapeutic thing to teach about the living soil. Kids can be wired, and they calm down when they work in the soil. To eat something you produce is a worthwhile and meaningful thing."
Though success is relative in the world of gardening, positive experiences do help sustain interest for kids. One child learns that worms are not just slimy and gross; they are garden friends. Another masters the art of measuring his growing corn stalk. A third extends garden learning at the computer. A fourth pulls a carrot from the earth, brushes it off, and eats it. All have had successful experiences. You can guide a child to have his or her own successful gardening experience, but you must explore yourself. You and they must learn from your mistakes. Celebrate wonder. The key to success and sustained interest lies within you and the little gardener(s) with whom you plant the seeds of hope—which is, of course, what a seed is and what a garden is—a promise of what will come.