We enjoyed the blessing of an overnighter with granddaughter Fern, and after breakfast I invited her to join me in the shop to care for the tiny plants in the hotbed. As I watched her carefully watering plant after plant I realized that Fern might be a born gardener, a bent her parents and grandparents hope to foster. How do we build into our children and grandchildren a love for plants and soil? Can we influence them in that direction?
I launched a Google search for “gardening with children” and found many organizations such as day cares, preschools, and elementary schools where horticultural initiative rates highly in the curriculum. Kids love to plant. There is something in the mystery of a plant’s germinating, growing, and blossoming that captures the imagination. Though I am in the 60+ age bracket now (when did that happen?) I still freeze with rapt attention when one of those PBS shows offers a time-lapsed video of a plant doing its thing. What a Wonderful Creator who surrounded us with such majesty!
Before heading to the garden with a gaggle of kids do your homework and be prepared for their wheelbarrow-loads of questions. Learn from the experiences of others as to what plants work and which techniques are best (in-ground planting or container gardening). The adventure does not have to break the household budget, and many containers passing through the kitchen can be upcycled in the garden. The technical aspects of gardening with children have been covered in detail in other resources so we will focus here on the attitude and posture of the gardening instructor, an all-important ingredient when gardening with children.
Strike while the opportunity is at hand.
Young children are curious by nature and that window of teach-ability closes rapidly. Sure, gardening represents our personal time to decompress and enjoy the solitude, but those tiny children grow quickly. Think of introducing a youngster to the garden as investing in her life, giving her a future get-a-way in the garden she will someday create. And the investment returns a sizeable yield.
Visits to Grandpa’s house in the days of my childhood most always included a lengthy walk around his gardens where he pointed out developments and shared what he had learned. Mom’s flowers dotted her yard, and I can’t recall a year when she did not add some plant to the collection. In my North Carolina yard sits a patch of ground sprinkled with native plants surrounded by quartz rocks. Amanda, my oldest, originated that garden in her childhood with other family members contributing as the years passed. There’s an inter-generational connection waiting to form in the garden. And, I ask you, is Fern the perfect name for my granddaughter?
Give the child ownership.
She needs a piece of dirt all her own. Perhaps her garden space could be a row or a corner or even a couple of containers. Certainly her plants might get pulled up a time or two, and the weeds which spring up will likely hold more fascination for the child than the intended crop. But she’s in the garden, and she is enjoying herself. Post a sign that reads, “Fern’s Garden,” (substitute your child’s name of course) so visitors to your garden can identify the owner/gardener. And moving the sign when the child’s bean plants triple in size and dwarf the rest of the garden is a violation of gardening etiquette.
Adjust your expectations.
A gardening child is not an accomplished adult with years of horticultural experience. She will step on plants, pull up the sprouts along with the weeds, flood instead of water, and possibly bury a few toys just for kicks. Is your purpose to have her raise prize-winning blossoms (ok, maybe later) or simply to have her catch the gardening bug and enjoy the time with you? Start realistically, and help her set higher expectations as she gains know-how and expresses deeper interest.
Keep the plantings manageable. How many avowed non-gardeners dismiss the topic by rehearsing their childhood horrors of “hoeing acres of sunbaked corn bare-footed while walking uphill to school both ways in snow so deep one had to jump upwards just to breathe”? Or something like that. Don’t scare gardening out of the child before she tries it.
I love these verses from David’s pen and his reminder that God, our loving Father, knows our limitations. God does not expect more from us than we are capable of delivering, a good reminder as we include children in our gardening world.
The LORD is like a father to His children, tender and compassionate to those who fear Him. For He knows how weak we are; He remembers we are only dust. Psalm 103:13-14 NLT
Speak kindly when instructing.
Use uplifting words and inflections. If garden sessions are marked by unkind admonitions (read that as yelling) about not stepping in the wrong spot then the memory which forms is “avoid the garden.” Voices from childhood echo for years. “Don’t tromp on them beans! Don’t point at the pumpkins! The rule is 3 kernels of corn and 4 beans. Do it right. Hoe the weeds and not the corn. I can’t get a lick of work out of you. When I was your age…” No wonder some adults cringe at the thought of turning the soil and dropping some seeds.
Before instructing children in the pleasures of gardening consider this counsel.
The wise in heart will be called understanding, And sweetness of speech increases persuasiveness. Provers 16:21 NASB
Consider providing kid-sized tools.
Little hands need little tools, and a child needs her own trowel. Otherwise she will always be taking yours. (Editor’s note – my wife has her own shovel, tape measure, pruners, bucket and so on. Just saying.) Teach the child how to use and care for her tools. Explain why tools are returned to the shed after each session. As she cares for the plants and develops pride in her tools the child may learn to excel in the declining art of personal responsibility.
So toddle to the garden with that toddler. Kneel down (if possible) and point out the critters and the sprouts and the blooms. Let her touch and feel and taste. Help her pick some blossoms that can adorn the dinner table. Set aside a pile of dirt and a tiny shovel so she can help. Form that lasting bond, and don’t forget to thank God. After all, He put His children in a garden from the get go.