While in hand-to-hand combat with the weeds in my asparagus bed, my young neighbor with her active, inquisitive 3-year-old son and 18-month-old daughter stopped to watch me work. The weary mom sighed, lamenting that she wanted her children to enjoy gardening . . . someday . . . but that would have to wait until they were older. Little kids, in the garden? I knew where she was coming from. Her comment triggered the memory of my 2-year-old grandson “helping” me pick tomatoes—proudly presenting his tomato—still attached to the tomato plant—roots and all!
Today, there are wonderfully illustrated, age-appropriate children’s books on gardening practices and the science of plants. Books make a nice introduction to both plants and gardening and provide good talking points about how things are done and why. (A book list of children’s gardening books—beginning with board books—is included at the end of this blog.)
For toddlers, mimicking gardening acts—planting, watering, weeding, checking for bugs, picking flowers or vegetables—is a main source of enjoyment. Because toddlers delight in repeated play activities, a sand garden—a sand-filled container complete with an array of plastic flowers and garden tools—can provide hours of gardening fun.
By the time a child is 3 or 4, a large pot can become a container garden, putting the garden literally at a child’s-eye level. A single plant is a good beginning, but try pairing a vegetable plant with a pollinator plant in a pot clearly marked with the child’s name. This gives the child a specific place to practice the planting, watering, weeding, bug-checking, and harvesting with adult guidance. Taking pictures of the garden as it develops and making a simple My Garden Book helps the child develop a sense of accomplishment.
Saucer gardens are another way of incorporating child’s play into gardening activities. The gardens can be as elaborate as moss gardens for a fairy village, or special terrains for woodland creatures incorporating sticks, rocks, red clay, small plants, or trees. Add plastic dinosaurs, animals, or superheroes to provide the action. Saucer gardens can be as simple as lettuce gardens to provide salad greens.
By the time a child is 4 or 5, a designated spot in the family garden, or a place in the yard, can be turned into a kid’s raised bed garden.
- Keep the space small—4- by 4-feet maximum.
- Have it in a safe place within parental view.
- Establish a routine for maintenance.
Provide a laminated card with a simple pictorial checklist to help the child focus on what needs to be done each day. An inexpensive magnifying glass is a great help in identifying bugs, worms, and changes in the plants. And, don’t overlook children’s ability to locate a found garden spot themselves, like these unused concrete steps turned into a moss garden.
Article written by Mary Hugenschmidt, Extension Master GardenerSM Volunteer.
Click here to download a list of gardening books for children 5 and under (PDF format).
Gardening Books for Children Five and Under