There is no shortage of information out there on gardening with kids. There’s lots of talk about the lessons children can learn and the fun that can be had in the garden. There are lots of ideas, lots of inspiration, lots of encouragement, but unfortunately, not a whole lot of reality.
Don’t get me wrong, I think kids belong in the garden. It can be fun, healthy, educational. I’m a big believer in slave labor… I mean, helpers. And there are some really great books out there (one I’ll recommend for schoolagers: Kids in the Garden by Elizabeth McCorquodale, Black Dog Publishing).
But as a mother of five, I’m here to tell you, the vast majority of the stuff you’ll see about kids and gardens is written through rose-colored glasses (no pun intended). It’s not all about cute little yellow trowels and robust bean vines in terracotta pots. Sometimes you’re cajoling a ten-year-old to pull her share of weeds with a toddler clinging to your leg and soccer practice only half an hour away.
So here’s a few of my ideas, if you’re up for a little reality check:
1. There will be casualties. Accept this. They don’t know they just stepped all over your freshly planted annuals; they’re just chasing butterflies. Not every seed will sprout if planted by a three-year-old an inch deeper than it should have been, but really, is that the point? Resist the urge to redo their efforts. I’ve been known to build little fences out of fallen twigs around newly planted “please don’t walk here” spots. (Actually, this is a great kid job if the ground is soft.)
2. When you’ve got a wandering toddler who’s as likely to yank up a lily as a dandelion, getting much of anything done can be frustrating. You can wait until nap time or trade babysitting, but if you can shift your mindset away from accomplishing one particular task, a great strategy is to wear an apron with hand tools in it. Then just follow your little person around as he explores, digging a weed, pruning a limb, tying a floppy stem as you go. You’ll be surprised how much you can get done this way. (You can also use a bucket or tote of tools, but watch out: Murphy’s Law says Baby will find the scissors or knife as soon as you look away. Not that this has ever happened to me. Ahem.)
3. It’s true that having kid-size tools and gloves helps make it more fun and easier for kids to help. It’s harder than you think to use a full size (and weight!) rake when you’re only four feet tall. But just as important: some toys, games and space for them to play. Kids have short attention spans. Inevitably, you will want to work longer than they will, and it really cuts down on the whining if they’ve got a sandbox or a hammock to retreat to as a reward or break. And for the smaller ones, it means you can keep an eye on them without having someone hanging out in your lap.
4. For you it might be about color schemes and cultivars, but for kids it’s about being there. Weeds are pretty; dandelion seeds are meant to be blown. Don’t kill their joy with your vision or schedule. I’ve been that yelling mom and I can tell you two things: one, it doesn’t change the situation, and two, it’s detrimental to the kid’s attitude. You’ll still have unpicked weeds and they’ll not be in much mood to help the next time you ask.
5. Mulch is your friend. It is every gardener’s friend, but especially to a gardener with children. It buys you time and saves you work. Make the investment.
6. Never say the words, “Let’s plant some seeds today” to a three to five year old until you are absolutely, entirely, earnestly, ready to get them in the soil.
7. The things you hear about ownership are true. Once a kid has “her” tree, or “his” tomato plant, it will be watered and weeded proudly with only occasional gentle reminders (especially if there’s a lingering lesson from last season of something that died of neglect. Just saying. Not from experience or anything.). We have a “kid garden” where I’ve done some structural planting and they get to plant whatever else they want. Each of my older girls has a rose bush that they do everything for (including the pruning, with some pointers). My six year old plants sunflowers every year. He keeps track of how tall they grow and which one gets the biggest flower. And you won’t find any weeds surviving at their bases.
8. A watering can in the hands of a three year old is a powerful weapon. Direct it well, and you’ll lighten your load. Allow it to be unleashed on the unsuspecting though, and you may have some flood victims.
9. Patience. Cultivate it along with your plants. It takes a seed time to germinate, flower, and set fruit. A child is no different. Don’t expect fruit when he’s just learning how to flower.