The end of May marks the last frost for much of southern Canada and northern United States. This means time to play in the garden. Gardening is a wonderful way to give children an area under their own control and responsibility where they can learn a direct relationship between their nurturing care and the harvest. Your little gardener is likely to become very attached to her corner of the garden.
What to plant
Extremes get attention. Kids have fun tracking the growth of a sunflower as it reaches then passes then doubles their own height. They keep a daily count of tiny, grape-sized tomatoes until there are so many they lose count altogether.
Flowers that attract hummingbirds or butterflies create a wonderful garden-watching experience.
For a first garden, though, I like to start with simple, edible plants a child can grow almost alone.
Start with a likely success
Start small scale. You might want to choose familiar foods that can be a quick, raw snack, like berries, peas, or cherry tomatoes. For me as a child, my favorite garden snack food was raw rhubarb – great for the child who loves sour foods. My husband grew radishes as a child, since they grow quickly and don’t require deep soil. My daughter loves fennel and half a dozen kinds of mint. She snacks on these as she works in our garden.
Parents might want to focus on nutritious, dark vegetables like broccoli, spinach, carrots, and peppers.
Some children would love a salad of spicy, edible flowers.
Explore possibilities. To draw your child into thinking about the logic of going from garden to table, you might choose to follow a theme or a favorite food.
A child’s snack garden
Does your child like salsa? With a little planning, you can plant a bowl of salsa. Imagine your beaming child eating a snack she planted and cared for herself.
The simplest list would include just:
You might also want to add:
- Peppers – serrano or jalapeno are often used in salsa, though these might be too strong for some children
- Different varieties of tomatoes – I like yellow cherry tomatoes in salsa
- Other fresh herbs, such as parsley or oregano
- Other onions – red onions or scallions
Plan for independence
Help your child visualize not only the meal at the end of the season but the space in the garden before the planting begins.
Consider which plants will need the most sun and water, which will grow best next to plants already in the garden, which need deeper soil, which need to be guarded from insects, and so on. Guide choices for greatest success. If your child has a strong idea to grow something crazy and interesting – like a lime tree in Toronto because the best salsa has lime – go with it, but be sure you also have plants that you are confident will grow well.
Include the child in drawing a map of the space, researching plants, and buying seeds. Help him understand what will grow in your area. Encourage him to ask questions about what will work and make decisions about what to try. Let your child dig in the dirt to create the bed for seeds, while you keep an eye on depth for planting and placement for sun and water. Make sure he does watering and weeding himself, though you may need to remind him until it becomes a habit.
Celebrate the harvest
When your bowl of salsa or other garden grows, make a celebration of it. Plan a party or a family dinner or picnic with friends. Talk about what worked well and what needs improvement. Consider ideas for next year.
Build ideas and skills over years
As your child becomes more interested, she might suggest themes to you. Does she adore pickles? Love bean soup? Can’t get enough mashed potatoes? Encourage her to start with her favorite and most familiar foods then grow into foods that will take more time to mature, such as fruit and nut trees, or foods that require some patience even after growing, such as dried beans.
Build on a successful garden first garden with further inquiries into nutrition and eating. Start out, though, with a simple garden that will produce exciting results: a favorite snack.