Children are avid and inquisitive little learners, who love to discover and explore the world around them, often recalling with equal excitement those new discoveries and experiences. Starting a vegetable garden is a great way to combine a child’s natural curiosity with hands-on learning, while promoting family bonding and shared interest.
Don’t be Overwhelmed– Seek Help
If you’ve never had a garden, the idea can be overwhelming. Start small, and know that there are local resources to help get you started. The Oregon State University extension offers classes, videos, information and free advice through their “Ask an expert” link. Their website is full of local information and can be a great place to start. Brooke Edmunds, Horticulturist at Oregon State University, recommends a free publication called Growing Your Own that can be downloaded on their website. Edmunds says that this is a good resource on getting started with vegetable gardening, “It covers all of the basics from composting to seeds to types of vegetables that grow well here.”
Plant Items That Your Children Will Look Forward To
Be sure to plant some of your child’s favorite selections, along with easier growing options. Edmunds says that her children like to grow and eat peas, carrots, lettuce and strawberries, “Peas are large-seeded, so they’re easy to plant. They also germinate quickly and the sugar snap type is delicious.” Some plants are easier to grow than others. Doing a little research in your area can quickly result in a good selection of easy to grow, lower maintenance options.
Gardening also can be a great way to get your children to eat foods they wouldn’t ordinarily eat. Melina Stephens, mother of four, says having a family garden has opened up a new world to her children. “Growing our own food helps my children appreciate the effort involved. It’s not just veggie on a plate. It’s time, energy, planning, watering, weeding and everything that goes into the getting it on the plate. When you’ve watched and waited as your cucumber grows, you are excited on the day it is declared ‘ready’ to eat.”
Stephens advises us to start off small with realistic expectation. “You aren’t going to become a master gardener overnight. The best part about learning to garden with your children is that it can be a shared experience.” She allowed her kids to look through catalogs and circle what they want to grow. She encourages parents to “make it fun, and don’t be afraid if you don’t have are inexperienced, because it’s special to learn alongside your children.” When her kids’ interest wanes, she doesn’t force them to participate, but encourages them to come back when their interest returns. Her daughter Felicity, age six, who began helping in the garden when she was just three years old, has now developed an interest in canning the food they grow.
Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff
When gardening with children, don’t worry about perfection. A seed spilled here and there, a crooked line, or pulling a plant instead of a weed are all to be expected when little gardeners are first learning. It’s more about the experience of seeing and connecting with nature firsthand than it is about precision. It’s about the delight in your children’s eyes as they see that little sprout break through the ground, and later as it is served as food at the family table.
Cash-in on a Teachable Moment
Many educational topics and basic skills can be taught simply by gardening with kids. Stephens teaches the value of a dollar with her older children using produce. She explains, “You can teach math by showing kids the cost of a vegetable in the store, and having them calculate how much you spend to grow the same item in your garden.”
With younger children she teaches basic things like identifying weeds from the plants, learning when something is ripe: “We pick strawberries when they are red not green.” She uses tactile experiences with her preschool-age children, letting them poke holes in the soil for seeds, and handling and planting larger
seeds such as pumpkin, peas, and beans.
Stephens says children learn the life cycle and timing of plants and what is required for them to be healthy and grow. She says all ages can learn practical lessons, “gardening can teach children that they can contribute to the family, and that growing food is hard work, and valuable because of everything that goes into it.”
Use the Time to Grow as a Family
Gardening can foster bonding by providing a common interest and family identity: family members are united in the care of the garden while eagerly awaiting the harvest. In addition gardening requires physical time, which can be spent together talking, sharing and connecting.
Stephens says her garden has reminded her to slowdown. “Sometimes, as parents, we get busy, but having a garden forces us to go out there with our children” whether they are actively helping or not. “Kids like to be in the garden. It has a jungle effect and is a fun place to be. On a hot sunny day it provides a relaxing stress-free environment to enjoy together.”
Consider All of Your Options
If you don’t have much space for a garden, Stephens recommends growing herbs, which can often be grown in containers or small spaces. She also suggests using raised beds for limited space. “They can even be put in front yards. Not only are they good for those who don’t have much space, they are less maintenance and easier for those who are new to gardening or who don’t want to spend hours and hours weeding.” She recommends the book Square Foot Gardening.
Another option is a community garden. Brooke Edmunds tells us, “There are quite a few community gardens in Linn and Benton County. They are open to all, usually first come, first serve. Check with the cities of Albany & Lebanon. You can also check in Corvallis through the Corvallis Environmental Center
and Produce for the People.”
Gardening offers so much to families. It’s a wonderful way to connect and bond. Whether you grow a pot of flowers and a few herbs or an acre crop, your children are interacting with nature in a way that leaves a lasting impact.
by Wendy Sinclair