From Sarah's garden to yours
We all know that it’s important for kids to get plenty of fresh air and exercise outdoors. However, with our modern lifestyle, the lure of the screen often has greater influence over the appeal of the garden. As adults, we too often find ourselves very busy in the day-to-day. This can all mean that gardening together with our younger ones is not a regular occurrence for many people.
But there are so many wonderful benefits to getting outside and gardening, from the simple fresh air and exercise to the different mental challenges for our brains, and the proven effects of de-stressing and relaxing. Not to mention the sense of achievement when the work is done, and of course, in a vegetable garden there is always healthy food to eat.
Fresh produce, straight from the garden is the most obvious benefit from having a garden and it has been found that if kids grow the vegetables themselves, even the most fussy or reluctant eaters are more likely to eat them. There are many interesting and novel ways to prepare, cook and serve vegetables of all colours, sizes and shapes. Support kids to experiment in the kitchen too - they will be keen to eat their own crazy creations.
One of the common things that happens when a child or young person expresses an interest in gardening is they get set up with a small corner of the garden and left to get on with it. Usually with a few of the standard ‘kid-friendly’ crops - radish, strawberries, peas and a sunflower. While a fast-growing option like radish is always good for a young person with a short attention span, its fiery mustard flavour can be quite confronting to a young person expecting something so red and sweet-looking to taste as good as it looks!
Aside from the off-putting radish situation, it is important to bear in mind that, as a learner gardener, even the most determined adult can struggle in that first season. Pests, disease, weeds and the technicalities to getting gardening right so there is an abundant harvest at the end of the season are common challenges, regardless of age.
Working as a team
The best thing to do if a child in your care expresses an interest in gardening is to get involved.
If you are already a gardener, don’t just carve them off a space and leave them to it. Work with them in the space, so you can oversee progress and suggest what to do next. Without taking over, you can help to head off any problems before they become too far gone (and you may even be able to execute a sneaky plant replacement from time to time to keep things alive and well). This support and collaboration will help keep your young gardener engaged, interested and motivated to continue. And you are bound to have some fascinating conversations along the way.
Or you can expand your garden and work together to grow the things that the kids want to grow. Try growing strange things, to keep their interest. Peanuts are always a winner for their unexpected growth habit of growing the nuts underground, or snake beans with their long skinny pods, and of course strawberries are always a winner - they are like growing candy!
If you aren’t a gardener (yet) yourself, embrace the opportunity for you both to learn together. Learning to garden together, with an abundant harvest as the end goal, can give such a sense of achievement, not to mention contribute to the family dinner table and save a few dollars along the way. Trips to the garden centre are always more fun with a buddy too.
When is best?
The best ages to garden with kids depends on what kind of experience you (and they) are looking for. Toddlers are delightful, with their awe at everything new around them, willingness to get dirty and messy, and lack of squeamishness picking up and examining a worm. And of course, the joy of eating a strawberry for the first time is priceless for a toddler. However, they can be a bit of a tornado in the garden and pick things that aren’t ripe – pulling up the whole plant at the same time. Or stomping over everything without noticing the trailing plants or tender seedlings underfoot. Also, be mindful of hazards for small children in the garden, especially around deep puddles and pooled or stored water. Supervision and guidance are essential.
Young children are like sponges and soak up everything you show them. This is a great time to have kids in the garden, as they love being involved and they love being with you. You can set good boundaries so only the ripe fruit get picked, teaching them to know when the time is right. Things do take a little longer though, as they determinedly attempt tasks that would only take a moment in more experienced hands - patience is advised.
Older kids are a lot more capable and can understand not just how to do things but why. They can work alongside you in the garden with the occasional checking in. You may need to go back over what they have done and adjust things, but don’t be too critical. They do have a shorter attention span and will eventually wander off. To keep the joy and love of the garden, that’s ok, they’ll be back, so don’t force them to stay in the garden against their will.
Teens can be great in the garden. They have the ability to quickly take on knowledge, research plants, techniques and ideas themselves, and can be trusted to get on with it as long as the end goal is clear to them, and they are motivated to get there. And they have the strength to do physically difficult or demanding tasks. However, there may be times you have to pay them if you really need the help.
As normal teen life takes over, you may lose your kid from the garden, but they aren’t lost to gardening. Like riding a bike, you never forget how to garden, and they will most likely come back to it one day – to support themselves in a student flat, or to teach their own children where food comes from and the joy of growing it for yourself.
The most important experience that comes from gardening with kids isn’t the harvest, but the time spent together. Make it fun, get muddy, splash the water about and do interesting projects like making scarecrows, building structures, creating “secret gardens” or growing unusual varieties that yield interesting or unexpected results. Create lasting memories that will stay with you both forever. Any chance to spend quality time with kids is its own reward.