Starting a Garden with Your Toddler
by Mary Beth Gibson
Spring has finally arrived, and as the temperatures continue to rise it’s time to start planting your garden outside. Some of you might have well-established garden beds while others of you are going for it for the very first time. Still others of you might just be passing the potted herbs in the grocery store and wondering if you could manage to keep them alive this summer.
If you have a toddler in your home, the thought of having a garden might seem out of reach, much less sharing it with them. While it’s not necessary to create your own compost, plant hundreds of seedlings, and build rows of raised garden beds, it would be quite worth it to grow some things with your child this year. Here are some steps you’ll want to take as you begin this rewarding project:
- Brainstorm with Your Toddler
If your toddler is old enough to communicate fairly well with you, include them in the very basic parts of brainstorming your garden. Ask them what they want to grow. Do they want to grow food? What kind of food? Do they want to grow flowers? Would they like to see butterflies? If your toddler has an interest in helping with dinner consider growing food in your garden. Things like lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, and herbs are great things to start with. Things like potatoes or beans take extra structures to grow well, so bear that in mind before starting those, and carrots are best left to the experts.
- Make Your Plans
Once you know what everyone wants out of your garden, plan it out. If you have established garden beds then it might just be a matter of figuring out where your rows will be placed. If you’re growing different foods be sure to plan out when things will be planted and when you’ll be harvesting. Things like leafy greens have a completely different growing season than summer crops like tomatoes and peppers. If you’re growing decorative plants and flowers decide on general colors and designs before you head to the store. And if your child is hoping to watch bees and butterflies research which plants attract those insects in your area. Even just a couple pots on the porch or by the window can provide a wealth of knowledge and activity for your child, so, big or small, decide what works best for your wants and your space and your availability.
- Create Opportunities for Your Child to Help/Work
One of the biggest hesitations people have when putting together a garden is how much a child can be allowed to help or whether a child can play out near the garden without being closely supervised. There are a couple ways to counteract these issues without banning your toddler from the garden area. Toddlers love to imitate and they love to help, so use these natural desires to your advantage. If you use garden boots, buy an inexpensive pair of garden boots for your child. Hand tools? Wide-brimmed hat? Whatever it is that you’ll use regularly try to purchase a small version for your toddler. The more you encourage imitation, from dress to tools to behavior, the more your child will quickly learn how to properly work in a garden. If there are some behaviors you would prefer your child not imitate in your garden a helpful idea is to create a small garden just for them; the expectation is that the plants in this garden may end up ruined or dead, but that’s ok as long as it spares your actual garden. Supply a large pot or box with soil and the same plants you’ll have in your garden. When you work in your larger garden then your child can work in their own garden imitating you.
- Experience the Garden Together
The last way to build garden ownership and responsibility in your toddler is to teach them each step of the way. It’s not quite as fast as creating and tending your garden on your own, but the more your child understand about how the garden came to be and what’s going on inside of it the less likely it is that they will wreak havoc. When they have watched the process of planting seeds, germinating seeds, transferring plants into the group, and tending to the soil around them they will likely take care not to disturb those areas of the yard. Some children latch on to the idea that these plants belong to Daddy, while others love the idea that these plants are their very own; use whatever you can think of that will convey to your child that the garden is full of special things.
With food and herbs make it a regular habit to pick what you’re growing and munch on it as you work. Talk to your child about what’s happening and how you use that food when you’re cooking. Peppers and tomatoes grow in abundance, and it’s quite special when your child begs to pick a pepper to munch on while they’re playing outside. When you have flowers look at all the beautiful colors together and search for bugs and bees.
- Embrace the Mess—and the Casualties
Last of all, gardening with a young child will inevitably result in some accidents and some mess tracked into the house. Decide ahead of time that you’re ok with the mess, and accept ruined plants if they happen. Being able to teach your child about nature and hard work all while having fun outside is well worth a few uprooted plants. Gardening opens our eyes to nature and entire ecosystems right in our own backyards. What a wonderful way to share that together, and what a perfect time in their lives to establish that habit!
Mary Beth Gibson graduated from Wichita State University in 2007 with a BA in Creative Writing and blogs at Bright Sycamore. She enjoys most things natural, but with a healthy dose of practicality and affordability. You can most likely find her at Target chasing her toddler with a baby strapped to her chest. She lives in Kansas with her husband and her two children, ages 3 and 10 months.
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