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Dirty Hands, Healthy Kids: Introducing Children to Gardening

Dirty Hands, Healthy Kids: Introducing Children to Gardening

As parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles, we're always trying to find ways to engage with the kids in our lives and get them excited about healthy, stimulating, and fun activities. We want to teach them patience, observation skills, the relationship between cause and effect, and the importance of nurturing. 

We want to raise kids who will understand the value of good nutrition through healthy eating, and how minerals and nutrients benefit the food we eat. We want them to fall in love with science. 

We want to instill these values in our kids without frying their little brains, and gardening is a great way to start. 

Whether you have access to a large plot of land, a patio suitable for planters or pots, or even a window box, your children can get their hands dirty and begin a gardening adventure.

Be Realistic About Your Expectations

No matter your child's age or aptitude, one fact applies: Your own attitude is the most important factor when igniting a child's interest in gardening. 

Let them follow their bliss. If you let kids get involved at their own pace, according to what catches their interest, you'll have far better luck making gardening "stick". 

Kids have short attention spans, and they don't have the same "big picture" view of the work involved in gardening. Forcing a child to participate in every gardening task, such as preparing a garden bed or pulling every visible weed will create a negative attitude toward gardening. And don't be disappointed if your child would rather play with worms or bugs; as long as they're engaged in some important aspect of gardening, they're learning. 

Let them help with the "fun" stuff. Most kids love playing with water, so let them be in charge of the hose or watering can. Kids love to play in the dirt, so digging up potatoes or sticking their fingers in the soil to plant seeds is usually right up their alley. As their interest grows, they'll be more likely to want to participate in other important gardening chores. 

Set them up for success. If you're going to set them up with their own garden patch, make sure it's properly amended with compost and amendments, and situated where you can supervise them from your home. Make it easy for them to reach raised beds and container gardens, and choose plants that are easy to grow. 

Adapt to their perspective. Sometimes we forget what it's like to be a kid. Children can interpret concepts in very simplistic ways. For example, if you tell a child that plants need water, they won't automatically understand that too much water is bad for the garden...and the next thing you know, you'll have a pond in your yard. 

If you say that fertilizer is manure, and that manure is, essentially, poop, your kids might just "nope" right on out of the garden, never to return. Or...they might think this is the coolest fact in the whole world. So be aware of the wisdom you impart to your novice gardeners, and follow up to make sure they understand the concepts you're teaching them. 

Celebrate failure. Some kids get frustrated when they don't get things right, so adjusting  their expectations is important. When a batch of seedlings doesn't emerge, or when slugs gobble up their salad greens, help them understand that failure is an important part of learning. Saying "I told you so" doesn't empower a child, but "Hmmm, let's figure out what went wrong" does. 

Pick the Right Plants

When you and your child plan their first garden, you'll want to select kid-friendly plants. When you look at a seed catalog, ask yourself these questions: 

  • Is it easy to grow? 
  • Are the seeds easy for small fingers to handle?
  • Are the plants visually interesting? 
  • Is my kid likely to enjoy the fruit or vegetable's flavor and texture? 
  • (Bonus!) Do the plants have a value as a secondary project? 

We've got some kid-friendly favorites at Seed Needs that hit on all or most of these key points.

Sunflowers:  Kids love sunflowers. They're easy to grow, and they're already familiar with the seeds. 

Mammoth sunflowers have huge heads, grow up to six feet tall, and produce big, fat, delicious seeds. Kids learn how to harvest the seeds by letting the heads dry and shaking them into bags. They can then learn to roast them in the oven with salt and enjoy and share them with pride.

Budding naturalists can enjoy watching pollinators visit sunflowers before the seed stage, or opt to leave mature, air-dried seed heads out to attract birds and squirrels.

Mammoth sunflowers do take up a lot of garden space, but there are a lot of other visually-interesting sunflowers. How about planting a  sunflower collection to teach your child about diversity within plant types?

Squash:  Whether your kid wants to grow the biggest  jack-o-lantern in the neighborhood or a vegetable that looks like an alien laid a delicious egg in your backyard, there is a wide variety of summer and winter squash available to feed your child's body and imagination. Some squash take up more room than others. Some grow quickly, while others take their time to mature. Teach your kids to trim off smaller fruits to allow others to grow huge. Introduce kids to compatible planting with a "three sisters" garden, in which winter squash, pole beans, and corn work together to provide shade, structure and soil nutrients.

Romanesco broccoli:  Are you trying to get your kids to eat broccoli? Sometimes telling them it's good for them isn't enough. This variety is perhaps one of the most unusual vegetables, with its repeating, cone-shaped pattern and light green to yellow coloring. Plus, it's delicious  and it's good for you. And here's a bonus: Math nerd parents will love to teach their kids about  fractals with Romanesco broccoli. 

Speaking of weird...Seed Needs has a hugely popular  Alien Vegetable seed collection, which includes Romanesco broccoli as well as the following veggies selected for their unusual shapes and colors: 

  • Cherokee Purple tomato
  • Watermelon radish
  • Purple Sicily cauliflower
  • Paris Market carrot
  • Golden Detroit beet
  • Orangeglo watermelon
  • Lemon cucumber

Colorful carrots:  Most kids will eat carrots. How about adding some variety to your carrot patch? Our Rainbow Carrot collection includes purple, red, white, yellow and orange carrots, sure to delight your kids and encourage them to choose them over less desirable snacks. 

Beans:  Whether you choose bush beans or pole beans, these veggies are great for smaller kids who want an easy-to-grow, ongoing-harvest plant. Start seedlings in cups or directly in the garden. Help your kids build support structures for climbers, and show them how their color changes to a vibrant green when they're steamed. 

Passion flowers:  While these can be a bit tougher to germinate, kids can learn how to sprout seeds on a paper towel and participate in the transplanting process. 

The payoff? Big, colorful flowers that look like spaceships. "My stepson loved to pick passion flowers and 'fly' them around, making laser cannon sounds," said customer Michelle B. "He totally destroyed the plant's blooming season, but seeing him use his imagination was worth it." She helped him grow his own passion flower vines for the next season. 

Potted Plants: If you have limited space, try fun, inverted tomato containers, or plant potatoes in a bag of soil mix. Succulent  herbs like basil and mint do well in a sunny window, and are forgiving of black (or tiny) thumb gardeners. 

Too Many to List

Our catalog is full of plants and vegetables suitable for your child's garden. Be sure to include her as you check out your options. Explain hardiness zones and growing seasons as select your seeds, so your kids know why a particular plant is (or isn't) suitable for your climate. 

Kids in the Kitchen

When kids have a sense of pride and ownership in the veggies they helped grow, they're more likely to eat them when it's time to harvest. 

Letting your kids be a part of the preparation process reinforces their sense of being invested, and helps them learn basic cooking skills. 

Together, you can try out or discover new recipes, and when the season's over, your child might take a stronger interest in picking out healthy fruits and vegetables at your grocery store. 

Garden Related Projects

If your child doesn't take to gardening right away, or if he can't get enough of this newly discovered world, you can encourage their interest in the food cycle with other learning tools. 

Composting worm colony: Whether you build your own worm bed or invest in a fancy manufactured kit, composting worms are fun and educational for kids who really like to get their hands dirty. 

Orchard Mason Bees are easy to care for and are among the best pollinators for home orchardists. They tend to work in a smaller range than honey bees so you can watch "your bees" do their thing, and while they can sting, it's rare that they do. Cleanable orchard mason bee houses with nesting holes that open to allow insertion of loose cocoons or straws are more hygienic than drilled holes, and replacement straws or straw linings are cheap and easily available. Watching an orchard mason bee return to fill its nest holes with mud or with pollen (which it often carries on hairs on its head) can keep adult and junior gardeners enthralled for hours. 

Ant farms help teach kids how insects help move nutrients and seeds from the surface of the soil to root level. 

Flower presses allow kids to keep track of plant structures and starts them on the road to scientific observation and specimen gathering.

Bug collections are another means to inspire kids to learn about taxonomy, especially if they learn to label the insects by their Latin names. 

Gourd birdhouses  grown from your own garden help kids learn about avian wildlife, and their role keeping pests at bay. 

Bird feeders, including hummingbird feeders, attract pollinators and pest-eating winged helpers. 

Toad houses made from broken terra cotta pots encourage these garden guardians to move in and help with pest control. 

Butterfly kits let your children observe these beautiful pollinators as they cycle from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to the adult winged stage. Finally, they can release their butterflies into the garden, knowing they're helping plants make new seeds.

Preying mantids are fun to raise from their commercially-available cocoons, and unlike ladybugs, they tend to stay put on sturdy plants like rose bushes 

Flower arranging teaches kids about color and texture and encourages artistic expression. 

Microscopic study: Consumer-grade and kid-friendly microscopes are more available than ever. Some connect to computers or tablets for easier viewing or image capturing, and many are portable, making them perfect to examine plants and animals in their garden environment. 

Beyond the Garden Gate

Can you think of other garden-related projects your kids might enjoy? Gardening doesn't have to focus solely on growing harvestable plants. Who knows? Your kid might end up being a microbiologist as he learns about soil biomes, or she may end up identifying an insect species previously unknown to science. 

We'd love to hear about your child's success stories (and failures) in the garden, and any helpful tips you'd like to share. What veggie or flower earned your kid's vote as their favorite?  Contact us at Seed Needs, and don't forget to check out our  blog for helpful gardening tips for you and your aspiring horticulturists! 

Seeds For Kids

The products below are easy-to-grow varieties intended for kids and amateur gardeners. Check them out and start growing not only gorgeous plants, but a blossoming relationship with your child through the wonders of gardening!

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