Text copyright © Katie Mohar. All rights reserved.
Today, I’ll share a beginner’s guide to gardening for kids. Whether your child loves science experiments; dirt and worms; fragrant flowers; or tasty produce – there’s fun for everyone in a garden.
Growing up, my mother’s gardens were the talk of the town. When she was only 25-years-old, the local gardening club named her garden “Yard of the Month.” One day, she walked outside and found the winning sign in her yard. The newspaper stopped by to take her photo. “I was so surprised!” she recalls. To this day, every summer, drivers slow to a crawl as they admire her hollyhocks!
Gardening was a family affair. Mom frequently sent my siblings and me to the garden to pick fresh lettuce or de-bug potatoes. As kids, we always tried to wriggle out of weeding! Now that my parents are empty-nesters, Dad calls himself the CEW (Chief Executive Weeder). Mom appreciates his help and he finds it satisfying to see a clean garden bed after arduous weeding.
My mother gave me some great advice, which I’ve incorporated below, to help your family find your “green thumb.” I also include frequently-overlooked ways in which gardening benefits a child’s development and mental health.
Gardening helps a child’s development
Gardening teaches children patience as they wait for seeds to mature into plants. As I’ve written, patience and focus are critical for developing avid readers. A strong sense of wonder and curiosity are natural byproducts of gardening that are also crucial skills for every good reader. Children learn to take ownership when they realize that plants depend on them for proper watering and care. Finally, the physical activity and immersion in nature inherent to gardening will relax and calm young minds.
In short, gardening helps children flourish. Perhaps most importantly, gardening is a healthy familial bonding activity that takes kids off screens and into the sunshine.
“One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”— William Shakespeare
Gardening for Kids – Basics
- Zones – Find your gardening zone to select plants that thrive in your geographic region. Most seed packets have a map highlighting garden zones. Or, visit the the United States National Arboretum/ISDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map.
- Perennials – plant once – and with proper care – these plants bloom year after year.
- Annuals – must be planted anew every year (most of the flowers listed below are annuals). It’s ideal to have a mix of perennials and annuals in your garden for continuous color and bloom.
- Raised Beds – perfect for beginning gardeners because they can reduce weeding and watering. Top soil, purchased at a garden store, is ideal for raised beds. Add compost for best results. Most vegetables and flowers love sun, so place your raised bed in a sunny area.
- Newspaper – if you prefer reading books to pulling weeds, recycle old newspapers and layer over your entire garden. (Newspaper is biodegradable.) Then, layer on mulch. Plant seedlings by cutting an X-shaped area through the paper.
7 Easy-Grow Vegetables
A little secret about gardening is that children are more likely to eat vegetables, herbs and fruits that they’ve sown and harvested themselves. This is key because only 10% of Americans consume enough daily vegetables. Here’s seven reliable winners for beginners:
- Beans – loaded with vitamins K, C and folate, beans are a nutritious treat kids love picking and munching. My husband builds a complex trellis every year for our beans. A simpler route, that’s also effective, is a teepee trellis. Watch your beans soar to “Jack and the Beanstalk” heights!
- Carrots – whether you’re Peter Rabbit or a young child, who doesn’t love the idea of pulling a bright orange carrot out of the ground!? It’s like unearthing a buried treasure of Vitamin A.
- Cucumbers – kids will love the “scavenger hunt” of finding cucumbers amid the tangle of vines and leaves. Tip: anytime you plant a vine in your garden, plan ahead for enough space. Vines can quickly overtake other plants that are planted too close.
- Lettuce – regularly pick the outside leaves to encourage the plant to keep producing!
- Pumpkins – mini pumpkins are my favorite for kids. My niece and nephew loved picking their own from our patch last fall! Pumpkins love sun. And remember the tip about vines noted above!
- Radishes – if you want an immediate “wow!” go with the quick-growing radish. These bright red bursts of flavor grow amazingly fast, delighting children.
- Tomatoes – tomatoes require regular maintenance like fertilizing, watering, and adding supports as they grow tall. However, they are ideal for container gardening and highly versatile in the kitchen.
7 Easy-Care Flowers
- Cosmos – drought and heat-tolerant flowers that come in shades in purple, pink and white. Start from seed or sow directly in the ground after the final frost. Cosmos make great pressed flowers for crafts. As a girl, I enjoyed making pressed flower bookmarks and greeting cards with cosmos.
- Marigolds – bright, cheery blooms in yellow and orange that many gardeners plant near tomatoes and other vegetables due to their ability to deter pests. Children will have fun “dead-heading” marigolds (snipping old blooms) – which helps the plant produce season-long.
- Snapdragons – these colorful flowers are a favorite with kids, who enjoy making the flowers “talk” by carefully squeezing the blooms. Snapdragons make a fabulous garden border.
- Sunflowers – kids will love watching these fast-growing flowers reach towering heights. Newer varieties like the Concert Bell yield an impressive 10-plus flowers per stem! There’s also many beautiful dwarf varieties of sunflowers if 12-foot-high blooms aren’t your thing.
- Vincas – these flowers can tolerate poor soil and heat. They come in a wide variety of colors. They’re a nice, reliable plant that produces season-long blooms.
- Zinnias – one of my favorite flowers since childhood, zinnias say “summer,” “happiness” and “cottage garden.” Zinnias come in a rainbow of colors and range of heights. Start from seed or sow directly in the ground. I love how zinnias attract butterflies, bees and hummingbirds.
Pro Tip: Gardening expert Melinda Meyers says flowers like cosmos, marigolds and zinnias are great cut flowers. Help your child pick them regularly – and safely. (It’s best for the plant to cut stems at a clean angle with a knife rather than to break stems off with your hands.) These particular flowers are designed to produce more blooms when picked – making them great for kids who will enjoy making bouquets as gifts for grandparents!
Making gardening for kids fun
Gardening is innately fun, but here’s some creative ideas to boost a child’s gardening joy:
- Pollinator Garden. Plant flowers like milkweed to attract pollinators like hummingbirds, bees and butterflies. Science will come alive as kids watch caterpillars eat the milkweed, build a chrysalis, and finally – pollinate the bright orange milkweed flowers as adult butterflies.
- Edible Theme Gardens. Grow a pizza garden (tomatoes, green peppers, basil, oregano) and have kids make a pizza with their harvest. Other themes include a popcorn garden or a salsa garden.
- Name Gardens. Kids love seeing their name in print! Here’s an ingenious idea from Burpee Seeds: Begin by setting aside a few square yards of garden space. Then, ask your child to use their finger to draw their name in the soil. Next, have your child sprinkle marigold seeds into these letters. Finally, spread grass seed in the areas around and between the letters and add a thin layer of soil over the seeds. Carefully water and monitor regularly.
Gardening Books for Kids
Here’s two kid-friendly resources to level-up your gardening:
- Garden to Table by Katherine Hengel. I love that this book was written specifically for junior readers. Hengel highlights planting, growing, harvesting – and preparing – food in a fun, easy-to-follow way. She focusses on basil, green beans, lettuce, potatoes, tomatoes and carrots. Kids learn to grow their own fresh produce and then follow her simple recipes incorporating the bounty.
- Rocks, Dirt, Worms & Weeds by Jeff Hutton. Parents and kids will find a helpful illustrated guide to vegetable and flower gardening basics – plus year-round activities that span all four seasons.
Speaking of books, a literary benefit of appreciating gardening is that many classic children’s tales from Beatrix Potter’s The Complete Adventures of Peter Rabbit to young adult fantasies like J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy – will hit young readers with more emotional impact.
For example, gardening is a beloved cultural pastime of Tolkien’s hobbits. Indeed, the hobbit Sam joins his best friend Frodo’s epic journey when the wizard Gandalf catches him eavesdropping under a window while pretending to prune the grass border with gardening shears.
“If you truly love nature, you will find beauty everywhere.”— Vincent Van Gogh
How do you plan to garden this year? Send me a note, I’d love to hear from you! If you enjoyed this post, pass it along to friends using the social share buttons below. And if you’d like to see photos of my garden, head over to Instagram. Happy gardening!