Confession: When I was a little girl, I used to sneak into the garden and eat all the carrots—and I mean all of them. It was no secret who did it: I was only about 4, and I’d leave the telltale carrot tops lying around as evidence of my consumption. My mother would lecture me about sharing, but I now know—as a mother myself—that she was really glowing with satisfaction. What mama wouldn’t want her child to “sneak” for carrots instead of a Twinkie or cupcake?
In this age of iPods, cell phones, and the Wii, many parents feel it’s nearly impossible to get their children excited about the outdoors—and we won’t even talk about their lack of enthusiasm for veggies. But kids are interested in nature—they (and we parents, too) just might be too over stimulated to notice.
Younger kids are naturally drawn to the dirt, essentially creating mud baths whenever the opportunity arises. Older children might not be as into getting dirty, but they definitely are interested in receiving rewards for their work (um, allowance anyone?), and nothing is quite as rewarding as growing your own food.
Build It and They Will Come
The first step to luring your children outside is building a garden that suits their needs as well as yours. Gardens can be built anywhere, from conventional garden boxes and planters to a kiddy pool, old sandbox, or even an old claw-foot bathtub. City dwellers take note: Gardens can be created entirely in containers as long as the containers are suited to each individual plant. Once you’ve decided what you’re going to plant your goods in and where (pick a sunny spot that receives at least six hours of sunshine per day), you’ll want to figure out how much you need and want to plant in that space. If you have a small garden, that’s going to be your guide. If you have a larger space, honestly evaluate how much your family can eat, give away, or preserve. The Family Kitchen Garden (Timber Press, 2009) offers a guide for figuring out exactly how much you need for a family of four. (Unfortunately, I read this guide much too late and have already started 60 tomato plants. I guess I’m going to be getting into the ketchup business.)
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Little feet need paths to walk on, creating boundaries so they don’t trample their hard work. The rule of thumb is to make the paths at least a few feet wide so that you can kneel and work in the garden space. (Or, so that a good game of tag won’t ruin a month’s worth of dedication and growth.) After your space is created, talk with a local gardener or read a local gardening guide to ensure that you have healthy soil and know which amendments to add for your region. Most kids aren’t interested in manual labor, so it’s best to work the soil before bringing your kids into the mix—no matter their age. Remember, you want this to be an adventure, not a punishment or a chore.
If you have more than one child, divide the garden, giving each gardener his or her own space for planting. Seeds do not have to be planted in rows. Let your children be creative, planting in a pattern that suits them. This will create a very organic looking space, full of wonder for everyone involved. (Do try to keep seeds the recommended distance from one another to allow them to succeed.)