If you want to get your children started with growing their own food at home, don’t be intimidated by the elaborate children’s gardens you see in magazines, says Sarah Pounders, Education Specialist at KidsGardening.org. Sometimes just a bucket of dirt puts them on the right path.
Sarah Pounders has been helping kids grow plants for over 20 years.
In graduate school at Texas A&M University, she conducted research into using school gardening programs to teach nutrition, and she’s worked for botanical gardens and state extension programs.
Since joining KidsGardening.org as an Educational Specialist in 2005, Sarah has taught and coordinated many children’s gardening programs. She trains teachers, writes curricula, and designs gardening activities for children of all ages.
Born to Garden
Sarah’s father is a horticulture professor. “We grew up in his tissue culture lab and greenhouse, and every family vacation included a trip to a botanical garden,” she says. “And of course, we always had a very extensive garden at home.”
Now Sarah is completing that circle by teaching her daughter and son, ages 8 and 5, about gardening.
We asked Sarah for the most important things parents need to know about teaching their kids to enjoy growing their own food at home. She offers these seven tips.
1. To get started, meet them where they are (even if that’s just in the dirt)
Sarah’s experience with her own two children illustrates perfectly how to let your children shape their first gardening experience.
“With my daughter, we started out with tomatoes so that she could watch the whole cycle and she had something to pick at the end,” she said. “With my son, it turns out he just wanted a bucket of soil the first year, and I just kinda went with that. So it’s really just meeting them where they’re at.”
Sarah suggests letting your children choose just one or two of several options you offer them. “Don’t try to do too much at once,” she says. If you’re growing outside, start with fruits and vegetables best suited to your climate. Check with your local university extension office for tips on specific varieties, start times, etc.
2. Use container gardens that can easily grow as your children grow
Container gardens are the best way to start, especially with very young children, Sarah says. They have several key advantages for kids:
- You can increase the size of the containers as your children grow in size, interest and ability.
- You can move containers from the inside — in a window or in an indoor greenhouse — to the outside, and vice versa.
- “Young children especially love to water plants,” Sarah says. “So a good-draining soil and container is a good match.”
- Weeding isn’t usually necessary for container plants. Not that you don’t want to teach your children to properly care for a garden, including weeding, but it’s more important at first that the experience be easy and fun.
3. Forget the kids’ gardens you see in most magazines
Glossy gardening magazines feature gorgeously maintained gardens, because, well, that’s what you buy those magazine to see, right? But when it comes to gardens for children, don’t let that stuff intimidate you.
“You see these elaborate gardens that people create for their kids, and they really don’t need anything that big,” Sarah says. “I always caution parents that a children’s garden will not necessarily be beautiful in the traditional sense. But in the kids’ eyes it is.”
4. To move the education from the garden to the kitchen, grow herbs
You might not think kids would be into herbs, but sometimes that’s just the thing.
Sarah gardens with a young nephew she calls “a natural born gardener,” and it was an herb garden that caught his interest when he was very small. “The herbs were things he could touch and smell,” she recalls. “Little children want something they can investigate, but their attention spans are short.”
As children grow, herb gardens are a great way to get them involved in cooking the food they grow. “The herbs are a lot of fun, because kids can pull off the leaves and smell them, and you can put them in different recipes, like making pizza with basil,” Sarah says.
5. Grow food indoors throughout the year
Sarah hasn’t had much success with windowsill gardening for kids, but using grow lights can be effective. She’s currently growing plants with her kids at home under a set of full-spectrum grow lights and a humidity tent. They have a blast planting the seeds and watching them germinate and grow.
One lesson they learned quickly was not to over-seed. “We definitely over-planted on the first round, but the kids really enjoyed it. I think the trickiest part was making sure the seedlings got enough light,” Sarah said.
If you want to grow vegetables indoors from start to finish, she suggests salad crops, such as lettuce. They’re easy to grow, and you can quickly cut them, wash them and plunk them right into a salad with no other preparation or cooking.
Root crops are also simple to grow if your soil is deep enough, but fruiting plants like tomatoes are a little more challenging for younger children indoors.
6. Give older kids more ownership and control over what they grow
If you have older children, even teens, who haven’t gardened before, Sarah says you might be surprised by how well they take to growing their own food.
“I very rarely see kids who don’t get excited about watching their plants grow,” she says. “They’re proud of their garden. With older kids, they really like to have a say in what they’re planting and growing.”
She’s currently working with a fourth-grade school garden. She and the teachers have found that it works best to divide the raised bed gardens into plots, and have kids form pairs or small groups to plan, plant and maintain their own spaces.
Sarah tries to offer the kids about 10 different vegetable plants from which they can choose. The students typically plant a fall garden and then a spring garden, and Sarah says their knowledge and enthusiasm take a big leap from one season to the next.
She has also seen other school garden programs for older students that incorporate technology such as mobile phones and tablets with gardening apps as a way to grab their attention to help them learn and stay interested.
7. Resist the urge to fix everything — failure is a good teacher
The thing some kids love to do with the first vegetable plant they grow is …stomp it to smithereens. And that’s okay, Sarah says. Let your children learn at their own speed. Mistakes are great teachers, no?
Let’s go back to Sarah’s children. Remember her daughter, who at first wanted to see a tomato grow from a seed into a fruit? “I don’t know that any of the tomatoes actually got to stay on long enough to turn red — I think maybe one made it,” she says.
Her son graduated from playing with just a clay pot of soil to planting seeds, she says, “But any flower that would come up, he’d pick apart. He really just likes to keep pulling things apart. I keep waiting for the day when he likes to put them back together, but we haven’t gotten to that yet.”
However, by showing her son how some flowers produce seed pods that can be harvested, Sarah has taught him to leave some plants alone long enough to do that. Progress! And hey, he’s only five — she’s prepared to wait a bit longer before he starts growing edible food.
“When it comes to vegetables, I’m okay if kids aren’t 100% successful,” Sarah says.
When vegetables don’t thrive in her school gardens, she uses that to make a point about how hard farming can be. “People can take our food supply for granted. We should appreciate how much work it is for farmers to grow food for us, and they have crop failures, too. So what do you do? You pick something else to grow,” she says.
Growing Food Makes Children More Willing to Try Different Foods
One of the main reasons parents try to get their children into growing their own food is so they’ll eat more of the good stuff. That can certainly happen over time, but don’t be too concerned if gardening doesn’t immediately turn your child into a vegetable-eating machine, Sarah says.
One effect she’s seen is that children who grow food with their own hands are more willing than other children to try new fruits and vegetables. Down the road, that could have a huge impact on their lives.
The key is not to force it. “Just be patient with them — and with yourself,” Sarah says. “Make sure it’s a fun experience and remember they’re probably not going to grow prize-winning tomatoes the first year out.”
Need More Ideas About Gardening With Your Kids?
Kidsgardening.org offers a wide array of activity ideas for home and lesson ideas for school. “Parents and teachers can sign up to receive the monthly e-newsletter, Kids Garden News, or the weekly blog, Growing Ideas, for regular updates and seasonal gardening ideas.”
KidsGardening is a national nonprofit with the mission to promote and support youth gardening efforts with the ultimate goal of making sure every child has a chance to learn and grow in a garden. They offer support through online resources, printed curriculum and activity guide books, and grants for schools and community youth gardens.
You can also read more about Sarah’s gardening activities at home at her own blog, Adventures in Gardening with Children.
Are you ready to grow your garden year-round?