When Jack sows a magic bean that disappears up into the sky in the traditional story of Jack and the Beanstalk, children are transported into a world of giants and fantastic adventures. Sharing a passion for gardening with children has a magic of its own.
There is no ‘right’ age for children to start gardening. When they are toddlers, they will naturally want to be with you outside and will join in with your activities – digging, helping to push the wheelbarrow, watering crops, adding weeds to the compost, and so on. If you give them their own-sized tools, they will enjoy their time in the garden even more.
Give them space of their own
Children need a safe place to play, but you can also set aside an area (maybe a small raised bed) for them to grow flowers and vegetables of their own. A packet of nasturtiums is a good starting point – the seeds are chunky and the results are satisfying and colourful. Painting a bright sign to show it is their area or building a scarecrow can help foster a sense of ownership.
Point out the wildlife
Help to make your children aware of the wildlife in the garden. Point out how a robin hops in to catch the insects and worms that you disturb, how bees and insects pollinate flowers, how frogs and hedgehogs eat slugs and snails and how ladybirds keep down aphids which would otherwise spoil the flowers and vegetables.
You can involve young children and toddlers by appealing to all of their senses.
- Smell: Encourage them to smell flowers and herbs. Get them to rub in their fingers and smell thyme and rosemary or lemon verbena or garden mints of all varieties.
- Taste: If you grow vegetables, you have the ideal opportunity to let children sample the exquisite taste of freshly-picked produce. What is sweeter than peas straight from the pod? Let them be the first to pull up young carrots or pick raspberries and strawberries.
- Sight: There is so much for children to see in a garden. As inspiration for pictures it provides the perfect palette – where better to find a buttercup yellow, a rose red, a cornflower blue?
- Sound: Out in the garden, your child will hear the birds singing and the buzz of bees as they visit each flower in turn. Get them to listen for less obvious sounds like the wind in the trees, grasses rustling, or the rasp of grasshoppers.
- Touch: Children reach out to feel what they see, so encourage them to experience different textures outdoors. Let them handle runner beans and other seeds. Digging soil and getting their hands dirty is a great lesson in itself. Finding homes for any worms you dig up gives them a worthwhile task, especially when they learn how beneficial they are for the soil.
Teenagers can be tempted
Enticing older children away from their computers is not as hard as it might seem. Introduce an element of competition and they will soon become keen horticulturalists.
Local produce shows invite entries for the largest pumpkins or marrows, or the longest carrot.
Schools often challenge their pupils to grow the tallest sunflowers, which can be started in yoghurt pots and then planted in the garden as soon as they reach about 15cm in height (making sure they do not become pot-bound).
Winter is the time when gardeners plan for the year ahead. Involve your child by looking through seed catalogues together. Cut out pictures from magazines to stick in a scrapbook of ideas for your garden. On mild days, you can get out to dig and rake over the area you plan to cultivate.
Spring is the time to get planting. You could start with broad beans, which are one of the easiest vegetables for children to grow. The dwarf varieties can be grown in small gardens or even in containers.
- Fill a large pot with a multi-purpose potting compost and distribute a dozen beans evenly over the surface. Show your child how to use a finger to push each seed down into the compost to about 4cm deep and then how to cover the hole with soil and firm the surface, before watering well.
Another simple idea is to grow mustard and cress on a sheet of wet kitchen paper on saucers on the windowsill. The results are very satisfying. The cress needs to be sown a few days before the mustard seed so that it is ready at the same time. (Keep the paper damp at all times.)
In summer, you can admire the fruits of your labours. Get your child picking flowers and harvesting crops, as well as helping with watering in the morning and evening.
Show how important it is to remove weeds – to give your plants a chance to grow – and to pick the caterpillars and slugs off your new lettuces.
Apart from the vital business of jumping into piles of leaves, autumn is generally a clear-up time, when an early bonfire can start you thinking about November 5th. If you have the space, plant a fruit tree for your family to enjoy. Making homes for wildlife to overwinter can be very rewarding and a nesting box can provide added excitement for next year.
It really is magic
Of course, the one plant your child must grow is a beanstalk. It may never reach the sky, but seeing a strong shoot emerge just two weeks after poking the seed into a pot of compost should have your budding gardener hooked for life.
- Encourage children to join in by providing them with appropriate tools and their own space.
- Help children to experience the wonder of a garden by using all their senses.
- Encourage wildlife into your garden for year-round interest.
- Sowing seeds and harvesting are particularly engaging activities.
- A sense of ownership or competition can be great motivators for older children.