The Busy Parent’s Guide to Gardening
Any time is the right time to start a garden with your kids.
Is spring inspiring dreams of flowers and vegetables, but you wonder how you can find the time to create and maintain a flower or vegetable garden? Gardening need not mean time away from your children. It can be a fun and rewarding shared activity. The key is to keep it simple! These tips and tricks will help you do that, and have your garden growing in no time.
If you are excited about the garden, you will spend more time there and it will thrive, and your excitement will inspire your kids. Choose some gardening books from the library – for both you and the kids!
For children, “The Garden” from Frog & Toad Together is a great story about the process of planting and then waiting for a garden to grow, and can be enjoyed in book, song, or video form via a quick Google search. Two Little Gardeners by Margaret Wise Brown is a beloved classic, too.
For you, The Beginner’s Guide to Starting a Garden is a practical and encouraging book that guides you through establishing small garden spaces and includes excellent, low-maintenance plant recommendations. The Penn State extension site has many articles about gardening, and our local NPR station offers a nationally broadcast gardening show, You Bet Your Garden. And, of course, there is always Pinterest.
We are lucky to live in America’s Garden Capital, with more than 30 public gardens, arboreta and historic landscapes all within 30 miles of the city. A walk around one of them will be very inspirational, and you can also take advantage of classes, workshops and demonstrations. Your local garden center is also a source for inspiration, and can be entertainment enough for young children. When you’re ready, you can purchase everything from plants to containers to tools there.
Pick the Right Spot
Gardens thrive in sunny, well-drained spots. Choose a place close to your house or near your main outdoor play area, so that you will be near it often. Focus on a small piece of yard at first – you can always add to it as you go.
When you pick the place to establish your garden, choose a nearby place to put a dirt pile for the kids! Children have a short attention span; with a dirt pile near, you can begin tending the garden together and then they can play in the dirt while you finish.
Don’t forget about containers! In fact, Mallery Smith, a gardener at Tyler Arboretum in Media, suggests containers as the best place for a beginning gardener to begin because “there is little preparation involved, containers don’t require a lot of weeding, and they can be conveniently located just outside your door, on a terrace and even on a windowsill.”
Smith said plastic containers are great to start with since they are light and easy to move around. You can also add a pot or two in your garden bed to give it height or to contain a plant that tends to take over.
In the ground or containers, soil is your plants’ home, so investing in good soil is money well spent. If you’re beginning a garden in a bed that has been dormant, work with your kids to turn over the dirt, remove large rocks (save those for a rock garden or to paint), and add in new soil and compost mix. If you’re removing lawn to create a garden, add new soil and compost there.
Smith recommends a “slow release organic fertilizer, such as Espoma products, to provide a good, slow source of plant nutrition over time.”
Mulch is also a worthwhile investment because it significantly reduces the weeds and makes your garden that much more low-maintenance. There are many choices, including natural ones, for mulch!
Choose Plants Together
There are no wrong plants to choose, and your garden should be a place for experimentation. Here is a list of plants that thrive in our climate. Local landscape architect, avid gardener, and mom Allegra Churchill recommends a few plants that grow well in our area, and are fun and rewarding for children:
Peas: Peas can be planted right now outside, so they are a great way to celebrate spring’s arrival. The seeds are large and fun for children to examine, and peas will be ready quickly. Sugar-snap peas are sweet and great for snacking on right off the vine when they come up in June.
Tomatoes: Tomato seeds can be started in pots indoors and then moved outside when the weather warms, or in June you can buy seedlings to plant directly in the ground. Choose cherry or sun gold tomatoes, which are easy for children to pick and eat, incredibly sweet, and disease-resistant, have a high yield per plant, and grow quickly.
Basil and Marigolds: Basil and marigolds can be planted near the tomatoes. Share with your children that often foods that taste good together can grow near each other – like tomatoes and basil. Marigolds are bright, spicy-smelling and fun to grow for kids, and they keep pests away from the tomatoes.
New gardeners should look for vegetable varieties that state that they are “disease-resistant” or note resistance to particular diseases, Smith said.
Round out your garden with plants that interest you or your children. Consider shape and texture: lambs ear has a soft, furry texture that kids love, and kids can pinch snapdragon flowers open and shut. A mixed seed packet that your kids can help you sprinkle in the soil can provide fun surprises as you see what comes up where.
In all cases, you can choose to start from seed, but buying seedlings offers quicker results and is more reliable for beginning gardeners.
Don’t Forget Tools….and Water
Invest in tools for you and your children that will make work in the garden easy and rewarding. The main thing to look for in tools is durability; no plastic or cheap metal that will crack when you push it into hard soil.
At a minimum, be sure you have garden gloves and a sun hat, a hand trowel, a weeder, a longer shovel, and a pruner. For kids, garden gloves and a sun hat, a trowel, shovel and small rake will keep them happy, but be sure they are kid-size! You can kneel on paper bags if you don’t want to invest in a gardening kneeler. You can find all of these items at a garden store. Purchase the highest quality that you can afford.
Watering the garden is a task that can often get lost amid the busy summer days, but is also something that most kids can do independently. Be sure you have a spray nozzle for your hose, and set a schedule.
Perhaps you water right after you wake up, or just before dinner. Try not to make your watering time at the peak of the day’s heat. Drip irrigation systems (purchased or DIY) and inverted bottles in container gardens are inexpensive watering solutions that can save you from having to water each day. When you water, aim for the soil since getting leaves wet increases the chance for disease. Also pick one day a week that you will look for weeds.
Any Time is a Good Time
If springtime and end-of-school activities pack your schedule and you don’t get your garden started, no problem! You can start a garden anytime. Find plants at a garden center in July. Late summer and fall gardens will extend the season. Peas and strawberries, as well as many lettuces and other greens, can be planted in late summer for a fall bounty. Throughout the season, you can add flowers to an existing garden or start a new flower garden by going to the garden center and browsing for seedlings.
Appreciate the Garden
Appreciate the value of your garden – both the process and the results. Know that the time you spend together in the garden is nurturing for both you and your children. Gardening tasks are wonderful learning opportunities for kids: picking out weeds builds visual discrimination skills that strengthen pre-reading and reading skills, and plant identification is a wonderful exercise in color and shape recognition.
Dissect your seeds and flowers and leaves and learn about their parts. Plant the same plant in a few places and consider why it fared better in one spot than another. Gardening is a great chance for gross motor skill development, too. Setting a goal, making a plan and executing together will strengthen your families’ ties to one another.
Gardening also builds “soft skills.” Churchill points out that it’s a wonderful way for children to learn and experience failure and persistence. If seeds don’t come up or plants die, talk about why.
Did you water and care for the seeds or plants well? If not, pledge to try again. If you did, talk about how sometimes, even when we try, things don’t go as well as we hope. If animals eat your plants or bugs get to them, talk about the food chain and nature, and also what you might do to protect the plants next time.
Above all, take the time to walk around the garden and revel in its beauty together often. Take some drawing supplies outside and capture the beauty you created. Taste your vegetables and smell your plants. Notice the differences in your garden in the morning, afternoon and evening, and as the seasons change.
“Many studies show the calming benefits of tending a plant, as well as the cheer from flowers and the healthy benefits of fresh herbs. You don’t have to have a huge garden to benefit your mind and body,” Churchill said.
So, go for it, and have a beautiful season!
Lead Photograph by Laura Swartz.