Last summer my 5-year-old daughter, Mary Elena, and I planted a few carrot and radish seeds in a small patch of otherwise neglected dirt near our garage. I bought her a little watering can shaped like an elephant (the water came splashing out of the trunk), and she tended to the tiny sprouts first thing every morning. Seeing the wonder in Mary Elena's eyes as we watched the shoots get bigger was priceless. Her pride in the harvest—we served “her” carrots with dinner several nights—was boundless. (She was even willing to try a radish. Who knew?) This summer we're expanding our backyard crop by adding lettuce, beans and raspberries.
Gardening is a terrific family bonding experience, says Rebecca P. Cohen, author of 15 Minutes Outside: 365 Ways to Get Out of the House and Connect With Your Kids. “A garden gives you a place to connect with each other year-round; even in winter you can draw up plans and talk about what to plant.” Plus, everyone can enjoy the fresh air and exercise (digging, hoeing, hauling!). “When kids are outdoors, they work up an appetite,” notes Cohen. “Tasting veggies right from the garden becomes a new way of snacking—and kids are indeed more likely to taste vegetables they grew themselves.”
Check Out These Age-by-Age Projects for Little Green Thumbs
- Speed-garden. Toddlers and waiting don't mix. For fast results, place a few pea or bean seeds and a slightly moistened cotton ball in a see-through plastic cup or sandwich bag (tape it to the window for maximum sun and easy viewing). “This is the absolute easiest way to begin,” says Cohen. “You'll see sprouts within a week.” Then transfer the seedlings to a garden or container (see “No Backyard? No Problem!” below).
- Let 'em get dirty. “Give your child a small hand trowel and let her search through the soil for worms,” says Rose Judd-Murray, a youth gardening specialist with the National Gardening Association (kidsgardening.org). “She can even carefully handle the worms and measure how long they are.”
Ages 3 to 4
- Build a bean tepee. This easy, fast-growing project makes a terrific fort. Pick a spot that gets at least six hours of sun per day. Buy five 6-foot wooden stakes (or use fallen tree branches sturdy enough to support a growing plant) and stick them a few inches into the ground, tying the stakes together at the top like a tepee. Add a bit of new soil around each stake and have kids press a few pole-bean seeds an inch or so into the ground. Sprouts will wind their way up the stakes in a couple of weeks.
- Keep a calendar. Preschoolers are learning patience and a sense of time—concepts that can be reinforced in the garden. Use a calendar to highlight the days when you expect seeds to germinate. To add to kids' sense of accomplishment—and make the waiting more bearable—have them put a sticker or check mark on days they water and weed.
- Choose the right plants. For the best chance of success, pick easy-to-grow veggies such as radishes, carrots and lettuce. Seeds that are big enough for little fingers to handle easily include sunflowers, nasturtiums, beans, and peas.
Ages 5 to 6
- Start with seedlings. For an edible haul faster, start with small veggie plants instead of seeds; kids' feelings of accomplishment will be boosted by the quick results.
- Create a storybook garden. Read a favorite garden-themed book and create your own garden to match. Two favorites: The Carrot Seed, by Ruth Krauss, and To Be Like the Sun, by Susan Marie Swanson. Pick a sunny spot and plant carrot or sunflower seeds in the ground or a container (be sure to choose a place with enough room—sunflowers can grow up to 15 feet tall!). The wow factor with sunflowers makes them a special favorite with kindergarten kids.
No Backyard? No Problem
You can still grow plants in a container garden on a porch or windowsill, says gardening expert Rebecca P. Cohen. To get started, you'll need a 12-inch-diameter bucket with good drainage (soil that's too wet is bad for plants); potting mix; and a location with full sun every day. Or add a fun twist with containers that can be adapted for growing, such as milk cartons, baskets, plastic pails or items in the recycling bin (poke holes in your container if necessary).