In the spring, when the air warms up and the ground thaws, kids have a tendency to find their way out of doors. It’s just so exciting! The fresh air, the sunlight, the dirt. All the dirt. As parents we try to channel that love of dirt into something constructive. Getting them involved in vegetable gardening is a great way to keep them busy while teaching them where food comes from.
Vegetable Gardening with Kids
One of the best ways to let your kids enjoy the great, warm, outdoors is by gardening with them. I’ve been known to hand my kids shovels and send them digging for dinosaur bones in the yard, but vegetable gardening is far more useful in the long run.
It can sound intimidating. Even seasoned gardeners get intimidated by the idea of children running wild through the raised beds. In reality, gardening with kids is fun! With less wildness and more enthusiasm than you’d imagine, kids take to gardening like goats to a blackberry patch.
Kids are natural gardeners.
They love digging and watering (sometimes a little too much). They love burying little seeds in the dirt. Most importantly, they love seeing their seeds sprout into tiny plants and grow! Start planning for a kid friendly vegetable garden now, and next year yours could be the joy of the neighborhood.
If you have the space, consider setting aside a small plot in the garden (a moderately-sized raised bed would be ideal) as a “kid-garden”. Your little ones can tend it with just a bit of parental support, and they’ll beam with pride when their vegetables are on the dinner table.
Another great option, especially in small yards and apartments is container gardening. With a few pots, seeds (or seedlings), and a sunny spot your kids can get dirty growing their own veggies in a low-impact way.
Tomatoes and cucumbers are great container plants for a child’s first patio-garden. Other great container plants like nasturtiums and snap peas are easy to grow from seed as well.
You do want to avoid giving a huge plot to your littlest gardeners. As magical as a Secret Garden-inspired acre of wonderland might seem now, in July, when vegetables are clamoring out of their beds and weeds are everywhere, even the most enthusiastic child will call it quits. Make sure the “Kid Garden” plot is manageable.
Depending your children’s ages, they may need a lot of help getting started. Kids under the age of eight will probably need an adult at least standing by during planting. Younger kids will need more support, but it’s important to let them do most of the actual work. Even if their rows are a bit scraggly or half their seeds don’t germinate, let your kids really own that little garden of theirs.
If your kids are anything like mine, they have a whole list of foods they won’t eat. It’s best to avoid growing vegetables from this list. There’s nothing more disheartening for children (and grown-ups too) than spending a vegetable gardening season growing something only to discover that it tastes awful.
Save the spicy peppers and onions for your own plot and let the kids grow something tasty.
Sugar Snap Peas
With their big, knobbly seeds and edible sprouts, peas are a delight! They can be popped into the earth as soon as winter’s done too. Sugar snap peas are quick growers that taste like a treat.
They’re fantastic in containers or trellised along the edge of a raised bed. Make a snap-pea screen to shade the sandbox, or alongside the porch for a grabbable snack.
Unless you live in a warm, southern climate—or have the light to start seeds indoors in February—you’ll want to pick up some cherry tomato seedlings instead starting from scratch.
These tomatoes are bright and delicious. The can be popped into little mouths so easily. Or try slicing onto a bagel with cream cheese for an easy snack. Try flavorful Sungold cherry tomatoes for a burst of bright yellow in the garden!
Carrots are a well-loved vegetable among kids of all ages! Steamed with butter or sliced raw and spread with peanut butter, they’re a healthy, delicious treat.
Kids love watching the greens sprout up, and they especially love the surprise of pulling up a whole carrot. You never know how big it’ll be until it’s up! Since carrots are a root crop, they don’t take up much space either. Your little gardener can plant them almost anywhere with ease.
The best thing about climbing beans is that they grow into a fort. Whether you intentionally plant pole beans around the playhouse to make a magical Sleeping Beauty castle, or stake out a bean stalk tipi in the center of the yard, climbing beans are certain to bring laughter and joy to your garden.
Since pole beans can transform any area of the garden into a play area, give them space. Try seeding in the beans apart from your child’s actual garden plot to avoid trampling. Plant a bean tipi in an already established play area and watch it grow into an enchanted forest.
Easy to grow from seed, and readily available as seedlings, cucumbers have a mild flavor and an attractive crunch. They’re fun to either grow over trellises, or low to the ground. Slice them up with salt and dill or make refrigerator pickles as a family!
Even if they decide that violets and nasturtiums don’t taste good, kids love growing edible flowers! They love being able to feed them to friends or decorate salads with them.
Throw in some chamomile or bee balm around the edges of your garden to create welcoming, scented little pockets of color for your kids. Tuck nasturtiums in with your snap peas and weave violets in among the cucumbers.
These plants are safe, edible, and attract hummingbirds and butterflies. Kids can make little bundles of herbs to throw in the tub or tuck under their pillows. They’re also ideal companion plants for cheerful gardens.
Most of all, kids love knowing that they could eat these flowers, if they wanted to. It just feels so grown up.
Gardens are natural playgrounds. When kids start spending time in the garden, their imaginations flourish! If you have even a bit of extra space in your garden, consider building a garden-hideout or play space with your kids!
I’ve already mentioned pole-bean tipis, but there are other options! My kids have made a low-hanging elder at the edge of our garden into “the hiding tree”. They spread blankets beneath it and have lunch there on hot, sunny days.
Let your kids bring their toys into the garden. Toy bulldozers scooping up soil are especially helpful (or destructive). Sandboxes make delightful play spaces too. We turned an old raised bed into a sandbox and encouraged lemon balm and yarrow to grow wild around it so that the kids would have a plant “curtain” to enjoy as well.
Tips for Success
Don’t worry about ensuring an abundant harvest. Even just a mildly successful garden will thrill small children. Older children will be inspired to make next year’s garden even better, and everyone will appreciate a break from school-style achievement analysis.
Never make garden work a punishment! It’s a daily or weekly task, and weeding definitely takes work, but keep it fun. We like to surprise our young kids with secret, “fairy” weedings when they’re asleep. They’re more motivated because they know someone else cares as much about their garden as they do!
“Fairy” weeding is also fun because it makes the more challenging aspects of vegetable gardening into a mystery. If you’re not really interested in inviting fairies and mystery into your child’s imagination, try a coupon system. Give them coupons for 2-4 free parent weeding days. A little bit of help goes a long way.
Their Own Special Space
Most importantly, make sure your kids feel at home in the garden. Teach them how to behave, but let them explore too. It’s healthy and joyful for children to know the garden “rules”. In our space, garden rules leave plenty of freedom to run, yell, and play. They just limit a bit of craziness like playing baseball and digging up plants.
When kids see their very own plants growing, they realize that the garden is their space as well. As such, they become invested in the vegetable gardening process. It becomes a hobby for them, and someday, it might grow into a passion. They learn to care for their plants and play gently alongside growing things. They’ll also learn to appreciate where their food comes from.
With each passing season, gardening with kids will become even easier and more fun. Whether you’re a parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, or friendly neighbor, gardening with kids helps to raise up a new, caring, sustainable generation. Good for you!