ask-ruth-pictureDear Ruth,

I hate housework, but I love gardening and working in my yard. I want to instill a love of gardening in my children. Do you have any suggestions that might get kids excited about gardening?

Ella K., Asheville, NC


Dear Ella,

Love your thinking! This subject is dear to my heart. Kids love being outside, and going outside is an instant attitude adjustment for kids and grownups too. Even little babies seem to get in a better mood when you take them outside. The smell of dirt actually raises your spirits, and farm kids are known to have less allergies and less asthma.

Asher with Tomato Your own enthusiasm will be contagious. Anytime you are working in your garden, just bring the kids along. Tasks will take longer to accomplish, but it is SO worth it. Don’t expect a lot from them initially (as far as weeding, etc). Just share your delight with the natural world. Teach them the names of plants. Rub basil and rosemary leaves, and breathe in their scents. Assuming the garden is organic and the plant is safe; let them graze on anything they want to eat. My daughter loved eating parsley. They will eat things in the garden that they won’t touch on their dinner plate.

Here are a few more ideas:

Plant seeds that come up quickly and reliably – like peas, beans, zinnias, sunflowers, and radishes. Plant your seeds outside or in a sunny windowsill. Check regularly for progress so they can witness the magic of a sprouting seed. ‘Watermelon’ Radish is fast growing and exceptionally pretty with pink flesh and light green skin.

Let them plant a four pack of veggie plants or flowers (even if you have to redo it later when they are not looking).

Kids love dirt, and soft garden soil is really fun. Bring out the toy bulldozers, dump trucks, and back hoes. The fun factor trumps a little soil compaction. tucker on the farm w bulldozer

Allocate a particular patch in your garden to each child in your family that will be exclusively theirs. Define the boundaries, with stones for instance, and allow them to “garden” however they want in their spot.

Plant familiar vegetables, like carrots, in the garden or in a pot on your deck. I can still see the wonder in my niece’s eyes when she pulled up a carrot from my garden. Until then, I am pretty sure she had only seen carrots in the grocery store. Varieties like ‘Little Finger’ Carrot are extra-cute.

Lie on the ground and watch clouds.

Plant edible flowers you can eat while gardening or on your salads – like pansies, impatiens, calendula, and nasturtiums (make sure that any chemicals previously used to raise the plant are suitable for edible crops).

Make a bean teepee. Make a teepee with bamboo poles or saplings. Tie the poles together at the top and push the bottoms into the ground for added support. Run a string around the teepee in a spiral from bottom to top (leave room for a door). Make it large enough that it is comfortable to go inside once the plants have filled in – err on the side of bigger so it won’t be claustrophobic. Plant beans along the base of the tepee and the teepee will soon be covered in vines. Scarlet Runner Beans and Purple Hyacinth Beans both have showy flowers and edible pods.

Make a fairy house with bark slabs, moss, sticks, and whatever else you can find around the yard. Acorn tops make perfect fairy bowls.

Visit the garden at night. Find the Big Dipper in the heavens. A garden lit by the full moon is enchanting. White flowers will enhance your “moon garden” since they show up beautifully after dark.

Eat your cover crop. The tips of Austrian Winter Peas are delicious and kids can pick their own garden treat anytime they are outside. Make sure your children realize not every plant in your yard is edible and that some could be poisonous. Teach them to identify Poison Ivy (Leaves of three, leave them be) and to avoid all contact with it.

Get your children some quality kid-sized tools. I actually used to borrow my daughter’s little hoe…it was great for hoeing between lettuce. Make sure your child understands proper tool use/tool etiquette…you don’t want anyone getting hit over the head with a sharp hoe!

Add a bench to the garden – for sun basking on cool days, reading a book, nursing the baby, star gazing, or kicking back with a beer and some juice after all your hard work.

Be reasonable and patient. Remember your long-term goal is to instill a love of gardening. My daughter loved gardening as a little kid, but then (after helping on our farm as she got older) decided she wanted nothing to do with agriculture. Now she pictures herself having her own garden someday. Yay!

Drew and Asher with HarvestThink age appropriate tasks. Show kids the right way to harvest different crops and the ideal harvest size of each crop. Then don’t freak out is they get it wrong (they will learn). They will do a great job – even if that just means carrying the harvest basket inside.

Let the kids help cook the harvest. They will be more inclined to eat it. Introduce new garden veggies in something they like…perhaps as a pizza toppingor added to cheesy pasta.

Make mudpies and have a tea party. It’s easy to scrounge up some mini pie pans and a board.

Locate the sandbox in the garden. Digging is fun and easy in sand. You can weed the garden while they play in the sandbox and everyone is happy. Cover the sandbox when not in use – so cats can’t use the bathroom there.

Hang a birdfeeder. Teach your kids (and yourself) the names of the birds that visit the feeder. You can buy laminated bird-ID brochures to ID birds in your region.

Make a sunflower house. This idea is from Sharon Lovejoy’s book Sunflower Houses. Plant sunflowers in a square or circle shape (large enough to play in). Leave a gap in the seeds for the door. Plant ‘Heavenly Blue’ Morning Glories all around the base of the sunflowers. When the sunflowers are tall enough, make a “roof” by weaving strings from one sunflower across the house to other sunflowers. The roof will quickly fill in with morning glories. Very jolly!

Plant flowers that attract butterflies and plants that host caterpillars. Bronze fennel is a great perennial host plant with fragrant foliage. It also provides harbor for beneficial insects.

Be safe. Store any garden products that could be harmful to your children or pets in a safe place out of reach.

Think texture. Children love plants like Lambs Ear because they are so soft and fuzzy. I remember being fascinated with the large mullein leaves that grew near my grandmother’s water spicket.

Add some fun touches to your garden simply to delight your kids.

Garden organically. You don’t want to worry that your children will be poisoned, and you can eat most things right out of the garden if you garden organically. CAUTION: Please note that even some organic pesticides instruct you to wait a few days until harvest. Always, always read and follow any pesticide instructions.

Fight the temptation to let your kids play on your smart phone or other device while you tucker eating dirtgarden. Engage their imaginations with all the natural beauty at hand. It is one special gift you can give to your children as a parent. This gift will serve them into adulthood and create future generations that cherish the beauty of our planet and feel compelled to be environmental stewards.

When I was a kid, my mother didn’t want us underfoot until dinnertime. I was lucky to spend most of my free time playing outdoors – exploring the woods, digging holes, climbing trees, and pretending to be spacemen and pioneers with my sibling’s and cousins. Unfortunately, studies show that kids are spending less and less time outside…with detrimental results. Our country’s obesity rate indicates the sedentary nature of our 21st century lives. Much of our free time is spent on computers or watching TV.

With asthma, allergies, and attention-deficit disorders on the rise, there is lots of evidence that being outdoors brings loads of benefits. According to former First Lady Laura Bush, “Unstructured, natural play helps stimulate creativity and improves problem solving. The more time spent outside, the better the achievement levels inside our state’s schools and classrooms”. First Lady Michelle Obama, along with championing an organic garden at the White House, made childhood obesity a priority issue with Lets Move programs. The No Child Left Inside movement is based on a book by Richard Louv called Last Child In The Woods; Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder. There is even a Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights and a call to establish a Green Hour for your family.

OK, so this is an official OGS call to outdoor action – for all parents, grandparents, relatives, and family friends…get gardening with the kids, because everybody benefits. But let’s keep it relaxing. Don’t make it too complicated. Just enjoy introducing your kids to gardening and nature. Engage their imagination and resuscitate your own imagination…stir in some patience and laughter…take the time to watch a worm wiggling in the soil. Embrace your sense of wonder and ignite theirs, and have a some fun.

Have a great time with your children,



Ruth Gonzalez is a former market farmer, gardener, local food advocate, and founder of the Tailgate Market Fan Club where she blogs at In her job at Reems Creek Nursery, Ruth offers advice on all sorts of gardening questions, and benefits daily from the wisdom of local gardeners.

Ask Ruth © 2013 Ruth Gonzalez & Organic Growers School

Author: Ruth Gonzalez

Ruth Gonzalez is a former market farmer, gardener, and local food advocate who wants to see organic farms proliferate and organic gardens in every yard. She also served on the Organic Growers School Board of Directors. In her job at Reems Creek Nursery, Ruth offers advice on all sorts of gardening questions, and benefits daily from the wisdom of local gardeners.

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