Whether you have a sprawling backyard or a windowsill in a small city apartment, growing is something every family can — and should — do together, says Renata Brown, author of “Gardening Lab for Kids: 52 Fun Experiments.” Brown, the former vice president of education at the Cleveland Botanical Garden — and current director of program operations at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Cleveland — knows a thing or two about getting your little ones engaged.
Whether it’s teaching them about the environment, showing them the practical skills of growing tomatoes, or just getting their hands dirty (what kid doesn’t love that?) here how to get your project off the ground. Follow these pro tips and your brood will be harvesting in no time.
Garden with Kids No Matter Your Space
Big, lush gardens are great, but small collections of succulents or a leafy house plant on a shelf can be just as pretty — and just as beneficial for your kids’ development.
"Gardening teaches children patience,” says Jenny Hendy, a gardening expert who’s written over 20 books on the subject including the award winning, “Kids First Gardening Book: The Ultimate Step-By-Step-Guide.” “It teaches boys and girls to nurture things, and to understand that it is wrong to indiscriminately kill insects just because we don't understand them, or because we fear them. With the right direction, kids will develop a better handle on the value of nature and our environment.”
Children also lean patience from gardening and benefit in both mental and physical ways from simply being near greenery.
“An important part of learning about a garden is trial and error,” Brown notes. “Gardening is such an easy, pain free way of learning life lessons; like if the plant dies, we now have great nutrients for our soil.”
Need more convincing? “A ton of research shows kids who garden and interact with plants have decreased ADD (attention deficit disorder) symptoms, and being active in the garden can lead to lower weight,” she adds. “Being around plants decreases blood pressure, instill calmness and having plants inside means more oxygen. Spend some money on indoor plants — it’s worth it.”
It’s a good idea to get your kids interested in the process inside before heading outdoors. To do so start by growing a bean in a bag.
“Plant a lima bean in a sandwich bag by wrapping it in a moist paper towel and sitting it somewhere warm,” says Brown. “Kids are impatient and not in an abstract phase. They can’t tell that roots are there if they can’t see them for themselves. The bean in the bag trick will show them all the parts of the lima bean plant before it gets transplanted into soil.”
Brown says that projects like this progress quickly, keeping kids engaged and enthused about gardening instead of losing interest.
“Beans sprout quickly,” she notes. “Sunflowers grow quickly too, they’re awesome kid flowers."
Time To Plant
Once your child’s plant is ready to move to soil, it’ll need a designated place to grow. If it’s outside, set aside a plot that your son or daughter will be responsible for in a fun way. If it’s inside, tackle a project together to create that space.
“You can build a planter together out of old car tires,” suggests Brown. “Just stack them up on top of each other, paint them bright colors and fill them with soil.” Don’t have that much space? “In an apartment, you can make small terrarium gardens out of plastic bottles,” she says. “Just cut off the tops and add some gravel, soil and the plant.”
Pick Your Crop
Deciding what crops or flowers are best for your home garden will depend on the amount of sunlight and space you have available to you. It’s also smart to consider how long a given plant will take to grow or flower, especially with results-oriented youngsters in charge. Take a look at the in-soil label that comes with each plant at home and gardening stores for information on how much sun you’ll need and how long it’ll be before it sprouts.
“Kids love to pick fruits including tomatoes and berries straight from the plant!” says Hendy. Since these are a bit trickier to grow from seed she says for the little ones start with plants.
Hendy also recommends potted marigolds and poached egg plants (a white and yellow bloom) for window boxes. “They flower in only 8-10 weeks from sowing,” she says.
And some plants require minimal effort with maximum effect — perfect for finicky kids.
“Zinnias are virtually indestructible, low maintenance and are going to give you flowers all summer,” Brown adds.
Get started by making your own seed and seedling pots: