Parenting

Everything your kids can be doing in the garden, based on their age

They're never too young—or too old—to start gardening.

Mother in garden with two kids Credit: Getty Images / RyanJLane

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The weather is warm, the sky is blue, and you’d love to get your kids outside to learn about gardening—but how? How can plants and dirt compete with the joys of screen time?

The key to get kids gardening is to make it fun. Children love plants, but they may not have the patience to weed all day in the hot sun, or wait for them to flower and bear fruit. Meet your kids where they are: Involve them with planning the garden, then give them age-appropriate tasks.

Tips before you get started

Plant for fast results

New gardeners are happier planting seeds that sprout fast and grow quickly, like radishes, lettuce, spinach, or marigolds. Are you growing a slow-germinating plant like parsley, watermelon or lima beans? Pair quick-sprouting seeds with slow growers so you can see where you planted your seeds, and get some payoff from your work quickly. If you have a small space, you can double crop. Plant and harvest radishes, then plant beans in the former radish patch.

Invest in age-appropriate tools

A lot of kids appreciate gardening gloves to keep dirt off their hands. Opt for nitrile coated gloves over cotton, which tend to fit loosely and don’t protect little hands from thorns and sharp rocks. If your child doesn’t have a favorite shovel, they might like their own trowel. Plastic trowels are cheap, but break very easily. Opt for a metal trowel, and mark the handle with brightly-colored paint or nail polish so you can see it when it’s forgotten under a bush.

Listen to your child’s ideas

Your child isn’t going to be inclined to help you garden if you plant your tomatoes on top of their kickball field. Include your kids in your planning, and make sure that they feel like the garden belongs to them. If your son wants an all-purple garden, and you had your heart set on pale pink roses, set apart a small area that’s his special garden—perhaps behind a hedge.

Think about scent and texture

Gardening isn’t just about pretty flowers; there are fascinating scents and textures that capture children’s attention. Have your child help you choose and raise plants with interesting smells, like herbs (especially mint—but be careful where you plant this aggressive spreader). Flowers like marigolds and sweet alyssum, honeysuckle, lavender, or phlox are also great choices. Kids also enjoy touching plants with different textures, like fuzzy lambs’ ears, smooth zucchini squash or sunflower petals, or crinkly dinosaur kale. Whatever you plant for scent or texture, be sure that you plant enough so that your child can enjoy (that is, pick and destroy) and still leave enough for the rest of the family to be happy.

Plant a rainbow

Kids love bright colors—and thanks to hard-working plant breeders, you can grow vegetables in silly colors that make it easier to find and pick them, and to convince kids to eat them. Who wants green beans when you can have purple beans? Or yellow cucumbers? Or red lettuce, black tomatoes, and white and blue pumpkins? How about a rainbow of carrots or Swiss chard? Whatever your child’s favorite color is, you can find it in vegetable form (although blue is a little trickier).

Gardening activities for kids, by age

Ages 2 to 5

Gardening with little kids
Credit: Getty Images / RyanJLane

Even little kids can help plant (and harvest) the garden.

Dig in
Toddlers love to dig. Your child probably already has a shovel or stick they like to push in the dirt. Invite your child to dig any and all planting holes in the garden, and make sure your child has a designated digging area for their own use—so they’ll leave your “no dig” area alone.

Get wet
If there’s one thing little kids love to do in the garden, it’s pouring water on plants. Fill a bucket with water, or turn your hose on to just a trickle, provide a kid-sized watering can for your child to fill, and point them to whatever plants are looking a little thirsty.

Don’t have a watering can? Take a quart-sized plastic jug and drill or poke holes in the cap for an instant sprinkle cap. Be aware that wherever the bucket or hose is sitting will get soaked; it’s best to set it up on gravel or pavement that doesn’t get slick when it’s wet.

If you use a bucket, make sure you’re closely supervising very young children. Toddlers can drown in buckets with just a few inches of water if they fall in head-first.

Pick up sticks
You don’t need to buy a Jenga set to play pick up sticks! Have your child collect sticks from your yard, then play at pulling sticks out of the pile, or make a child-sized nest. Young children also enjoy making hiding places out of sticks, like teepees.

Collect seeds
At the end of the season, your plants will have seeds! Collect dry seeds from the garden; kids especially enjoy shaking dry seed heads from poppies or sunflowers into a jar. Label the jar with the name of the plant and the date you collected them, and save them in a cool, dry place for next year.

Make seed balls
If you collected seeds last year, or have native plant seeds in your stash, you can use your saved seeds to make seed balls—little balls of dirt you can throw on bare dirt to grow more plants in the area. Mix your seeds with a mix of dry clay and potting soil, form them into balls, and let them dry.

Grade school and up

Gardening with kids
Credit: Getty Images / portishead1

Grade school is a great time to instill a love of gardening.

Keep a garden journal
It’s a good idea for everyone to keep a garden journal—adults and kids alike. It’s a place to write down what you planted when, and interesting things you saw in the garden, like butterflies or worms. Supply your child with colored pencils or crayons, and talk with them about what they wrote. If your child isn’t fond of writing or drawing, they can dry flowers by pressing them between pages of a journal; weight the cover down for best results.

Make up a theme garden
You can plan a garden by color but that’s only the beginning. How about a pizza garden, with tomatoes, oregano, basil? (Sadly, there are no pepperoni plants.) Would you like to make a garden for birds or butterflies, or bees? Or a garden with a plant for every letter of the alphabet? X is tricky, but possible. Anything your child loves can become a garden—and the University of Georgia lists plants for themes including Colonial, math, rainbow, and herb gardens.

Change up the container
Who says you need flower pots to make a garden? You can add fun and planting space with planting containers made of pretty much anything. Have your child look around your house for potential containers like old shoes, toy trucks, a dinosaur, or a spaceship. You can even plant seeds in a juice box (make sure there are holes for drainage!).

Weed treasure hunt
Kids love to look for four-leaf clovers and pick them. Instead of asking your child to weed a bed, show them an example of a specific weed, and ask them to find and pull all of them. Children are often better at finding particular weeds than not pulling out the flowers you want!

Middle school and up

grade school gardening
Credit: Getty Images / FatCamera

Older kids can be especially helpful in the garden.

Make it a race
Planting a row of beans or sunflowers? See which one makes it to 5’ first! Label your plants with team names and measure them each day to see who is growing fastest. The winner gets to claim they’re the fastest bean in the west. If your student has a scientific mind, you can vary conditions—sun vs. shade, amount of water, fertilizer—and see which beans grow fastest.

Make a worm bin
If you don’t have enough room for a compost pile, or you just like worms, your middle-school student can make new friends by setting up a worm bin. A worm bin is simply a waterproof tub with worms, bedding (usually shredded newspaper), and worm food, aka scraps from your kitchen. Feed your worms, and they’ll make great compost that’s perfect for your garden.

Worms do need attention to make sure they aren’t drying out, and they have enough food, but not too much, which is why this is a project for older kids, not elementary school children. Still, many elementary school children deeply appreciate worms. Use your judgement as to whether your children are ready for worms’ lives to depend on them.

High school and up

Teenage gardeneres
Credit: Getty Images / mixetto

Put your teenagers to work—in the garden.

Create a labyrinth
Labyrinths—circular mazes with a single curving path—are featured in dozens of fantasy novels and movies. Gardens and landscapes around the world feature labyrinths, and if your teen dreams of enchanted evenings and mysterious spells, they can design one for your back yard too. Your teen could make a labyrinth out of grasses and wildflowers, bricks in a lawn, or stones and plants, or a simple design of rope on bare ground. Garden labyrinths are perfect for enchantment… or simple contemplation of life, whichever your teen needs more nowadays.

High school and beyond—even grown-ups

Channel Andy Goldsworthy
Goldsworthy is famous for making temporary art out of anything in reach, like leaves, sticks and rocks. Anything you collect in your garden can become a design: a face, a nest, a web. Making art out of the leaves and twigs in your garden will help your child look more closely at the natural world.

Build a house for friends
Young children enjoy building tiny “fairy houses” that look like human real estate—but there are plenty of creatures in your garden that would enjoy a new home. You can make a toad house out of an upside-down flower pot to attract an amphibian friend who will eat slugs and bugs that attack your plants. Older children can help build a bird house, a bird bath, or bat house to make wildlife comfortable in your yard.

Plant a house
You can make a "bean teepee” by anchoring sticks in a circle and tying them together at the top, then planting beans, honeysuckle, or another vining plant at the base of the poles. The vines will make shade and shelter as they grow. Don’t have sticks? You can also make enclosures by growing vines with sunflowers or corn. Plant the sunflowers in a circle, and plant vines at the base. Remember to leave an opening for a door!

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