By Jeff Lowenfels
Gardeners are made, not born. If you want your children to become enthusiastic gardeners, take steps early to get them going down the proverbial path.
It isn’t difficult, but it might require an adjustment to your attitude about children in the garden.
The first step is to pique your child’s interest in plants. This is getting more difficult because of competition from screens. A trip to a plant nursery or two where your child can literally smell the flowers should do the trick. The plants will stimulate the interest.
Next, let your kid buy a plant. I still remember the lantana start, barely a rooted cutting, that my dad helped me choose when I was 6. That plant set the hook. Its first flowers reeled me in.
If your child is not old enough to care for a plant by herself, you are there to teach and assist. This may be the best way to get children into gardening: letting them see how much you enjoy working plants. Children imitate adults. (How do you think they learned to use those electronic screens?)
Another great hook to lead young people into gardening is to have them grow plants from seed. This is particularly effective when the plants are things they like to eat. Carrots are favorites. So are tomatoes and even radishes, though these have pretty small seeds, and you don’t want to frustrate the kids.
If they can’t handle the seeds, have them fill the flats with damp soil. Show them how to water and place labels and provide the right light.
Of course, there are plenty of seeds big enough for little fingers to pick up and plant. Marigolds, cosmos, zinnias, sunflowers, corn, peas and beans fit this bill. They are all also easy to start in containers as well as directly into the garden’s soil.
Don’t forget that children like responsibility. Find a gardening chore that fits their age and is just for them. My first garden job was (at age 5) was deadheading dandelion flowers into a bucket.
When my own kids insisted on being underfoot in the garden, I gave them worm hunting licenses and put them to work. Only a licensee could collect worms. They were gardeners from that moment on, and soon graduated to chickweed collecting and deadheading my own dandelions.
Most important, however, is to have the proper attitude as head gardener and teacher. Learning is about making mistakes, and with gardening that means stepping on plants, pulling things that aren’t weeds, and accidentally spraying your father with the hose. As a parent (or grandparent or neighbor), “go with the flow,” lest you put your child off from gardening forever.
I remember working to clean up plants the night before a local garden club’s tour of our long, raised flower bed. I didn’t realize my 4-year-old was following along behind me, “helping” by removing all (and I mean all) of the flowers.
I could have snapped, and trust me, as the town’s garden columnist I was plenty angry and upset. Instead, I took a deep breath, went inside, and collected lots of bottles and jars. We made beautiful floral displays and placed them all around the naked plants.
The story and the lesson imparted were what visitors took home from that tour. Because of a little attitude adjustment on my part, 40 years later, my daughter still loves to garden. And she is pretty good at floral arranging, too.