How to Start Gardening with Kids
It is awesome when your child takes an interest is gardening, especially if it’s something you yourself are into. You want to give them every positive experience: the crunch of a freshly plucked sweet pea off the vine, that indescribable smell of tomato vines on your hands, the quiet peace of watching a honeybee awkwardly spelunking into a squash blossom.
Gardening is magical, and it is a powerful responsibility to pass that on to the younger generation. But how do you do it honestly and authentically, while also avoiding the many annoyances and pitfalls of home gardening that can make it a disappointing, thankless chore?
Did You Know Gardening Isn’t Always Fun?
If you are a gardener of any type, you know this. If you are NOT a gardener and you are being asked by your little person/people to start a garden, then you need to learn this simple fact: gardening is not all sunshine and fresh kale in your smoothie. There are many things about gardening that can be discouraging. These are things like (but not limited to):
- Bugs that eat your plants
- Animals that eat your plants
- Animals that dig up your seeds
- Animals that dig up your plants
- Animals that dig up your plants and then poop there
- Diseases that kill your plants
- Watering too much and killing your plants
- Watering too little and killing your plants
- Planting seedlings outside without hardening them off and killing your baby plants
- Planting seedlings or seeds outside at the wrong time of year, so your plants just don’t grow
If you’re still here, good. That list sounds overwhelming and horrible, and gardening can feel that way sometimes when things go wrong, but there are ways to make many of those problems non-existent or at least make them less likely to happen. With kids, especially young ones, you have to make the gardening experience as fun as possible.
Lesson #1: Keep it Small
As with any other new endeavour, don’t go nuts right away. Yay, your child is excited, but you don’t have to buy a bunch of equipment and raised beds and sprinkler systems. You can start a pretty awesome garden with dried supermarket beans in some yogurt containers on a windowsill. Take it slow. Interest may fade, or be an on-again, off-again thing, so whole-hog garden transformations are unnecessary at this moment. Plus, by focusing on just a few things at a time, you don’t risk spreading yourself too thin and forgetting things, like watering and hardening off.
Lesson #2: (Most) Gardening Kits Made for Kids are Garbage
There is a whole industry that makes “science” kits. The kits vary from stupid to downright evil. They contain a ton of extra packaging and tiny cheaply-made pieces. Here are some of them: @Amazon One kit is literally a bowl of dirt, grass seed, and fairy lights. Not only is it ridiculous and (literally) short-lived, it will be a total letdown to the little girl who wanted her own “Fairy Garden.” Worst of all, these kits might sit on a store shelf for years, so who even knows if the seeds will sprout at all?
I understand the appeal of kits–they have everything you need, all in one place. But I recommend using what you have at home already, especially if you have usable soil or can even buy a bag of it, because it helps enforce the truth of gardening: it can happen anywhere! To get you started, I wrote a whole article about starting seeds in pots you already own.
If you are intent on gifting a kit, try looking on Etsy or at a local garden center. You’ll find more realistic options (like succulent fairy gardens), earth-friendly packaging, and probably way fresher seeds.
Lesson #3: Choose the Fastest, Easiest Plants that Kids Actually Like
Here’s my recipe for success when it comes to choosing plants to grow with kids:
- Choose annual plants or fast-growing perennials
- Only grow plants your kid(s) will actually eat normally or enjoy looking at
- Pick easy plants, not persnickety ones
Let’s break that down, shall we?
Choose annual plants or fast-growing perennials
While it is admirable to attempt to start a Lemon or Cherry tree from seed, at some point this project will fall apart. Trees take years to get to actually fruiting, and most commercial fruit trees are not grown from seeds–they are grafted onto different root stock. These are not beginner gardening projects unless you plan to sprout the seeds and then let the plant die. Even plants that could work out properly, and sprout easily, like avocado or mango, will take so long to do more than leaf out that the interest may just die away and you’re left with a massive houseplant that may or may not ever fruit.
By going with annuals (plants that sprout, grow, and die in one year) like vegetables or fast-growing perennials (like herbs that will overwinter in mild climates, or strawberry crowns that come back again every year), you get results in a shorter amount of time. Part of nurturing interest in anything is keeping that interest alive.
Only grow plants your kid(s) will actually eat normally or enjoy looking at
Seed catalogs are dangerous because while every plant looks awesome in them, remember that someone’s got to eat that wonderful food when it grows. “Ooh, look at those candy-striped beets!” becomes “Ew, it tastes like dirt!” Find things that you and your family will truly enjoy a bounty of, because a garden of wasted food is a real shame, to kids and adults. Flowers are definitely easier to pick in this way, because they only have to look pretty.
Pick easy plants, not persnickety ones
Just like your neighbor’s kids who somehow sustain themselves solely on salami and olives, some plants are very picky. They need a specific pH of soil, extra calcium at different times of the season, and just a soupçon of shade later in the day. Forget those plants. You want hardy, tough plants. Plants that will reseed in a crack in the sidewalk and be just as happy as if they were in a bucket of manure.
Lesson #4: Seeds are Cheap, but Plants are Precious
You can get seeds at the supermarket, the Dollar store, or a garden shop, and you’ll never pay more than $5 for a packet. You’ll probably pay closer to $2 a packet. And you’ll get a whole bunch of seeds!
Plants, on the other hand, can be $5 each or more.
From a frugal point of view, it’s a no-brainer…but then you’re at Safeway and they have the plant right there all green and growing and ready to be a plant already. Yes, you can buy the plant instead. But then you miss out on the experience (and can we all agree that gardening with kids is more about the experience than the result?). And, you’ve invested way more money into something that might fail quickly. I’ve noted that there are several plants you should never buy AS plants, and I’ve talked about Hardening Off. So, my question for you is: Are you going to be careful to only buy the right kinds of plants AND be diligent about hardening off your plants before putting them in the ground? Be sure before you invest.
Vegetables to Start Outside
A lot of plants that are easy-to-grow and tend to be kid-friendly can be started in the ground, outside, and never need to be hardened off or transplanted at all.
You can find lots of fun green, yellow, and even purple beans to grow, and most will sprout with some consistent water and patience and then go crazy on their own. Bush beans will stay short, and pole beans will need to be staked. If you go for pole beans, consider planning ahead for a bean teepee that gives kids a tent to play in while snacking straight from the vine. If you have bamboo, you can use your own poles to stake it out: gardening + engineering all in one!
Check out Bean seeds from Botanical Interests
Like beans, peas are easy to plant and grow, and kids love to harvest and eat right off the vine. Also like beans, they have large seeds and large sprouts, making them easier to see on the ground–perfect for kids to find and be excited for.
Check out Pea seeds from Botanical Interests
While carrots aren’t as easy to grow as legumes (i.e. beans and peas), they are a favorite for eating. If you have school-age kids who can handle being patient, carrots are a great option. They come in a rainbow of colors, are easy to watch grow (once they sprout), and are fairly maintenance-free unless you have gophers. Harvesting them is really fun: you just grab the stem and pull! When my son was younger, he loved to eat the freshly picked (and washed) carrots with the stem on “like a bunny.”
If you grow carrots, know that you must keep the seeds moist to sprout them. A good trick is to lay burlap or other holey fabric on top so that moisture is always retained until they sprout.
Check out Carrot seeds from Botanical Interests
The cut-and-come-again types of lettuce like Romaine and Little Gem are fast-growing and easy to snack on in the garden.
Check out Lettuce seeds from Botanical Interests
Super easy to sprout and grow.
Check out Radish seeds from Botanical Interests
Vegetables to Start Inside
It’s a little more work, but starting tomatoes indoors will give you a jump on the season. This is also one plant that I would recommend purchasing if you can find the variety you want and don’t want to hassle with seedlings and hardening off. BUT be sure the plants have been outside if you want to skip hardening off (I’m looking at you, Costco!).
If you have a sunny place to grow them, cherry tomatoes will grow well and give you a ton of tiny, snackable tomatoes. Like beans, there is a bush type (“Determinate”) and pole type (“Indeterminate”). If you’re growing in pots, stick with the bush/determinate varieties to grow compact, happy plants.
Fruits to Purchase as Plants
These are perennial plants that grow easily in the Bay Area and produce yummy treats that kids love. Wegmans in Redwood City is one location that I know carries bare-root plants. You can also order from Peaceful Valley.
The time to plant strawberry crowns here is December, and you’ll have some fruit the next spring. The year after, you’ll have way more fruit. This is a long-term gardening plan, so I would hold off on those fruit salad dreams for the time being.
In January and February, you can go to many local nurseries and find bare root blackberries, ollalieberries, and their ilk for under $10. These are easy to plant and grow, even in unamended clay soil, and they produce more runners and more fruit every year. Pruning them correctly will increase your harvest. If you already have the wild, invasive Himalayan blackberries in your yard or nearby, then you know these will grow, and you’d be amazed at the varieties of flavors you’ll experience.
Many table grape varieties do well here, and are also available as bare root (i.e. cheap). As long as you manage to harvest some grapes before the raccoons raid your vines, you’ll be able to enjoy some super-sweet grapes like nothing you can buy from the store.
Flowers and Herbs
Kids may not be impressed by True Greek Oregano or Heirloom Roses, but some herbs and flowers are super fun for all ages.
If you have cats, this is a perfect plant to grow. Catnip sprouts quickly, grows like crazy (it can actually become a nuisance, so keep it isolated in pots), and makes your cats turn stupid. A perfect plant for kids (and adults) to enjoy with their favorite feline.
Check out Catnip seeds from Botanical Interests
Borage is a fast-growing (also quickly reproductive) herb that grows amazing blue and purple flowers that look like something from another world. They have some culinary uses, but if you’re just looking to grow something fun quickly, this one will do the trick.
Check out Borage seeds from Botanical Interests
OMG so cute. For reals, these look like bunny tails, they dry and still look like they did growing, and are soft and fluffy. Plus, as a grass, they grow easily and have few pests. If your kids like to collect things in the yard to make into fake foods and fairy potions, these are perfect.
Big, yellow balls on a stick. Yep. So fun, easy to grow, and they dry well. N.B. These are also called Craspedia.
Echinacea looks like a pretty typical flower, but easy to grow and has great petals for kids who like to take flowers apart.
Check out Echinacea seeds from Botanical Interests
If you have the space, the giant varieties can be an impressive example of how seed size does not determine the size of the plant. Or, go with one of the many small varieties, and enjoy them following the sun throughout the day. Science + Flowers = Fun!
Check out Sunflower seeds from Botanical Interests
Lesson #5: Don’t Get (Too) Lazy
I am all about lazy gardening. The less I have to do to grow and maintain my plants, the better. But there are two things you cannot slack on or your children’s garden will fail:
In many parts of the Bay Area, the sun can be brutal during the day. Even in foggy zones, as the fog clears, the sun really bakes down on the soil. You need to set yourself to a watering schedule and stick to it. Early morning is best, evening is second best. If you have a sprinkler or drip irrigation system, you can set it and forget it, but if you do not, make a habit of checking your garden daily and watering it. On very hot days, maybe go back out at night. Set reminders on your phone, create the habit, whatever you need to do to make sure you don’t forget and find some crispy plants the next day.
Do not take plants grown indoors or under lights and just plant them in the sunny yard. The plants will die. Just don’t do it. Harden them off. It’s tedious. I know. It’s the worst part of gardening. But it will mean all that work sprouting and tending your seedlings will not shrivel up in the sun or be snapped at the ground level by a stiff wind.
Lesson #6: Learn from Mistakes & Track your Progress
Kids are terrible at taking notes and really keeping track of things (e.g. “Mom, I can’t find my other shoe!”). When it comes to garden tracking, most adults are terrible as well. That’s what makes a children’s garden a great opportunity to not only teach your kids the scientific importance of keeping notes, but it will make you accountable, too.
I have my Garden Planner Printable for simple tracking, but maybe think about checking in daily to note progress in a notebook or a piece of paper. This will be tedious at the beginning, as seeds take days to sprout, but it means you WILL catch that day when they do pop up from the soil. It also means you’ll keep the soil moist and you’ll immediately notice any issues with your plants as they grow.
If you continue gardening with little ones, you’ll also have a record of how long things took to sprout, leaf out, fruit, etc. You’ll know what worked and what didn’t, and what to avoid in the future.
So…What Should you Actually Do?
This was probably way more information than you
wanted expected. I know there are a lot of websites with cute projects for gardening with kids, and they look fabulous. I just don’t want to start you off with a great toilet-paper tube forest of beans and then no where to go from there. My conscience will not let me package gardening up in a cute little box that always goes right and where you can just put plants anywhere and they’ll grow. But, I know you also don’t want to learn everything to know about vegetables just to get some carrots started with your kids, so here is the TL;DR:
- Pick some plants from the list above that your kids will like to eat and/or play with. (Feel free to comment if you have questions about any other plants.)
- If you’re starting plants indoors, use containers you have at home already, like yogurt cups with holes poked in the bottom and buy seed-starting mix.
- If you’re starting plants outside directly, plant them at the right time (use the Bay Area Planting Calendar if you’re not sure) and follow the instructions on the seed packet.
- If you move plants from indoors to outdoors, harden them off or they will 100% die. No, that’s not exaggeration.
- Check your plants daily and water them if they need it (i.e. if it’s not raining).
- Enjoy the ride!