Let’s get a few things clear right off the bat. If your kids are under the age of 4 and they’re in the garden with you, they will eat the dirt. They will destroy some of your plants. They will make you finish half the garden chores in twice the time it should take to do them.
They will also learn to love plants and treat them with reverence. They will eat vegetables fresh from the garden. They will surprise you with how many plants they know by name. They will be the bestest waterers ever! You’ll instill a love for nature and creativity and hard work that will pop back up in their lives when they need it most.
So, with all that, there are a few things you can do to make your life a little easier:
1) Have a dedicated kids garden space.
It can be an old flower planter, a small square in your garden, or a whole raised bed to themselves. It doesn’t matter how much space you give them, but see if you can make it theirs. Trust me, spending a day getting this set up before you set up your own garden space will give you some peace.
Set them up with some smooth rocks and paint, they can create painted rocks to decorate their space with. Sticks and scraps of fabric can make flags or banners. There are endless ways to decorate their space and make it more appealing than your boring old patch of dirt.
2) Let them plant all the seeds (kind of)
When you’re buying your seeds for the year, grab a bag of fish gravel. (Shout out to Caroline for this genius idea!) I learned the hard way that planting just one or two seeds isn’t enough for a little one. They want to do more. And more! And more!
If you have a small bag of gravel, you can give them some of those “seeds” to plant in their garden. When they come back for more, you can make it into a big deal. “Oh boy, you planted those fast! Do you think you need more?!?!?! I suppose I can give you a few more…” This makes it special and they’ll happily keep coming back for more “seeds” to fill their garden up.
When I’m ready to go in for the day, I give my youngest 3-5 green bean seeds and have her push in sticks and then the seeds. She doesn’t even realize that her gravel didn’t grow, she’s too busy checking on her green beans!
3) Have a backup plan.
Have some bubbles, finger paints, toy cars, blocks… whatever it is, just have a box of extra toys in your gardening shed. When they get bored with gardening, they can plant little bombs throughout the yard for Dad to find when he mows! (I’m kidding. Kind of.)
My youngest has an old sheet that we bring out and set under the umbrella. When she’s tired of gardening she lays down and plays with toys, which gives me about 30-45 minutes extra in the garden that I wouldn’t have without those toys.
4) Be prepared to do less than you want.
It’s so easy to get frustrated with kids when they keep you from getting everything done, but really, what is more important? The time spent together in the garden and the lessons learned there are worth more than a few extra tomatoes could ever be.
Let me say that again, because it’s so important. I say this as a mom of a boy who was two years old just yesterday, and now he’s 21 and chasing after his own son! You’ll have plenty of time to garden when the kids are older. Each year will get easier. Set reasonable expectations for yourself and focus on the joy of gardening with kids instead of the struggles of gardening with kids.
5) Let them eat things.
Even the unripe ones. When my oldest daughter was about 2, she went missing from my parents kitchen. She just vanished. We searched the house for her in a panic when someone noticed the kitchen door was slightly open. Going outside, we found her happy as a clam in the garden, eating peas off the vine.
My youngest daughter loves to eat bell peppers straight from the plant, even if they aren’t quite ripe. It’s fun to experiment with tastes and textures, and you get the bonus of having the only kid on the block who willingly eats vegetables!
6) Have a spray bottle so they can help with watering.
Young kids LOVE to water things, unfortunately it’s often more than the plants need or want. If you give them a squirt bottle, they can “water” the hanging plants (or any plants for that matter) to their heart’s content. Just be sure it’s before noon so the plants have time for that moisture to evaporate before they go to bed at night!
7) Let them pull weeds. (Fake weeds, that is.)
Until kids are old enough to actually listen when you tell them which plants to pull up, it’s best to have them weed in their own garden space or in the yard itself. Our youngest daughter has pulled up handfuls of grass (and maybe a few weeds) and put them in a bucket, she even adds them to the compost pile. She’s occupied and happy, I’m getting a few more minutes to fuss over my tomato plants.
8) Consider growing a butterfly garden.
When you’re getting your vegetable garden set up, find a spot in the yard that is not used and gets a lot of sun. Toss down a packet or so of mixed native flower seeds and scruff them around with your feet a bit.
Maybe water them a few times (unless it’s really rainy where you are) and then forget about them for a while. Before you know it, you’ll have a little patch of flowers that invites butterflies and bees to your yard. Your kids will be thrilled to watch these tiny creatures and will enjoy picking flowers to give to you.
9) Remember sunscreen and water.
I messed up on this one a bunch at the start of last summer. Our youngest was a little older and I was reveling in the ability to just go outside without a lot of prep work. Having a crabby, whining kid who is just dehydrated isn’t much fun. Having a sunburned kid is even less fun, and tugs on the mom guilt big time.
It’s part of our routine to put on sunscreen and a hat, then drinking a big glass of water before heading out. I set a timer on my watch for an hour so that we can go in and re-hydrate, re-apply sunscreen, and change her diaper before heading back out again. These little breaks are 100% worth it, trust me!
I’ll be posting about our gardening adventures as spring comes, filled with more tips and how-tos for beginner gardeners and anyone trying to produce their own food for your family. If that sounds like you, be sure to subscribe to my newsletter. I won’t spam you or sell your info to anyone, but I will send you a quick note anytime a new post is up!