Gardening with Children

Jenni Lafferty is a homeschooling mom with five years of experience growing food in East Austin. For the past three years, she has acted as a Grow Local facilitator, teaching SFC’s Citizen Gardener classes. Recently, Grow Local asked Jenni to share some tips for how to engage children in food gardening. You can read her recommendations below.

How do you cultivate children’s interest in gardening?

The most effective way I’ve found to capture children’s interest in gardening is to hand over responsibility as much as possible. Let the children decide what seeds and seedlings to plant. When working with young children, I propose a few season-appropriate planting options, and they choose the vegetables that appeal to them. When working with older children, I show them how to use a planting guide and let them make a list of what they’d like to grow.

Once the children plant their seeds and starts, I encourage them to observe changes and report what they see. As much as possible, I try to allow them to harvest and then decide how they would like to eat their homegrown goodies.

What are good activities to increase children’s hands-on involvement in the garden?

Almost all gardening involves hands-on activities that even young children can do, from planting seeds to harvesting and eating. I recommend planting at least some vegetables that sprout and grow quickly, like beans, because the rapid changes excite children’s interest. Children also love harvesting anything they have to dig for. Potatoes, for example, are a favorite. Carrots are also fun to harvest because children can pull them up easily and are pleasantly surprised with the colorful roots they uncover. Children also enjoy harvesting foods that they can eat right away. For example, we grow berries and figs so that we can forage for snacks in the summer time.

I also recommend using the garden to engage children’s observational skills. Each year, we plant fennel and dill, which are host plants for the Swallowtail butterfly. My children love searching through these herbs for caterpillars. I also let plants go to seed so that they attract bees, butterflies, and other pollinators. I cultivate observational skills by asking open-ended questions like, “what do you see?” and “what’s different today?”

There is a progression to each plant's life cycle, and it’s wonderful to experience each step together. Encourage children to notice this progression, and have them participate in each part of it. For example, each January my children and I start tomatoes inside from seed and excitedly wait for them to germinate and form a furry white root. Then we wait for the first set of leaves to form, followed by the second set. In February, we transplant the seedlings to a larger pot before hardening off the plants outdoors. Come March, we plant out and watch the tomatoes reach for the sky. We soon notice flowers and observe fruit form where the flowers were once blooming. When the tomatoes come off easily from the plant, they are ready to harvest. The popular opinion at my house is that tomatoes taste best right there in the garden. If the summer heat doesn’t kill the tomato plants, the first fall frost does. We cut down the plants, chop them up, and add them to the compost bin. The children and adults take turns turning the compost bin and occasionally look inside to see how things are breaking down. Eventually, this compost is used in the garden to nourish the soil for the following batch of tomatoes.

What are some good ways to encourage children feel ownership of the garden?

Step back and let children do as much of the planting, pest management, and harvesting as possible. Ask them questions about the changes they see. Encourage them to keep a garden journal. Have children make plants labels. Have them help cook their harvest, and when eating, emphasize what items came from the garden. Last but not least, congratulate them on their work and success!