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In The Secret Garden, Mary, the story’s 10-year-old protagonist, observes, “If you look the right way, you can see that the whole world is a garden.” Children love gardens! Our farm sprouts may complain about tending the garden, but they still love the flowers and the food that flow from it. As useful as those flower and veggie gardens are, it seems only natural that children should have a space to call their own in the family garden. As busy parents, though, we may struggle with how to create a children’s garden for our kids, especially if space or a lack of gardening experience hinders us. Here are some simple tips for getting organized and building a children’s garden this year.
1. Get Your Children’s Input
Don’t try to start a children’s garden without the input of your children, and please don’t take over the project so that everything turns out just the way you want it. The primary purpose of a garden designed for children is to allow the children to garden. Your children will surprise you with the things they think of and how hard they’re willing to work to make their ideas take shape. You won’t be able to make all their dreams come true in the garden (my son’s first request was a live dragon), but you can listen to them and let them know their ideas are inspiring and that you’re here to help them take ownership of their garden space.
The first big decision you need to make is whether you and the children want a perennial or an annual children’s garden. A perennial garden will be one that you plant, for the most part, only once with selections that will produce again and again. They include flowering shrubs, fruit trees, asparagus, bulbs and anything else that lives longer than one year. This garden, while it doesn’t have to remain static, will not move around your property. An annual garden design is meant to last through only one growing cycle and can be unique every year. Good examples of simple annual children’s gardens are a child-sized tepee covered in runner beans or a forest planted in sunflowers.
You can grow any kind of plant in your children’s garden, but food is pleasing and having your children start their gardening ventures with a vegetable is a savvy move on your part. Typically, veggie plants, like tomatoes, beans, peas, carrots and even potatoes are all pretty simple to grow, even in containers if you have limited garden space. Potatoes can be grown in a garbage can! Herbs, too, are rewarding for the potted children’s garden, and no garden is complete without flowers, so pile them on! Start with great producers like sunflowers, sweet peas and calendula. Buy seed mixes that encourage pollinators to visit your yard. If you’re feeling rich, plant a rose. Learning to be patient while something like a rose vine grows is a huge part of learning to be a successful gardener.
2. Provide Quality Garden Tools
The brightly colored garden tool kits you see sold for children are nice for sandboxes, but they are of very little use in an actual garden. In my experience, what a young gardener really needs is a good-fitting pair of gloves and a spade in a size that they can manage. A sturdy garden fork can be useful, too, especially for weeding. The larger the child, the larger and more useful the tool and the greater their individual responsibility to actively participate in the establishment of the children’s garden.
3. Choose A Location
This space for the children’s garden doesn’t need to be large, but it should have at least six hours exposure to the sun and be close enough to a water source that the children can tend the watering without too much help. Make sure they have a covered place to store their tools, too, so that they can clean up after themselves.
4. Set Boundaries and Responsibilities
Decide which part of the garden is theirs and which part is yours. One of the best reasons to start a children’s garden in the first place is for kids to learn to be responsible for their own garden space. Be aware of when they need help and consider their ages, as well as their personalities, as you decide together how much responsibility will truly be theirs. Usually, in our children’s garden, if my kids don’t do it, it doesn’t get done. Because of this they’ve learned that they reap only what they sow. As much as I am here to help with planting seeds and identifying weeds, it is not my job to take away accountability or take over the tasks myself.
My daughter was so sad when her heirloom peach tomato refused to produce on the limited amount of water she gave it while she was distracted playing in the swimming pool all growing season. I didn’t need to remind or lecture because the garden did the teaching. My daughter learned that being focused produces far greater rewards than allowing yourself to get distracted and that meaningful work is the thing all other activities should fit themselves around—not the other way around.
5. Share The Garden
Take pictures, brag on your little gardeners and share the harvest with others. When the children are on their gardening game, happy lessons are reinforced. Suddenly, a vegetable that was bland in a supper recipe only a month ago tastes so wonderful simply because it was harvested from their garden. There are so many sick neighbors and lonely grandmas to surprise with flowers because the children just can’t wait to doorbell ditch their specially grown treasures. Mama, did you know that carrots come in purple?! Did you know there are sunflowers that produce over a thousand seeds per head?! Hey, Dad, did you see this cave of vines we made all by ourselves? Look, they even make these gourds that we’ll turn into birdhouses!
6. Add In Fun Features
To make sure the fun factor is always in play, ponder some non-organic features to include. Build a winding brick path and call it The Crooked Mile or paint it yellow to garden in Oz. Try taking apart some wind chimes and hanging them individually along a fence post and invite the children to coax music out of them. Hide a sandbox hidden under a weeping mulberry tree cave—yes, it will take a few years to train the mulberry, but what’s your hurry? Children do nothing but grow older whether we take the time to observe it or not. Let’s show them we have the time to plant a tree together.
One of the neatest things we’ve done so far in our children’s garden is to build a willow house out of willow cuttings from our tree. The neighboring grapevines and the lace vine are trying to take it over, and we now have a living fairy house. I was informed the other day that there are spiders inside and that one must use a sturdy stick in advance of entering the fairy house.
Don’t let these ideas inhibit your own creativity—if you can imagine it, chances are you’ll be able to translate it into the children’s garden somehow. Ask the kids how it’s to be done. You won’t be disappointed in the results of any effort it might take to create a simple (or elaborate) garden space for the children in your life. Believe me, it will all be worth it when they can echo our good garden friend Ms. Francis Hodgson Burnett: “The Secret Garden bloomed and bloomed and every morning revealed new miracles.”