5 Tips for Gardening with Kids: Can you Dig It?

I hesitate to say this, fearing that if I put it out in the universe we will be punished with a late-spring blizzard, but I’m going to take a chance and say, “Spring is here!” And by “spring” I mean you can go outside without the air hurting your face. We’ll take what we can get. The arrival of spring means dusting off the patio furniture, putting air in the bike tires, and plotting (literally) the garden.

Where I grew up, backyards always had gardens. My grandparents’ house down the street from my childhood home was surrounded by a verdant perimeter of vegetable and flower gardens. Some of my best early childhood memories were of pouring over the Burpee Seed catalog with my grandpa in the winter, making a wish list of the most unusual squash I could find. Once summer arrived, my cousins and I loved watching my grandpa work in the garden, following him quietly along the rows as he tended to everything from melons and squash to peas and even grapes. Later in the summer, we would help snap piles of green beans before helping my grandma carry freshly-canned jars full of the harvest to the root cellar.

Some would wonder what would be so fun about snapping endless piles of beans or picking armloads of pattypan squash, but to a child, this was the epitome of “hands-on.” I still cannot pass by a garden without seeing my Grandpa.

tips for gardening with kids

Today I live 2,000 miles from that garden, but I want to give my daughter at least a taste of what it feels like to dig in the dirt and enjoy something that she has grown. Growing up in today’s grocery stores, children are likely unaware of where their food comes from. I realized this last year when I was shopping with my daughter and she pointed to a pineapple and asked, “When are these in season in Iowa?” It was time to get that girl in the dirt! This was close to Easter, so the bunny left seed packets and child-sized garden tools among her chocolate eggs and jelly beans. She was so excited to get started!

Hers was not the garden of my childhood. There were clusters of pots on our deck rather than rows in the yard. She had a water pail rather than rows of sprinklers, but it became her own and she loved watching it grow. I still remember the morning she literally squealed when she discovered her first peas on the vine!

This year, we are already planning what we will grow in her pots (strawberries are at the top of her list) and I’m excited that she is learning, even in small measure, what “farm (or container) to table” means. Even if you’ve never had a garden, your kids can get dirty too! Here are a few things I found helpful when gardening with my little green thumb.

Don’t let space be a reason not to garden.

We don’t have a large yard and I’m more vision than follow-through when it comes to things like building raised beds so I claimed the corners of our deck for our “gardens.” A few clusters of three to five pots in each corner gave us plenty of room to grow tomatoes, peppers, a few herbs and peas for the first go-round. Having a small space made it manageable for my five year-old to tend to it each morning and night without losing interest. Bonus: No weeding!

Equip your little with proper tools for the job.

Leave the plastic shovels in the sand box and invest in a child-sized version of a real, metal trowel and a watering can that she can manage on her own. If you plant your garden or place your containers near an outdoor water source, buy a sprayer that has a gentle, “rain-like” option. I bought gardening gloves for both of us–matching of course so I could post photos to Facebook of my awesome parenting–but we never used them. Turns out, digging in the dirt with your bare hands is kind of what it’s all about.

Let your little gardener choose what she wants in her garden 

She’ll be more likely to take ownership and to want to eat what she grows. Do a little research first on the best food to plant in your region and then, once you confirm that you cannot, in fact, grow pineapple in Iowa, let her choose what she wants to grow. For Iowans, the site has a lot of great information on gardening for all ages, the best times to plant which vegetable, and much more. Disclaimer: I didn’t start my seeds in February, nor did I build a state of the art cold frame. I just planted outdoors as soon as the danger of frost passed for this first go-round. You can get as complicated or as basic as you desire or have the time for and your kids will enjoy it all the same.

tips for gardening with kids

Discover the joy of the seed catalog!

You might be tempted to buy starter plants and plop them in the dirt. Less mess. Less worry about the seeds actually growing. But there is really no substitute for the fun of actually planting a seed and watching it grow. If your kids are like mine, they will love looking at the pictures and choosing what to grow. Even if you end up buying the seed packets elsewhere, looking at catalogs or gardening websites is great inspiration. My favorite seed and garden company is The Cook’s Garden. They are more expensive, so I usually buy my basic seeds at the store and then splurge on unique and heirloom varieties. What kid wouldn’t eat his carrots if you let him grow a Kaleidoscope Mix Carrot? And, when the little ones are asleep, you’ll swoon over the sunflowers…think the deepest red you’ve ever seen in the Moulin Rouge variety.

Stand back and let ’em dig

It’s tempting to want to take over when things get messy, but in this case, messy is good. Nothing creative is ever neat and tidy and we’re talking dirt here, mamas. And if a seed doesn’t grow or the tomatoes are mushy from the little hands’ overzealous watering? Meh. Just plant some more. You’ll get to see their faces light up all over again.

Have you ventured outdoors with your little ones? Share your tips for planting and growing in the comments!


Sherri is a transplant from Oregon who came to be a Hawkeye in 2006 and stayed for the sweet corn...and for the Iowa boy she met along the way! She and her husband (Kyle) have a 9 year-old daughter, Aissa. Sherri earned her Ph.D. in Higher Education and Student Affairs at The University of Iowa and works for Ruffalo Noel Levitz as an Enrollment Marketing Consultant for colleges and universities. When she's not working, you can find her with her family, enjoying Iowa City and cheering on the Hawkeyes.


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