Do you have a flower garden or vegetable patch? Do you let the kids help you take care of the plants? Maybe occasionally plant one– after you dig the hole and carefully pull the plant from the store container? Or let them water–after you’ve done the planting? Or maybe you let them help with the planting after you bring everything home from the store?
Each separate activity has value in and of itself, but this method lacks the big-picture view that lets children see gardening as a life skill they can implement for themselves in the future. So what about including them in every. single. step. of the gardening process? How can we make sure they have the big-picture view and value the day-to-day tasks you’re assigning them? Today let’s talk about letting the kids help in every step of the gardening. Not just the planting, not just the watering, let’s let them in on the whole thought-to-table process!
The Garden Planning
Previously I’ve shared about our long-term garden vision for the backyard. Since we already have a basic garden layout with an in-ground section, a raised bed section, and an orchard section, there’s very little “planning” that we have to do every year. But we like to include the kids in what planning there is.
What we do every year is sit down together at dinner one night with a garden planting worksheet. First, we list everything that we already have planted as perennials. For us, that’s asparagus, raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, and our fruit trees.
Then we list out what fruits and veggies we like to eat and cook with. At this step, I go ahead and let everyone include their favorites no matter how impractical it might sound. Then we go back and put a star next to stuff we regularly eat more than once a week. (That helps weed out the crazy answers!) And we check off anything in this section that’s also in our perennial list.
In the last section, we weed through our “favorites” and come up with a list of what we want to actually plant–starting with anything that got a star. We try to let everyone have a say since everyone will be part of the weeding and sweating later in the season.
The Garden Buying
When it’s time to buy seeds and plants, we load up the whole crew with our family worksheet and go together. To every store.
This year we went to five different stores and nurseries to gather up everything on our list. Yep, 3 kiddos into the car, 3 kiddos out of the car, 3 kiddos fighting over who gets to push the garden cart, 3 kiddos weaving through the rows shouting out plant types, 3 kiddos arguing over Big Boy vs Early Girl tomatoes, 3 kiddos fussing about who’s carrying more containers, 3 kiddos asking for snacks at the checkout counter, 3 kiddos getting back into the car…times 5 stores.
It wasn’t quite that bad. At least not at every store, anyway.
But it’s a great way to teach them how to pick out healthy plants. How to compare prices and varieties. How to compare blooming and fruit bearing times. How to mind their manners and help elderly ladies load bags of mulch. How to understand the differences between soil amendments, compost, minerals, fertilizers, and a host of other important gardening information. I also let them help pick out things like our colorful tomato cages, hand tools, and our TubRugs garden tubs which we use for weeding and harvesting. (Mr. Fix-It picks the full-sized garden tools.)
Do they grasp it all? No, but they get a handle on a little more each year that they get to be part of the process. And they see how important it is to take good care of our equipment because they start to understand the costs involved as they help make decisions.
The Garden Planting
Yes, they help with the planting. Honestly, after all these years, they can do most of it on their own! Are their rows a little crooked? Yes. Are their plants a little smooshed sometimes? Yes. But they’ll recover find over the growing season.
I hoe the row for them and they use a digging stick or tool to put their plants in and mound dirt up around them. Then I come back and pull in the rest of the dirt with the hoe again. They like to work barefoot, so they’re not allowed to use the hoe. Letting the plants get a little bit dried out in their containers before planting makes it easier for little hands to squeeze them out of the flats without damage and pop them in a hole. You can make up for it with watering after they are planted. I also read the plant spacing with each of them and help them figure out how to measure. Sometimes it’s the length of their digging stick. Sometimes it’s the length of their arm from wrist to elbow. Sometimes it’s the length of their finger. Then I just let them go.
And yes, I do a little plant TLC the next day to fix some of the smoosh and crush. The plants recover fine. And
And the rows stay crooked.
The Weeding and Watering
Our paper bag mulching method is super-easy for the crew to help with in the garden. But they also help gather up the pine mulch we use and help pull the weeds that get through. Starting with plants rather than seeds most of the time makes it much easier for the kids to identify what’s a weed and what is not. We do our beans, potatoes, onions, and peas by seed and that section takes a lot more supervisions until the plants are well formed.
The crew also helps water new plants by hand, and they all know how to hook up the sprinkler and turn it on and off for the handful of times a year we need it. Garden maintenance is all-hands-on-deck around here.
The Harvesting and Cooking
After doing all the work, you can’t cut them out of the reward! We like to call it “picking our dinner” when we go out in the evenings to gather up veggies and salad fixings right from the garden to our plates. We even have summer “garden-only” dinners of whatever is fresh and ripe. Sometimes just fried potatoes and onions, steamed broccoli, and a lettuce and tomato salad. Or potatoes with a vegetable omelet. Whatever we can throw together from the backyard and the chicken coop. The kids love those nights! (And clean up’s usually a cinch too!)
Harvesting does take some extra supervision as well. Particularly if you’re harvesting from the same plants and expecting re-growth (like our leaf lettuce). The kids can be a little hard on the plants if you don’t show them how to either pull carefully or cut with some kitchen shears. We harvest right into a colander for rinsing if we’re eating right away. Or into Tubrugs the rest of the time, because they are easy for the kids to handle.
They even make a garden strainer specifically sized to fit Tubrugs now! You put the strainer into the tub, fill it up, then rinse your produce right in the tub with a hose, and pull the strainer straight up and out to get your veggies. How cool is that?!
The Garden Preserving
This one is an area that we’re working on more and more. Currently, we eat most of our garden produce while it’s fresh during the growing season. We don’t have a lot left over for preserving. I’ve been slow to grow our garden past our daily needs because it takes so much work and I hate for any little bit to go to waste because I miss a window of preserving. But we’re working on it!
I do some canning, and we do blanching and freezing for a handful of fruits and vegetables that come into season all at once like berries, peas, and beans. Be sure that you’re including the family in these efforts as well. This helps them understand the full-life cycle of providing your own food as well as the concept of waste not, want not.
How do you like to include the family in your gardening adventures? If you’re looking for more tips, check out my post on Simple Tips for Success in the Family Garden.