Take a moment and think back to when you were a child. Remember when you saw an earthworm poke itself out of the ground and the caterpillar eating your mother's parsley. Or the day you pulled out your first carrot. Remember collecting beetles and putting them in a jar and finding the watermelon hiding underneath its own leaves.
Ah, to be young and innocent again. Planning a garden with a child in mind, whether the child is your own, a niece or nephew, neighbors or a scout troop, gives you the opportunity to be a child again. In these days of high stress jobs and everything needing to be exactly so, we could all use a little diversion. Oh, the kids will enjoy this too! No exacts, just plain old fun.
Start a child on his or her way to gardening magic by giving them an area they can call their own. A plot size approximately 2' x 4' is large enough for a child to handle. Let them know this is their garden to do anything they want and that you are there only as a helper. Getting the soil ready is important for successful growth. A pH test kit, available in most garden centers, can be fun to use. Everything you will need is included in the kit. Arm your gardener with a spoon and go around the garden area collecting soil samples. Put the soil in the tube that comes with the kit; add the pellets, which are also provided, and some water. Have the child shake the tube according to the directions and watch the soil color change. Help them compare the color in the tube to the color on the chart to see what the pH of the soil is. Make any adjustments, if necessary.
Figuring out what to grow is just as much fun as actually planting. Supply your novice gardener with graph paper, pencils and some seed catalogues. Put their drawing skills to work by having them sketch out their garden box. Let them pick out what they would like to grow and mark those areas on the graph paper. You may have to carefully convince them that radishes would be a much better choice than the Bird of Paradise. You want them to succeed and planting easy crops is a sure bet for success. Easter Egg Radishes, Jack-Be-Little Pumpkins, Zucchini, Mammoth Sunflowers and Scarlet Runner Beans are just a few easy vegetables to try. Cosmos, Zinnias, Bachelor Buttons, Pot Marigolds and Snapdragons are brightly colored flowers that are easy to grow as well. The adult in the group will have a lot of fun with these selections too.
Kid sized tools that look just like yours will make them feel like real gardeners. Don't worry if you cannot provide them, using good old-fashioned spoons, forks, and shovels work just as well. Demonstrate how to prepare the soil for planting by tilling and adding compost. Have you ever gone on an earthworm hunt? Lay old sheets on the ground and wet them. Wait a couple of hours then lift the sheets. The earthworms will have come to the surface because of the moisture. Give your gardeners paper cups and have them collect as many earthworms as they can find. Add the worms to their garden, put some in yours too. Earthworms help aerate the soil.
Children get very excited when they see things grow. Try this indoor seed-starting project. Take the lid off of a glass jar and line it with a damp paper towel. Put a few zucchini seeds in between the glass and the towel. Replace the lid and put the jar somewhere safe, like on the kitchen counter. Make sure to keep the towel moist and in a few days have the child check the jar. Watch their eyes light up with amazement when they look into the jar and see the seeds, burst open and growing. Starting seeds in the house can give them a head start in their garden.
Before planting anything in the garden, explain how each plant needs enough space and water to grow, but don't get too technical, you will lose their interest. Have them bring out the graph paper drawing so they know what seed or plant is going to be planted where. Help them with the seeding, making sure that they do not plant the seeds too deep. Also have them plant the seeds in-groups, for example, beans next to radishes next to carrots. This will aid in identifying weeds later on because it is easier to see your seedlings; they will all be together. Children are impatient and can lose interest quickly. Having starter plants, such as tomatoes is a good idea, so the child doesn't have to wait 7 to 10 days for a seed to germinate. A daily check on the garden is a must. You wouldn't want them to miss the thrill of seeing the first bean seed breaking through the ground.
Weeds are a common problem, whether in your garden or a child's garden. Have weed-plucking contests, however, teach them to be careful when digging. You don't want them to dig up their seeds or disturb the starter plants too much.
Watering properly is very important. Teach your young gardener that too much water can be harmful to their plants. Make a rain gauge to help them keep track of how much rain fell. Use an old coffee can and help them mark off one-inch intervals with a permanent magic marker. Place the can in the garden. After a rain they can see how much rain fell on their garden. One inch of water a week is usually good for most plants. Have them water if not enough rainfall was measured.
Bugs- the best part of a kids garden. Give them a jar and set them off on bug patrol. Have them pick off any bugs they find and put them into the jar. Later on, try and identify the bugs that were found. The local library has books on bugs, as do many bookstores.
Harvesting the bounty, the best part of gardening. Make sure you have a basket available for the kids to use along with a good pair of scissors. Show them the difference between a tomato that is ready for picking, and one that is not. Carrots and radishes are always fun to pick. Show them how the carrot and radish tops push up out of the ground when they are ready to be picked. And don't forget to look for your jack-be-little pumpkins. They produce so many small pumpkins there will be plenty to go around. Purple beans are easy to find and fun to pick.
Here are some project ideas to share with your young gardeners. Build a secret garden area in your main garden for kids to hide in. Make a tee pee out of bamboo stakes and plant morning glories or scarlet runner beans. Kids can sit inside the teepee for a quiet hide away. Supply them with ice cream sticks and crayons to make garden markers. If they have outgrown their sneakers use them as interesting container gardens. Nail aprons found in most hardware stores, can be transformed into gardening aprons. Permanent ink markers can be used to create an apron to call their own. How about building a toad house. All you need is a terra-cotta flowerpot. Bury the pot half way, on its side, in a shady spot in your garden. Do not touch these pots once you have buried them. And don't forget to lay in a large supply of jars for all the caterpillars they find. Adding leaves and twigs to the jars will help encourage those caterpillars to cocoon and turn into beautiful butterflies. Now that is a sight to see.
Dirt, water, bugs and watching plants grow. Just a few of the things that makes gardening fun for anyone. But a child's garden is a great place to share an adventure.