Digging in the Dirt: Tips for Building a Kid-Friendly Garden

Gardening has always been one of my favorite ways to relax and regroup. Planting, watering, growing – it all has a very calming effect on me. It’s so gratifying to walk outside and pick my dinner.

 Here's a shot from last summer's garden. I use Square Foot Gardening, so I fit a lot in a small space.
Here’s a shot from last summer’s garden. I use Square Foot Gardening, so I fit a lot in a small space.

I think our society has become so far removed from the land that sustains us, that it’s no wonder many kids don’t know that french fries are potatoes! In Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, he found that kids couldn’t tell the difference between a potato and a tomato.

So, I love teaching my nieces about plants and veggies – they come over in the summer and got straight to the herb pot to pick some garlic chives for a snack. When the sugar snap peas are ripe, they fill up their pockets with the crunchy, sweet treat. They help me water and weed. They watch as the plants grow and bloom. We have scavenger hunts where they look for purple leaves, a flower they can eat, a plant that is as soft as a pillow, and a flower that blooms upside down. It’s a blast!

dirty hands

And now that Jax is old enough to play outside in the garden with me, it’s just getting better! We’re still working on teaching Jax to “watch his feet” while in the garden and not to step on any plants. The beauty of having a kid-friendly garden is that the plants bounce back after being trampled! 🙂

Many people wonder why I don’t put up a fence to keep the kids out of the plants. People ask why I bother teaching the kids the difference between garlic chives and regular chives. Some people seem surprised when I say I have a garden that invites small children to play and explore.

I can’t think of any better way to instill a sense of wonder, respect, and awe for our Earth then by letting kids grow a garden.

Tips for a Kid-Friendly Garden

Dedicate an area for digging. We made Jax his own special digging area by positioning three trellises around a section of garden. We provided rocks, a shovel, sticks, and other fun dirt stuff. This way, Jax is able to dig, but he won’t disturb other seeds and plants. I planted beans and snap peas that will climb up the trellis and eventually create a “vine fort.”

digging area

Choose tasty and interesting plants that are hardy and won’t mind tiny hands touching, picking, and tasting.

Tasty plants

  • Sugar snap peas – fast growing, sweet, edible vines and leaves
  • Chives and garlic chives – delicate onion flavor is easy on a child’s developing taste buds
  • Cherry tomatoes – small, sweet fruits are just the right size for small hands (I find that kids often don’t like it when the tomato “explodes” in their month – what a strange feeling! Try cutting up the tomatoes at first instead of giving them whole.)
  • Strawberries – perennial plants come back each year and kids love picking and eating the berries
  • Nasturtium – fast-growing, beautiful flowers are also edible! Kids love eating flowers! 🙂

Interesting Plants

  • Purple pole beans – purple pods make beans easy to see and pick; pods turn green when cooked!
  • Lambs Ear and Artemesia ‘Silver Mound’ – soft and fuzzy plants that are fun to touch and pet
  • Oriental Tiger Lily – exotic-looking orange flowers grow upside down
  • Mammoth Sunflowers – ginormous plants tower 10 – 12 feet high with flowers up to a foot in diameter
  • Shasta daisy – tons of hardy flowers on a perennial plant, use flowers to make “crowns” and tuck behind an ear, an excellent cut flower

Teach safety and common sense. Kids are taught to ask before they taste or touch a plant in our garden. All of the plants in our garden are non-toxic, but that might not be the case everywhere they go! Kids are also taught to “watch their feet” so they learn to pay attention to the flowers and plants close to the ground (and not trample everything!).

Let kids help. Allow kids to choose what you plant – this year, my niece chose beans, peas, and carrots. Allow kids to plant the seeds or dig the hole for the plants. Show kids which weeds to pull. Let them water. (Jax has a small watering can that he uses to water his dirt patch.) Ask them to help you hold a basket while you harvest. If they want to pick the food, hold the plant at the base of the vegetable, so they don’t accidentally uproot the whole plant!

Take a deep breath and go with the flow. Some plants will be damaged by heavy hands and trampled by excited feet. Some flowers will be picked before you want them to be. That’s ok! And even though it might be messy, and crooked, and less-than picture-perfect, the kids are learning, you are teaching, and your garden is growing!

Glennon Melton said it perfectly in her book Carry On, Warrior – “We can just do our work for the day, and then watch things grow.”

Siberian Iris