Gardening with Young Children
“There is a garden in every childhood, an enchanted place where colors are brighter, the air softer, and the morning more fragrant than ever again.”- Elizabeth Lawrence
The young child is still in a consciousness of at-one-with-the natural world. The child of first, second and third grade as well as kindergarteners and nursery children experience nature song, story and verse in Waldorf education along with plenty of time in nature.
Gardening comes to the child in a more focused way as part of the third grade curriculum when the curriculum brings the work we do for daily care and maintenance of the body: housebuilding, farming, gardening, weaving, cooking. Until then the garden provides a lovely place for children to play and explore. In England, the backyard is referred to as the “garden.” I find this term particularly appealing as a reminder that each child needs a place that is alive just outside the door. It creates an image of garden as a place to visit, play, rest, eat and explore.
For city dwellers, that might mean trees along the sidewalk, a window box or a pot just outside the door. For those with more space, much can be created and grown in a garden and around the child’s play area that brings great delight to the child and opportunities to taste, touch and smell as well as witness Mother Nature’s ever renewing cycle and formidable powers.
Here in Vermont, April is the month to begin turning the soft moist soil. The turning of the soil, with child size shovels reveals many worms, much to the delight of children. I approach the garden with consideration of three aspects, the play area, the architecture of the garden bed and the food that we eat over the year.
The Play Area
The outer fringes of the play area have flowering trees and shrubs, lilacs, apple, honeysuckle, bridalwreath and forythia that provide shade and little spaces to creep behind, hide in and create homes. Birds nest in them, they provide shade in summer and a cozy place to set the table for Morning Tea or lunch.
Surrounding the sandpit on two sides are flower beds with pineapple mint, which makes delicious iced tea in summer, nasturtiums whose peppery leaves we eat, bee balm which attracts butterflies, hummingbirds and bees as well as day lilies from my grandmother’s garden, lambs ears that are fuzzy to the touch, calendula to make salve in autumn, purple coneflower, black eyed susies, blanket flower and tall garden phlox which along with snapdragons bloom late into autumn. Throughout the summer, these flowers offer us blossoms to enjoy on our table.
Catmint and lemon balm pop up all around the yard on their own n each year and give us their leaves for tea. Ragweed and New England Asters grow in some of the wild spaces nearby. Each year, I watch to see what comes to us on its own, yarrow, Saint John’s Wort, mugwort, mother wort, eyebright and fleabane usually appear with the greater play area “garden.”
Children love to have little spaces of their own and one way to keep them nearby if you love to spend time in the garden is to create spaces within the garden that are just for children. The Sunflower House is great fun to “build.”
- Sunflower House: Choose a space that gets full sunlight for most of the day. Dig trenches to make a square or rectangle, 6-8 feet long on each side. Add compost to the soil. Plant sunflower seeds about six inches apart all around with a space for an entry. Mix up the color and height with a varity of sunflower types, some really tall like Mammoth Russian and Velvet Queen, some small like Teddy Bear and Italian White, some midsize, like Jerusalem Lemon Glory, Goldy Double and Zohar. Plant some Indian Painted Mountain or Wampum corn seeds inbetween or right next to your sunflowers to protect the sunflowers from beatles and corn from worms; they are mutually benficial plants. Corn can be dried and popped or ground up, both fun activies with children. Moon or Morning glories can be planted along the base of the sunflowers to vine up over the sunflowers to create a roof; be sure to soak these seeds first to help germination. The floor of the sunflower house might be grass already. If not, provide a soft base for children to sit on, clover can be grown there along with other fast growing shade loving grasses.
- Teepee: Choose a spot that gets full sunlight. Lay out in lined up fashion five to twelve poles, eight to ten feet long. They can be from branches or bamboo. Tie some twine or rope around the top, about six inches from the end. Stand it up and arrange the poles in teepee shape then push them gently into the ground to hold fast. Decide where the door will be and run twine around the poles, around the whole teepee except for the door from top to bottom. This will make places for the vines to cling. At the base of each pole plant birdhouse gourd, scarlett runner, moonfloer or morning glory seeds. Arrange a soft base for the inside.
- Three Sisters Garden: Grow plants that nourish and support each other’s growth. A ring with corn in the center, surrounded by pole beans that will grow up the corn stalks with pumpkins and squash to grow out and around. For more guidance and a lovely story of the three sisters garden visit this site here.
- Tunnel: Set up a row of curved branches of bamboo or willow, curved like an upside down U. Plant pole beans at the base of each pole. Add an occaisional morning glory or moonflower.
“Usually children spend more time in the garden than anybody else. It is where they learn about the world, because they can be in it unsupervised, yet protected. Some gardeners will remember from their own earliest recollections that no one sees the garden as vividly, or cares about it as passionately as the child who grows up in it.”
– Carol Williams, from Bringing a Garden to Life
The Food We Eat
Consider growing the foods you eat over the year, what you use through the winter, and what keeps. This might be looked at as themes for different types of garden in a limited amount of space.
Soup: onions, garlic, carrots, celery, thyme, corn, potatoes, sage, peas, rosemary
Pizza: tomatoes, oregano, onions, garlic, sweet peppers
Mexican: beans, tomatoes, hot peppers, cilantro, tomatillo, onion, garlic
Salads: greens, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, summer squash, parsley
Tea: fennel, lemon balm, cammomile, nettles, pineapple mint, spearmint
Tummy: catmint, lemon balm, cammomile
Three Sisters: corn, squash (or pumpkin) and pole beans
Little hands do well with big seeds, think sunflower, nasturtium, pumpkin, beans, potaotes. Consider heirloom seeds. Heirloom seeds are old, from before the days of the commercialized seeds and genetic breeding and manipulation of seeds. They are open pollinated and were passed down from neighbor to neighbor. over generations. Heirloom plants often have a distinct look and extrordinary flavor.
Some of my favorite seed sources are:
If you like this consider joining my eCourse Gardening with Children where you can share your gardening vision and challenges and celebrations with others on this path. I’ll be in there for all of April 2019, and continue to check in through the growing, harvesting, preserving and closing up the garden season.
Do you have a favorite fruit or vegetable to grow with children? Do you have a favorite heirloom variety? How do you make the garden inviting to children?
Lisa Boisvert Mackenzie is the Editor and Publisher of The Wonder of Childhood and has spent the past fifteen years with one of her own children in early childhood (under seven years of age.) She was blessed with a wondrous, rhythmic and outdoor childhood on the coast of Maine. Lisa has worked with children and their families for the past twenty four years, initially as a homebirth midwife. Lisa’s home based program The Children’s Garden began twelve years ago on a remote tropical island in the Pacific Ocean. Lisa’s current focus is on supporting parents of young children to find rhythm in daily, weekly and seasonal life through her interactive curriculum program Celebrate the Rhythm of Life through the Year, more on that here. She lives with her family in Northern Vermont and blogs at Celebrate the Rhythm of Life . She also hosts a discussion groups for parents of young children here.
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