Many gardeners have fond childhood memories of working in the garden with their parents or grandparents. Those experiences, many times, are the root of our love for gardening. But once we become adults, the prospect of involving children in our gardening projects seems daunting.
Gardening with kids is easier than you think. Not only will you get an extra set of hands around the garden to weed, plant, and water, you will give that child a unique opportunity they won’t have anywhere else.
Some of your typical garden tasks will need to be modified when working with a child. Don’t give a six-year-old a set of pruning shears, for instance, but for the most part children are capable of doing anything you are, so give them the chance to participate fully.
One of the most common mistakes adults make when working with children is thinking they have to be the expert. If you approach your work as an opportunity to learn alongside the child, they will see it as an exploration, not a job. Allow the child to do research, make decisions, and be a co-leader on your gardening project. Help them choose a project that they find interesting. If you are short on ideas, try creating a pollinator garden. The prospect of drawing a variety of insects to your garden is usually enough to excite the kids who don’t typically think of plants as interesting.
There are a few rules to know when creating a pollinator garden. First, choose a variety of flowering plants that will provide food for a variety of pollinators. Plant flowers of different shapes and colors, with at least three different plants blooming each season. A good resource for selecting plants for pollinators is the Pollinator Partnership’s regional planting guides (pollinator.org/guides).
You should also use as many native plants as possible, because many native pollinators prefer them as a nectar source or host plant. When considering host plants, keep in mind that there will be plants that get eaten by insects. Resist the urge to pick off the caterpillars chomping on leaves. They will become your flowers’ pollinators in a month.
Another important rule is to keep your garden a bit messy. Dead wood, flower stalks, and leaf litter create great habitat for insects. Providing bare patches of soil will attract ground-nesting bees, one group of pollinators.
If you are not convinced that kids can take on a project like this, I encourage you to visit the North Carolina Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill, where I work. Last fall we planted a new, 2,700-square-foot pollinator garden. It wasn’t garden staff that created it; it was 17 “young ecoscapers.”
Under the guidance of two educators, these children researched, planned, designed, and planted this garden. They were leaders in every step of the process, and we are proud to have their garden as part of our display collections. My time working with these young ecoscapers has certainly encouraged me to involve kids in my gardening projects, and I hope you will do the same.
Grant Parkins is the natural science educator at the North Carolina Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill.