For the past five years, one of my favorite parts of summer has been shopping the local farmers’ markets. The abundance of fresh food and friendly conversation always yields a refrigerator full of the best that summer has to offer, not to mention a heart full of contentment that comes from getting to know the people who produce the food that we eat.

This year, however, we are trying something different: we are finally taking that big green step into growing our own summer garden!

My two children (who certainly aren’t strangers to digging in the dirt!) have been delighted to be included in this process.  I’ve been taking notes along the way as we’ve learned how to make it easier to have little hands working next to ours as we tend to the garden. Here are a few things that are working for us:

1) Discuss expectations and boundaries

My kids are used to having free reign over our outdoor space.  Because they haven’t been involved with working an actual garden before, we had to go back to the basics to teach them about where they could walk in the garden and where they couldn’t and that stakes had to be left in the ground. We have also emphasized the responsibilities that go along with gardening – that while it’s fun to have a garden, it’s also work that we’ll all share in together.

In all things parenting, specifying the expectations helps to pave the path for cooperation and teamwork.

2) Supply “real” tools for little hands

Photo by Paul Albertella

We take a basket of kids-sized tools with us to the garden. They love the ownership of having their own for working the earth. We chose kids-sized tools that are fairly sturdy and more well-made than those you might find in a dollar store. I firmly agree with what Amanda Blake Soule wrote in The Creative Family, that our children need to know that they and their work are worthy of using “the good stuff.” Additionally, I would rather buy one set of nice tools for them rather than continually replace cheap ones that will just break over the summer.

3) Designate free-play space

Even if your garden is in your own backyard, it seems to help to have a space free of following the rules of gardening.  Younger children especially like to have areas where they can dig and play to their hearts’ delight. Teaching children about plants and biology and all of the very amazing aspects of life and living that happen in a garden is wonderful, but it’s important to honor your child’s attention span and know when to turn them loose the pursuits of exploration and self-discovery.

4) Use kid-safe solutions to gardening problems

Gardens thrive with fertilizing. Make sure your fertilizer is safe for children to be around. Perhaps reference Nicole’s excellent Compost Q &A series for information on composting – a fertilizer solution that is completely free of synthetic chemicals. Have insect problems amongst your plants?  Consider incorporating NJ’s natural approaches to pest control (kids who are into bugs will love this aspect of gardening!).

I realize I am preaching to the choir here at Simple Organic, but if your children are working alongside you in the garden, make sure your materials are safe and healthy for them to handle!

5) Plant fast-growing crops

Photo by nola.agent

It’s hard for adults to wait for the fruit of all that gardening labor to finally be ready to harvest – how much more so for kids! Amongst the plants you have planned for your garden, try to find space for some faster-growing crops. According to this article on fast-growing vegetables from Livestrong, radishes, beets, and summer squash (my favorite!) are all fast growers that are also relatively low-maintenance.

6) Invite others to the garden and to the yield

The only reason we are able to garden this year is because some friends of ours invited us to co-garden with them on their land. The experience of working with the land to bring forth life-giving food is one that lends itself to sharing with others. Community gardens are a fantastic way to share in this experience!

And whether you are container gardening, square foot gardening, or working acres of land, one of the best parts of a garden is sharing the crops with others. Don’t forget to invite your children to participate in sharing the results of their gardening work.

Dirt and growth and bugs and life – there are so many things for children to discover and love in a summer garden. What a blessing to be able to plant squash and nurture life with the little ones in your life!

What memories do you have of gardening as a child or alongside your own children? What tips and tricks could you add to this list?