Garden Variety: Make your garden a family affair

The idea of getting kids into the garden evokes equal parts enthusiasm and fear for most gardeners. Passing on the love and art of gardening to the next generation is important, but the garden is also a place of solace and already requires its own share of patience and nurturing. Can you find a balance between the benefits and challenges? If so, the little ones will benefit in body, mind and soul.

Children who grow their own food are more likely to eat fresh fruits and vegetables and express a preference for these foods. Garden work is physical activity that gets kids moving, builds muscle and burns calories.

Gardening requires planning and organization; make sure to include kids in these stages so they can develop these skills. Maintaining the garden requires analysis, reasoning, decision-making, etc. Successfully producing food, flowers or other plants teaches patience and builds self-esteem. Garden work is also as therapeutic to children as it is to adults, improving mood, focus and sense of well-being, plus relieving stress.

How do you get started? Decide what to grow and where to grow it first, with the kids involved if possible. The ages, interests, and mental and physical abilities of the children involved will also play a role.

If you are already gardening, get your kids involved in what you are already doing. Give them a space that is their own to give some ownership and be accepting if their garden ends up a little messier and weedier than your garden.

Don’t have kids? Borrow (with permission, of course) nieces and nephews, friends’ kids, neighborhood kids or whoever else you can convince to let you share your love of gardening. There are also a few opportunities around Lawrence to volunteer at school gardens or possibly through churches or other organizations.

If you are new to gardening or decide to start your own garden club, start small. The biggest mistake most people make when starting out gardening (with or without kids) is overdoing it. Start with a few large containers, one raised bed or a small space in the yard. Expand next year if the space feels too small and the first year was easy.

Guarantee success with at least some of what you grow. That may mean growing a few species of plants but still selecting tried-and-true favorites over new exotic plant varieties. If you want to grow food, try a cherry tomato plant or two (fun to pick and eat); easy herbs like oregano, basil, thyme and mint; and a few flowers.

Grow foods the kid(s) already like to eat when possible. Have a carrot fan? Plant some. Green bean fan? Plant those. Try two or three kinds so they can see and learn about different varieties.

Including something seemingly unique can also be fun. Try luffa gourds, an exotic squash, cucamelons, or something else unusual. If it doesn’t work, that can be a lesson too.

For older kids, theme gardens can be fun. A pizza garden would include tomatoes, peppers, onions, oregano, basil, and a pizza party in mid- to late summer. A salsa garden would include the same veggies, and probably a party too. Butterfly and pollinator gardens are also a great option for kids to teach them about caring for the environment and how our actions have unintended consequences. (Plus, watching a butterfly emerge from a chrysalis is amazing for kids of all ages.)

Younger kids especially may be most interested in the planting and harvesting parts of gardening and less interested in watering, weeding and otherwise maintaining. Try to find the fine line of teaching kids to be responsible for what they have planted without making it an unbearable summer chore. Even a little bit of gardening now may plant a seed for a lifetime.

— Jennifer Smith is a former horticulture extension agent for K-State Research and Extension and horticulturist for Lawrence Parks and Recreation. She is the host of “The Garden Show.”