By Sarah Kizina, Penn State Extension Master Gardener of Washington County

Master Gardener

The author’s daughter harvesting banana peppers.

Picture a mother in a garden with her sun-kissed kids cheerfully harvesting fruits and vegetables grown by their own hands. Everyone eats their vegetables. Grocery costs go down. You gain a connection with nature. Lies!

This perfect agrarian scene is the reason I wanted to start gardening with my 2-year-old, even though my own mother never encouraged me to help her in the garden until I was much older. I guess she knew better. Gardening with children is a challenge. Combining the slightly obsessive process of seed starting with a headstrong toddler spells disaster – trust me.

So, where did I go wrong? Well, I chose an activity that needs precise control; something a young child is not so good at doing. For instance, last year, without thinking, I handed my daughter a few packets of seeds, thinking she’ll wait for my instruction. Instead, she promptly tossed them everywhere. Instead of panicking, I just sang “Que Sera Sera” and the result was a bounty of zinnia. Bloom from my daughter’s seeds outlasted most of my carefully cultivated perennials and looked ridiculously gorgeous gracing our front walk well into October. This year, I’ll need precise planning for seeds for plants I need for both work and pleasure, and I’ll know better. I’ll let her help with things like digging and then give her a place of her own to plant that will occupy her while I’m doing more precise work.

So, how can you spread your love of gardening with your own children? Here are a few tips to get you started:

Gardening stock shot

1. Let them have their own section of garden or bed. This was my big screw-up with this year’s seeds. Had I just given my daughter her own flat with soil and seed, there would have been a lot less stress. One of the most exciting things to me as a kid was my mom “giving” me a bed to grow a garden. It was my space and I had full creative control. Plus, it sets boundaries. With my own garden to tend, I left my mother’s alone. If you don’t have the space, pick out a few containers. You can even create an art project decorating the pot’s exteriors.

2. Let your child choose what to grow (but don’t go overboard). My 11-year-old self loved coral-bells, snapdragons and oregano (my mom regretted letting me have the last one as she is still pulling oregano from her garden). I love taking my daughter to look at seeds and seedlings. She’ll pick all the “pretty flowers” and some more exotic things I’d have never picked, like purple tomatillos. Chances are if children like the plants they grow, then they’ll be more invested in its cultivation. With that in mind, keep an eye on maturing time. Whereas you can harvest radishes or bush beans rather quickly, pumpkin or watermelon will take most of the summer to mature. Don’t choose too many plants. Sometimes our eyes are bigger than time and space allow. A good place to start is with a theme like the beds at the Children’s Garden near the Washington County Fairgrounds. The garden has a pollinator-friendly garden, an herb garden and a salsa garden with tomatoes, peppers, onions and cilantro.

3. Let them have their own tools. You don’t have to buy expensive gardening sets. Some plastic beach toys will work just fine. I was able to find an inexpensive kid’s garden set for my daughter that had a carrying bag “just like mummy’s.” Add some “Paw Patrol” garden gloves from a big box store and my daughter is set.

4. You need a lot of patience. Channel Doris Day if you must and remember to have fun. The end product isn’t as important as the discovery of the process.

If gardening with your little one still seems intimidating, then use our garden as your garden! You can join the Washington County Master Gardeners at the Children’s Garden every first Tuesday from 6-7 p.m. and every third Saturday from 9:30-11 a.m. from May through September. The Children’s Garden is located across the road from the entrance to the Washington County Fairgrounds and is open to everyone. Feel free to stop by anytime to see what is growing, ask questions or just play. You can check out upcoming events on our website: https://extension.psu.edu/programs/master-gardener/counties/washington

Sarah Kizina is a Master Gardener in Washington County. When she’s not gardening, she works as an educator at Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Historic Village in Avella, and at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh.

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