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10 Ways to Get Grandkids Into Gardening

Letting go of perfection and appealing to their senses helps you bond with your grandchildren over plants and flowers

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Mark Dwyer has gardened all his life but lately he has an assistant: his 2-year-old grandson, Miles.

“He’s just getting interested in nurturing,”  says Dwyer, 53 , who lives in Janesville , Wisconsin, and is the garden manager at the 3-acre Edgerton Hospital Healing Garden. So far, Miles is in charge of a few houseplants   (including an echeveria he dubbed Tarimba) and a low-growing plant container in Dwyer’s yard.

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Dwyer is a fan of encouraging adults to get kids of all ages into gardening. There’s the learning experience of success and failure as well as the bond it creates with grandparents, says Dwyer, who is the former director of horticulture at Rotary Botanical Gardens in Janesville.  

“I’ll never begrudge that time spent,”  he says about gardening with Miles and his own two daughters when they were young. “Even if it doesn’t create lifelong gardeners, it creates that lifelong bond, really.” 

If you’re ready to share your own interest in gardening or just want to have some horticultural fun with the kids in your life, here are some ways to make the garden the place to be.

1. Ditch expectations and get your hands dirty.

Let go of rules and the goal of perfection, says Jason Skipton, executive director of Growing Gardens, a community development and sustainability nonprofit in Portland, Oregon, that helps homeowners and schools develop gardens. Let kids dig in the dirt, pick flowers, or hunt for worms or do whatever it is that makes them happy to be outdoors, he and others say . Let them choose plants at the nursery, even if you’re not sure it’s a good choice. Gardening is all about experience and experimentation. 

“The garden shouldn’t be a place that is like every other part of our world,” says Skipton. “You go to school, you get in line, you sit at your desk — the garden should be the opposite of that.”

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2. Define “garden” however you like.

You can introduce kids to horticulture via a vegetable garden, a perennial bed, a butterfly corner, a potted cactus, a no-fail houseplant (think: philodendron), a sweet potato vine or even a trip to the local botanical garden.

Gardener and writer Sharon Lovejoy of San Luis Obispo, California, suggests starting in your kitchen. Lovejoy, 78, grandmother of five and the author of several books, including Roots, Shoots, Buckets & Boots and Camp Granny, says to try her “garbage garden”  — growing vegetables like carrot tops and sweet potatoes. To grow a carrot top, just cut off the top of the carrot, leaving about an inch of carrot below where the leaves emerge, and place it on saucer of water without submerging the top. It will sprout roots below and greenery above. To grow a sweet potato, stick it with three or four toothpicks and suspend it in a jar or narrow vase. Fill with water about a third or halfway up the potato. Place in a sunny window, and in a few days your potato will begin to sprout roots and, eventually, a beautiful vine.

“It’s indoor gardening and it’s stuff that might get thrown into the garbage, but it still has a life force in it,” Lovejoy says.  “It’s really important for kids to learn about that life force. They’re not going to cut into a tree or hurt something if they realize that it has a life force.”

3. Appeal to children’s senses and short attention span.

Go for taste, color, smell — and fast growing, say the experts. Consider: showy (and edible) nasturtiums and marigolds; dramatically tall sunflowers; quickly maturing radishes and kale; snacks like sugar snap peas, cherry tomatoes and strawberries; aromatic herbs; and long-season producers like blueberries. And don’t forget the sense of touch. “What does it feel like to just touch a lamb’s ear?”  Kathy Barry, a youth grow educator with Growing Gardens, says about Stachys byzantina, a perennial with velvety leaves.

Also, don’t be afraid of introducing kids to extreme flavors, like the sourness of rhubarb, Skipton says. Think of it like Sour Patch Kids candy. And, Skipton likes the surprise of a container of potatoes. “It’s almost like a treasure hunt where you don’t really know how many you’re going to get,” he says. 

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4. Make the payoff child-friendly.

Lovejoy suggests a pizza garden — a garden laid out in triangular slices like a pizza featuring tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, zucchini, herbs and garlic.  Add some edible marigolds or calendula flowers for fun toppings. “What's really wonderful is that they can grow those things in a pot, in a big half barrel,” Lovejoy says.

Or, she says, if you have the space, plant a 10-by-10 patch of giant sunflowers and morning glories to create a space for hide-and-seek, tea parties or just hanging out. 

Planting indoors? Stretch the limits! Lovejoy still remembers her grandmother’s sweet potato vine that curled 30 feet around the house.

5. Be aware of garden safety.

Stick to child-friendly plants,  Barry says. For example, elderberries aren’t safe to eat raw, despite being fun to pick, she says.

Keep in mind what chemicals you’re using and how kids might come in contact with them. Leaving too much fruit on the ground may attract wasps and bees. And consider the safety of garden features. “If you have a water source, a pond or anything, what does that look like for small children? How do you safety-proof it?” she says.

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6. Start small with tools, then upgrade.

There are lots of options in tools and gloves for small hands, but kids will eventually want the real thing, says Barry. 

“I can give a group of students the small tools, but I guarantee you, they’re going to want to go over and grab the wheelbarrow, or the bigger shovel, because they’re modeling your behavior. And so, definitely [have] tools for the littles that are their size and easier to navigate, but also give them opportunities to show them what this big tool does, and how to use it safely.” 

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7. Think education, not confrontation.

Rather than warning them off, let kids experiment with, say, trying to carry a full watering can, Skipton suggests.

“We can have a conversation about volume and capacity and physics, and have it be more of an organic opportunity to do trial and error, as opposed to, ‘See, I told you it was too heavy,’ ” he says.  If your grandchild gets really into horticulture, find other mentors through education programs at local nature centers and botanical gardens or a 4-H program in your area.

8. Use your words wisely.

“Don’t say, ‘we’re going out to work in the garden,’ ” says Lovejoy. “You’re going out to play in the garden. Or, we’re going out; let’s go see what’s going on in the garden and touch that plant and smell that plant and taste that edible flower.”   You can also create a goal, such as planning to grow something together for a favorite family recipe or donating produce to a food pantry.

9. Go easy on teens for losing interest.

Dwyer admits he has no easy solution for keeping teens engaged in the garden.  But don’t despair; it’s all about the long-term, he says.

“Both of our girls faded out at 13. It wasn’t that they said, ‘I hate it, I don't want to do it.’ They just became distracted with everything else in life. And what’s interesting now is they both returned to gardening. I think the answer is really making the connection young and stepping back and letting them get involved as they determine.”

10. Embrace this intergenerational moment.

Gardening can help grandparents and grandchildren share family legacies and pride, as well as dispel stereotypes and encourage grandchildren to learn more about older generations. It also gets everyone outdoors and away from screens, says Matt Kaplan, a professor for Intergenerational Programs and Aging in Pennsylvania State University’s Department of Agricultural Economics, Sociology and Education. “Elicit curiosity and get into kids’ discovery mode,” he says. “Learn from them; learn about their lives. Young people catch on to that pretty well. And they do well when they get a chance to get to know their grandparents as cool people, not just older people.” 

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