Gardening with kids

I figure my first post here could tie in the two things that keep my life the busiest and fullest: gardening and kids.  Or rather, gardening with kids.  The two can go hand in hand, although sometimes you need to be a little creative.

As a little background, we have 8 kids ages 15 down to 1.  They have all grown up with food gardens.  My very first garden started with a mini greenhouse in front of my living room window on a desk, which grew into container gardening down my porch stairs, and eventually into a small plot in the ground in our apartment complex.  We moved to Toledo, and had a garden in the backyard there.  We moved to another city, had another backyard garden, then we finally moved to the country where I have a large garden (about 2 acres) on our 15 acre farm.  My goal is to grow  everything (as close to everything as I can get) that we eat, and considering we eat a lot (and it will only grow as they get older), we figured buying a farm would suit our needs.  From here we not only garden, but raise a lot of our meat, eggs and dairy as well.  My kids are involved in all of it!

When they are babies, I bring them right out into the garden with me in their baby seats or laying on a blanket in shade.  Sometimes I wear them in a wrap if my work won’t be too jolting. They mostly sleep in the breeze; I imagine it’s very relaxing.  We don’t have too much of an issue with bugs, if anything we do get mosquitoes in the evening so I just don’t bring them out then unless I have a bug net to keep them from getting bit.  As they get older and more mobile sometimes I have to resort to a pack and play for periods of time, or a stroller.  They generally have fun playing with leaves or sticks or whatever I can find in the garden that they might find interesting.   I have been known to till a patch of dirt for them to sit in and play with.  Every baby has absolutely loved getting dirty and making a great mess from the time they can sit up.  Luckily they also play well alone and with others so they may not need to be with me in the garden the entire time I am in there (which some days can be hours!).  We usually have an older sibling or two who will take them off the play somewhere else if they get bored.

When they start to walk and understand basic things, that is when the fun happens.  Every child develops at a different rate, and each one has a different desire to please, so what works for my kids may not work for every child.  I have had kids who want to help, and kids who are far more interested in pulling up plants.  When they are helpful and still quite young – about a year to three – they get to help with holding garden tools, watering beds (I don’t expect permission), bringing me items from somewhere in the garden, standing on cardboard to keep it from moving on a blustery day if I am laying mulch on top of it, pulling weeds (perhaps in the garden aisle instead of an actual bed….), digging holes for plants (sometimes not anywhere near established plants – more for them to play, but sometimes they are far more interested in digging a hole to help than just to play so your wording can reflect that!  hehe), placing seed in holes, hoeing, etc.  I don’t expect anything that they do to be to my benefit, and I expect that their attention span will not tolerate more than a minute or two of a specific task.   It’s more for training, fun, and keeping them occupied and not tearing up your plants.  I like to take this time to show them beneficial insects in the garden and let them eat plenty of fresh produce.

As they get older though, they can really become more responsible and helpful.  My six year old loves to bring me cardboard to line garden beds with in a wheelbarrow, strapped to a dolly, or brought over in a wagon.  In fact, he is happy to bring anything to me in anything that has wheels!  He also fills wheelbarrows with grass clippings, mulch and compost.  He will remove clumps of weeds I have pulled from the bed and place them in a container, plant the bigger seeds (such as beans and peas), fetch and unwind the hose, use the pitch fork to loosen up and remove deep rooted weeds in the beds, run wire for trellis, spread mulch and more.  He is the sweetest at bringing me ice cold water on a hot day, and fresh cut wildflowers too!  He is very careful not to step in planted beds, or on newly tilled soil, and tries really hard to identify plants vs. weeds.  They learn to love earthworms and welcome all the garden buddies – even snakes and spiders.

At about age 8 or 10, they really start to shine.  They can run the seeder, actually handle the wheelbarrow if it isn’t too full, water the garden beds, pull the weeds (and not the plants we want to grow), fill the trailer full of mulch, dump the wheelbarrows of compost, roll up the hose, use garden tools responsibly, identify vegetables ready to harvest, describe plant problems, identify vegetable plants based on their characteristics (before they bear fruit), pound fence staples into posts for trellises, dig holes, paint boards, help me map the garden, remember what we planted the previous year when my mind has failed and my maps are lost (hehe), find joy when locating beneficial insects, identify and kill harmful plant pests,

As I garden with my kids, they ask so many questions!  I love being able to answer them and see their appreciation for homegrown food grow.  Sure they grumble a bit when it comes to chores in the garden because it can be sweaty, difficult work.  But I believe this work helps grow character as they do all the things, develop a work ethic despite the heat and grumbling, deepen their understanding of where their food comes from, build responsibility as they are set free with tasks that are not performed under my watchful eye, and also this work brings on a feeling of pride as vegetables they have tended make their way to the table, or make their way into the canning jars.   Oh yes, the canning jars….

Family Traditions: Canning

Yes, they help with food prep after harvest too. Whether we are freezing, canning or dehydrating they are there to help with that process too.

When they are itty bitty (under about age 4) they really just need to stay out from underfoot.  They love to play with canning rings, but they can begin to bring us produce from boxes and buckets to clean up.  Standing on a chair, the older itty bitties can wash produce and help sort.

Ages 6 to about 10 can also clean produce, wash jars, watch for the boil, peel or skin produce, lay produce out on dehydrating trays or fill jars with raw produce, wipe rims and secure lids.  They also bring scraps out to the chickens, pigs or compost pile.  It’s during this age and sometimes younger that I am asked frequently, “Mommy, can I cut this?” And sometimes I might let them.   My then five year old had such a fun time cutting beans with a butter knife – he felt like part of “the gang” and it was so helpful – and I didn’t need to worry too much about him getting cut.

Older kids shine here, too – when I give them a task, they set right to it because they have been helping with food preserving their whole lives too.  By this age they can generally run the pressure or waterbath canner (I always oversee to ensure food is properly preserved), fill the jars, set the jars in the canner, remove the jars from the canner, make the brine or syrup, cut, crush or puree the produce, bring up loads of jars from storage.  They all know how to safely use kitchen knives and have been for years by this time so they can cube, mince, slice, french, whatever the recipe calls for, they are great at it.  If I have to leave the house, I have no problem leaving my oldest kids in charge of the pressure canner as they can safely read the pressure gauge and/or listen for the weight to jiggle, if I have to walk out of the house for something.

It is such a relief to delegate tasks during the busiest part of the year.  It is never too late to get involved in gardening, or food preservation, so if you are thinking of getting started know that kids don’t have to be a stumbling block in your way!  Teach them right along side yourself as you learn and they will become a great help to you as your garden and abilities grow!

How do your kids help in the garden or with the harvest?  What are your biggest struggles?  Please tell me in the comments, maybe we can help one another!