By Stacy Whitman
Juicy red tomatoes, crisp cucumbers and sweet yellow corn may sound like the makings of a savory summer salad. But when you grow them at home, they can create a wonderland of fun and discovery for your toddler. From rows of crunchy crudités to herbs in pots, a family vegetable garden is a great way to teach your child where food comes from, says Sarah Pounders, education specialist at the National Gardening Association in South Burlington, Vt. “It teaches kids that plants, like people, need nutrients and water to thrive, as well as how to take care of other things,” she explains. It’s also a chance for your little one to learn about nature.
Early spring, after the last frost, is typically the best time to start. Toby Adams, manager of the Ruth Rea Howell Family Garden at The New York Botanical Garden, recommends involving your toddler from the get-go by letting her help choose the vegetables. Flip through a seed catalogue and look for varieties with wacky names, or plants that produce extra-large fruit, such as pumpkins, watermelons and corn, he suggests. Or try creating a magical fairy-tale garden with a mix of strangely colored giant and miniature vegetables, suggests Molly Dannenmaier, author of A Child’s Garden: 60 Ideas to Make Any Garden Come Alive for Children (Timber Press, 2007).
Keep in mind that plants with large seeds, such as beans and peas, are easier for small hands to handle. Also, veggies with shorter harvest times, such as lettuce, radishes and scallions, will mean less waiting time for your budding gardener.
To help with decision-making, pick out a dozen packets of seeds yourself, then ask your toddler which she’d like to plant fi rst, Dannenmaier advises. If your toddler is under the age of 3, don’t be surprised if she’s more interested in playing in the dirt than tending to the garden. But you can still get her involved and make it a learning experience—whether you’re teaching her the names of plants, digging holes for seeds, hunting for insects or counting tomatoes together.
With supervision, 3- to 4-year-olds should be able to do simple chores, such as removing debris, planting seeds and watering. “It’s important to fi nd simple tasks that toddlers can do by themselves to help,” Dannenmaier says. “It gives them a huge sense of mastery—especially when you tell them what a big help they’ve been and how proud you are of the beautiful fruits of this family labor.” Child-size tools, such as a mini-watering can and wheelbarrow, also encourage tots to participate.
Once your veggies are ripe and ready to be picked, be sure to include your wee one in the harvest. “It really helps kids make the connection between plants growing in the garden and the food on your table,” Adams says. Then, prepare a scrumptious salad, soup or pasta dish with your homegrown crop. Remember: To make it fun for both of you, don’t focus on mastering skills. “Early on, I learned that trying to teach my toddlers to garden led to frustration on both ends,” says Dannenmaier.
Instead, let your little one choose her activities and explore independently as much as possible. If your garden isn’t perfectly manicured or your tomatoes are lackluster, so be it. “The most important thing is to get outdoors and spend nice, long, lazy amounts of time together,” Dannenmaier adds. “One day, you may be weeding and watering; the next, you could be contemplating caterpillars.” And who knows? You may just sprout a future gardener in the process.
Go to the next page to see our tips for gardening in the city…
no backyard? no problem! You can still grow your veggies and eat them, too. Here’s how:
» Think small. Turn a sunny deck, balcony or fire escape into a container garden. Most vegetables need six to eight hours of direct sunlight daily to produce a good harvest.
If your outdoor space is too shady, you can grow herbs (basil, dill, chives, mint and oregano are great bets) or small veggies (such as beets, carrots, lettuce and radishes) on a well-lit windowsill. Or invest in indoor grow lights (about $75 to $100 and up). Instead of plain old pots, use fun containers like a toy dump truck or pretzel barrel—anything about 12 to 18 inches in height will do. Just be sure to drill a hole in the bottom so it drains well.
» Go public. Reserve a small plot for your veggie patch at a community garden. Some of these shared neighborhood gardens charge a fee, but others are free. To find one nearby, click on the state-by-state listing on the American Community Gardening Association’s Web site (communitygarden.org). Botanical gardens (including the New York Botanical Garden, nybg.org; The Brooklyn Botanic Garden, bbg.org; The National Arboretum in Washington, usna.usda.gov/gardens/ collections/youth; and the San Antonio Botanical Garden, sabot.org) may offer preschooler programs, some of which let kids care for their very own garden plot.
Sun Valley, Idaho-based writer Stacy Whitman doesn’t have to talk her 21⁄2-year-old son into playing in the garden, but she’s still working on getting him to eat vegetables.
Teach your toddler the wonders of nature with your own garden. PLUS: Tips for city gardeners.