“Nononono,” I cry, sprinting over to Little Bird. He looks up, one dirty, guilty hand still at his mouth. His lips are lined with bits of dark brown. I looked down for just a moment to plant a pepper seedling. In that short period, he crawled over to the garden fence, stuck his hand in, and shoved a chunk of dirt right in his face. I sigh, wipe him off with the back of my hand, and rest him on my hip. Gardening with kids isn’t for the faint of heart. If you garden with young kids, all of these things will happen at some point:
1) They’ll eat dirt. And possibly mulch.
No matter how closely you keep an eye on your kids, dirt will find its way into your child’s mouth. Even non-babies who aren’t trying to actually eat it end up with it in their mouths if they tend to lick their fingers or stick their hands in their mouths.
2) They will step on your seedlings.
Little kids are not exactly gifted in the coordination department. Even though we have a wide, clear path through the middle of our garden, I’m still always asking Sprout to watch his feet. One wrong step sideways and – squish. At some point, you just accept that there will be some plants lost to little sneakers.
3) They will rip out plants they aren’t supposed to.
It’s very hard for kids to tell the difference between weeds and proper garden plants. It’s easy when you’re full of enthusiasm to pluck the wrong one, especially if the weed has wound itself around a garden plant. I usually avoid this by only allowing Sprout to weed outside the fence, but that doesn’t always work. The other day, Little Bird discovered our tomatoes climbing up the fence were exactly at the ideal height for yanking.
4) They’ll eat vegetables before they should.
Eating cherry tomatoes right from the plant is a gardening rite of passage. They provide that satisfying squish as your teeth bite through the skin. But if you eat them too early, they’ll crunch instead of squish. They’ll also taste awful. Unfortunately, little kids aren’t great at making this distinction. “Wait until the tomatoes are red. Completely red,” came out of my mouth many times last year, always right as Sprout was grabbing green tomatoes off the vine. Even after he stopped picking the green ones, he still wouldn’t wait for me to wash them off, sneaking them while I wasn’t looking. Between that and the dirt, at least I know he’ll have a strong immune system.
5) They’ll find their own “job,” regardless of what you ask them to do.
Everyone likes to feel important and needed, especially kids. While I sometimes give Sprout specific tasks to do, he often comes up with his own. In the garden itself, his “job” often involves moving dirt from one place to another. Not for any particular purpose, or least not one that’s clear to me. While we sprouted seeds this year, I spent a good deal of time using masking tape to label flower pots. As he couldn’t help with that task, he determined he was going to “label” a shoebox I had been using for storage. He meticulously ripped off pieces of masking tape, scribbled on each one with a pen, and stuck them to the side of the box.
6) They will get their clothes soaked.
One of Sprout’s actual jobs is to water our blueberry bushes. Last year, I always filled his little watering can with the hose from our rain barrel. Even though he knew he wasn’t supposed to touch the hose, he did anyway. “My pants are all wet!” he’d cry, running over to me. “Yep, they are,” I’d usually respond, not exactly the most sympathetic to his plight. Thankfully, children dry out quickly. This year, his motor control has improved enough that I’m teaching him to use the hose. I know that we’re still going to have some damp incidents.
7) They will form life-long connections with you and nature.
I couldn’t leave it on an exasperated note, could I? Despite – or perhaps because of – all of these vaguely disasterous situations, gardening with your young children is totally worthwhile. You may not want them there for every garden chore, but getting them involved from a young age sets a great foundation. It helps them feel useful, provides dedicated outside family time, and builds invaluable bonds. And that makes every freak-out moment worth it.
For more on gardening with kids, check out Green Kids: Composting and Green Kids: Building a Lasagna Garden. To connect with other parents like you, join our Green and Sustainable Parenting Facebook group!