Follow Mary Searle Bell’s advice for cultivating a love of gardening in your little one.
It’s almost never too early to introduce your child to the fun of gardening. It involves just about everything they love – dirt, water and assorted creepy crawlies – along with the general mud and mayhem on which toddlers thrive.
As messy as this may sound (and, there’s no hiding it, grubby it is), gardening combines all the fun things a toddler loves with a myriad of educational opportunities that any parent will appreciate.
My daughter, Rebekah, was 18 months when I first handed her a trowel and let her join me in the garden. She was instantly hooked on digging and I quickly learnt a few tricks to keep her happily pottering next to me, with minimal damage. Namely, providing her own space where she could really be at one with the dirt –without risking the tender young lives of the seedlings I was planting.
Now, at almost three, she is becoming quite helpful in my endeavours to grow vegies; with her about, no tomato will ever suffer from dehydration. Yes, as much as she loves digging, Rebekah loves watering, and with a bit of gentle direction, she gets the water where it should be, most of the time.
There is a downside, however; I have only been able to sample a meagre few of this year’s crops of peas, strawberries and cherry tomatoes as she quickly picks them and eats them before I get a look-in.
Don’t for a minute think that you have to be green-thumbed, or even particularly interested in the hobby, to achieve success – who’s got the time to get any kind of sizeable vegetable garden going for a start? But a few pots on the deck or a sunny corner in the backyard is a great place to start.
Last spring, Rebekah and I planted just four tomato plants (each a different variety), a couple of rows of sugar snap and snow peas, spring onions (“They’re very spicy, Mummy”), sweetcorn (a bit of a flop, as it turns out) and sunflowers (which one of the local cats dug up just as they had sprouted).
In pots, we had glorious success with Christmas lilies, which dutifully opened on Christmas Day and bloomed for six weeks, and the blueberry bush is laden with ripening fruit as I type (I won’t get to taste any of these either, I suspect).
I also grow herbs in pots, and Rebekah enjoys picking lavender and mint and bringing them to me to smell. However, she’s a bit rough with my poor basil and coriander plants, and they’ve shrivelled up and disappeared under her care.
Creepy crawly adventures
There is much wildlife of the miniature sort frolicking in your backyard. From butterflies and bees to crickets, cicadas, earwigs, slaters, snails, worms and much, much more.
If you’re like me, you’re happy with insects and the like as long as they don’t get too close. However, your toddler is likely to take the opposite view and will want to get up close and personal with the critters in your garden.
As I’ve said, I’m not fond of many-legged creatures, so to discover Rebekah is more than willing to pull off and squash the little green caterpillars that have been decimating my tomato plants has been a real bonus. Although unpleasant and somewhat cruel, it is a necessary evil of gardening, especially when it comes to leafy greens. And squishing them is fast and humane and means I don’t need to spray the plants with insecticide – a bonus if you, like me, allow the children to snack on produce straight from the garden.
If your child hates the idea of killing living creatures, indulge their nurturing side and grow swan plants – a favourite food of the monarch butterfly. The fascinating transformation from egg to caterpillar, to chrysalis, and finally butterfly takes only about four weeks in the peak of summer. Experts recommend culling the egg population to just two or three, as you could struggle to grow enough swan plants to feed these voracious eaters. For more information, visit monarch.org.nz.
Where to start
✿ Plants are much like people in that they have their own preferences and idiosyncrasies – personalities, you could say. Some are easy-going, others are downright difficult.
✿ You’ll most likely find the staff at your local garden centre very helpful as to what’s best to try for the time of the year and in your part of the country.
✿ Seeds can be a bit tricky and vulnerable to over or under watering. On top of this, children simply don’t have the dexterity or patience to deal with the infinitesimally small seeds many plants have – it’s easier to buy punnets of seedlings. That said, peas, beans and pumpkins have big toddler-finger-friendly seeds.
✿ Regardless of your gardening successes and fl ops, your toddler will love getting grubby and growing alongside you.
The joy of growing fruit and vegetables is that, at the end of the process, there’s a tasty treat to be enjoyed. There’s nothing so sweet as a fresh cherry tomato, warm from the sun, straight off the vine.
Less popular vegies can take on a whole new appeal when eaten straight from the garden. Letting your child be involved in the cultivating, harvesting and cooking (if needed) is likely to help them want to participate in the eating part too!
Then there’s growing for growing’s sake – cultivating giant pumpkins is a highly competitive sport. Here in New Zealand, there’s an annual carnival in Hamilton to celebrate the monster fruit.
In spring I’ll be planting a bean teepee. Eight long bamboo canes are pushed into the soil in a circle (leaving a space for the door) and tied together at the top, forming a teepee skeleton. Two runner beans are planted at the base of each pole and will grow to reach the top in seven to eight weeks, providing plenty of beans to eat and a fun hideaway for the kids to play in.
Children love flowers, especially those that are big, bright and bold. Sunflowers are a great start – growing up to two metres high, they are truly impressive. Sweet peas are prolific flowerers with their deliciously scented blooms, making them ideal for tots who love to pick flowers. Bulbs are also great for stumpy toddler fingers to plant and most are fairly easy to grow.
Mary Searle Bell works from home as a writer while raising her two girls. She treads the fine line of encouraging her kids in the garden while keeping them from destroying it.
Photography: Sam Mothersole, sammothersole.co.nz