Starting a vegetable garden with children is a great way to teach kids where their food comes from and how plants grow. It’s also a great way to spend some quality time together and a chance to give a lesson on the benefits of patience and work. In order to make sure that your gardening experience with children is a positive one, you’ll have to make sure that the children stay interested and motivated throughout the growing season. That can be a challenge! The first step in keeping kids- or adults!- interested in any task is giving them a sense of ownership and a feeling of control. Those feelings of ownership start with the first step. In the case of a garden, that means starting seeds.
Kids will enjoy gardening more if the plants they grow are something they honestly want to eat. Be sure to have your young gardeners select some of their favorite veggies or melons. Balance your kids’ preferences with your own gardening savvy. If the kids want to grow something that isn’t hardy in your zone or requires more space and time than you can allocate, encourage them to choose a different plant that has a greater chance of success.
Once the seeds are purchased, you can either start them in a tray such as the Jiffy greenhouse kit or in paper cuts filled with peat moss or seed starting medium. While I am a big fan of my Jiffy greenhouse kit, I think that paper cups are a better choice when starting seeds with kids. The children can write the name of the plant, as well as their own names, on the paper cup, and each child can watch his or her own seeds sprout.
Remember to plant more than one seed in each cup or each section of the greenhouse kit. Not all seeds will germinate, and your young gardeners will become discouraged if they see only dirt in their cups. The general rule of thumb says to plant three seeds in each cup and then thin the seedlings if more than one seed germinates. In practice, I plant three seeds, but never thin the seedlings. Instead, I let all three seedlings grow and untangle them before I transfer them to the ground or a planter.
While waiting for the seeds to germinate, you can keep the kids’ enthusiasm high by spending some time each day on projects like making garden markers and decorating planters. If you plan to put your seedlings in the ground, you can also have your young gardeners help with tasks like pulling weeds and preparing the soil, but be sure to keep your expectations low. Kids will quickly tire and/or become bored from this kind of work, so plan on doing most of the heavy labor yourself.
Once the seedlings are ready to plant, however, be sure to have each child plant his or her own seedlings. Encourage them to use personalized garden markers so that throughout the growing season, you can keep track of “Billy’s lettuce” or “Suzie’s tomatoes.” When it comes time to harvest, the children will get to enjoy the payoff of their work and patience.