It's the beginning of the backyard growing season. And it's a great time to introduce kids to the joys of gardening.
After all, it's a natural pairing - they seem to be born with a love of growing things. Even toddlers watch sprouts poke their little green heads out of the backyard soil with a sense of awe. Kids start off in the right frame of mind. They want to be in the garden, and they like the work.
Our job as parents is to keep them in that frame of mind and not wreck a good thing.
That's tougher than it sounds because gardening can be hard and tedious. We have to devise ways to keep that sense of wonder alive throughout their childhood.
Garden beds need to be prepared. First, tidy up.
Rake up all the debris and dead plant material left over from winter and put it in the compost pile. Now, dig prepared compost into the flowerbeds to reinvigorate the soil for the growing season.
Now, it's time to decide which plants go where.
Get a big sheet of paper and help the kids draw the garden designs. If you don't want your yard designed by a 4-year-old, consider giving him an area that's just his.
A little patch under the tree in the backyard, perhaps, or some pots for container gardening. Just let him be master of some part of the gardening universe.
As you're planning your backyard garden, make it a learning experience. Talk to the kids about how different plants have different needs.
Show them how to read plant labels to see how much sun and water particular plants require.
Walk around the yard and discuss which part look sunny, which part looks shady, and which plants might be happier where.
Talk to the kids about using contrasting textures and complementary colors in their designs for more interest. Explain how putting short plants up front and tall plants in the back makes it easier to see them all.
Next, make it fun by having your child choose a theme for her garden.
Some of our favorites include: a pizza garden with tomatoes, oregano, and peppers; a salad garden with lettuce, tomatoes, and carrots; a scented garden filled with sweet-smelling plants; a snacking garden of carrots, cherry tomatoes, and celery; a butterfly garden of plants that attract butterflies and provide food for butterfly larvaes; and an edible flower garden.
Choosing a theme makes gardening more special. Backyard garden planning is a fun activity for the whole family. Kids love going to nurseries and poking around. Let them help you pick out plants.
Give them a budget and let them choose the plants for their own plots. They will be honing artistic and mathematical skills while they shop.
The more that kids are involved in the conceptual part of gardening, the more they will be interested in the maintenance. You need to make them feel responsible.
Once your kids have their own little backyard plots, help them be successful gardeners.
Show them how to dig a bigger, better hole for a happier plant. Teach them how to handle the roots carefully to prevent injury.
Help them gently water the plant and then return to water it some more after the initial watering has settled.
Explain how just-planted plants will need more water until they get established.
While any gardening help is good, it's especially great to have kids help with backyard veggie gardens. Nothing encourages children to eat their vegetables more than growing the vegetables themselves.
Plus, when you grow your own vegetables, you can be sure that they have not been sprayed with pesticides.
Birds and bugs will be your problems if you grow seeds. You will have these cute little seedlings poking up through the soil one day and zilch the next. Protect your seedlings by covering them with a special cloth called a sponbonded row cover until they are a couple of inches tall.
Here's an important safety tip: Never let your kids taste the seeds they are planting. Many have been treated with a fungicide to help them grow. These are poisonous to kids.
Some plants, such as root vegetables like carrots and radishes, have to be started from seeds. But you can get a head start on tomatoes, peppers, and other plants by buying growing seedlings, called transplants.
With seedlings, be sure not to rush the season, especially with tomatoes. If you plant before the nights are warm, tomatoes are susceptible to fungus. Be patient.
After you've planted, it's helpful to mulch. And mulch again. And mulch some more. You can use wood chips, straw, or even compost for mulch. I prefer using organic material because it will eventually release nutrients to the soil after it breaks down.
Mulch accomplishes three things: It helps hold water in the ground so you don't have to water as often, it helps hold warmth in the ground so plants grow faster, and it helps keep weeds from sprouting.
Mulch is a serious weed deterrent only if you mulch 4 inches deep. But any mulch at all helps because weeds in mulched soil are easier to pull.
After planting, encourage kids to make little markers for their plants saying things such as, "Hi, I'm Marigold."
You don't need to motivate your kids for this one! Kids love to pick veggies and fruits.
In fact, this could be one of the gardening chore motivators. Tell kids that they can't pick the produce until they've picked off the pests. (Or weeded. Or watered.)
Be sure to supervise at harvest time, however, or you may be dining on those trendy "baby" veggies. Kids usually can't wait to pick veggies until they're fully grown! Show them which colors mean "ripe" for which veggies. (A yellow tomato is usually only half-ripe, for examples, unless it happens to be a yellow-fruited variety like "Yellow Pear.")
Now for the best part of backyard toiling: Enjoy the fruits of your labors!
About the Author
Tara Aronson is a native Californian. Having grown up in San Diego, she studied journalism and Spanish to pursue a career in newspaper writing. Tara, whose three children - Chris, Lyndsay, and Payne - are the light of her life, now lives and writes in Los Angeles. She also regularly appears on television news programs throughout the U.S.