How to introduce children to gardening

Marion Owen talks about bumblebee houses with a group of 4-H kids during a recent field trip to her garden.

“It’s been said that gardens and children need the same things — patience, love and someone who will never give up on them.” — Nicolette Sowder

As a child, I spent many happy hours outdoors. I climbed trees, built stick forts in the woods behind our house, and harvested “wild” clay from tall cliffs and molded it into tiny bird nests.

Beaches beckoned, too. After a bowl of blackberry cobbler for breakfast, I’d head out the door wearing shorts, a t-shirt and flip-flops. Following the stone path to the beach, I’d scramble up and over the driftwood berm and step onto the sand. It was a holy place for me, the beach. Time didn’t exist. My day was my own to explore, weaving this way and that down the beach, turning over rocks to see who was home in the small tidepools.

Gulls were my companions. Picking up a mussel or clam in their beaks, they’d soar high above my head, pause in midair and then let go of their package. Down, down, down it would fall to the ground, hitting the barnacled rocks with a splat. For years I considered clams and mussels to be trash food, fit only for gulls and crows.

While the ocean allowed a special kind of peace for an otherwise — how should I say? — rough and splintered childhood, some of my most favorite times in nature were spent hiking the wooded trails of Mount Rainier National Park with my siblings and parents. It was a game for me to come across a plant that Mom or Dad couldn’t identify.

Ferns, climbable madrone trees, blackberry thickets and forests of bamboo that Dad planted by our house to create shade from the summer sun conspired to create a love of gardening that manifested later as a full-blown passion, albeit much later in life, when I moved to Kodiak Island.

Today’s column is an exploration into how to introduce children to gardening. Obviously, it’s not something that’s meant to be forced, hence the word “introduce.”

Before I go any further, though, let it be known that I don’t have children of my own. Raising a family didn’t seem the right thing to do when, in my early 20s, I elected to go to sea and work aboard research ships, over a career in forestry.

So as I approached this idea for a weekly column (#1310), I leaned on my own childhood experiences and I turned to books and reached out to parents. Online, I discovered Their list of downloadable activities and educator resources made me feel like heading outside as a 7-year-old.

One of my favorite books: “The Kids Nature Book: 365 Indoor/Outdoor Activities and Experiences,” by Susan Milord. There’s a project for every day of the year. Gardening-themed projects include “Print with Leaves” (October 9), “Make a Rain Gauge (April 9 and sooo Kodiak!), “Go on a Weed Hunt” (May 14) and so on.

Now let’s look into what parents recommend ...

Local Kodiak gardener Deborah Carver combined penmanship and gardening in a fun way.

“We planted radishes with them when they were about five years old by writing their names with the seeds. They were so excited to see their names appear as the radishes grew,” she said.

“The best garden memories was harvesting potatoes with them. We loosened the soil with shovels and they dug with their hands and stacked them in their wagons.”

Some folks say that if you want to ensure a successful gardening experience with your child, start small. On the other hand, the best way to kill any interest in gardening is to make it seem like an overwhelming chore. I’ve heard this sentiment over the years from folks who, in later years, pulled back from all things gardening because, as kids, gardening was presented as a hardcore, must-do job.

Adrian Laurion, a mom from outside Anchorage, nurtured an interest in gardening with her son at a young age by planting the things he liked.

“They taste even better fresh and he loves learning new things and helping,” she shared in a text message.

“This year, he’s two-and-a-half and he remembers picking strawberries and peas and harvesting potatoes. He has already started asking to go see the garden.”

Here’s how Adrian nurtured a love of gardening with her kids: “I would start with explaining what’s going on with the plants and letting them play, then letting them help with the more fun parts and not overdoing it or pushing it too much because it may kill interest.”

There’s a lot to be said for being flexible and letting go of expectations.

Sarah Eastwood, also from the Anchorage burbs, said in a response to my Facebook query: “I gave my grandchildren their own little garden. I let them plant veggies and flowers in it. Whatever they wanted. It was great fun for them. Now they are older and still help me in the garden.”

Dear readers, today I’ve barely scratched the surface on the topic of gardening with kids. And perhaps it’s because of my childhood and gratitude for my Mom introducing me to the world of plants (which I wrote about in the New York Times bestseller, “Chicken Soup for the Gardener’s Soul”), I’m working on a booklet about playing in the dirt. If you have a story or recommendation you’d like to share, I’m all ears. Please email me at

Meanwhile, it’s not too late to spell out a name in radish or cress seeds because, as I read somewhere recently, “at the end of the day, your feet should be dirty, your hair should be messy and your eyes sparkling.”


The fall is when you prepare for the next growing season. My next Compost Academy class begins July 27. For more information, or if you have a gardening question, send it to:

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