The Toddlers’ Garden
by Rob Sproule
I’ve always been interested in getting kids into gardening. Watching how my toddler, Aidan, gleefully engages with whatever bit of nature he can grab with his little hands, has exploded interest into passion. Last summer as he, my beautiful wife Meg, and myself pulled carrots, gnashed strawberries and gobbled sour cherries off the branch, I realized how important it was to expose kids to growing at a young age.
Google-search how to plan a veggie garden and the options will overwhelm you. This column is for all the parents, grandparents, aunts, etc of young children who want to create a living, dynamic playground for the kid(s) in their life.
Why a Garden Space for Toddlers
Toddlers see the world as a multi-sensory obstacle course. They engage, play with and dig into everything new they encounter, and because the whole world is new they’re always exploring. Every new experience adds another layer of understanding to their developing brains, another small piece of the puzzle that grown ups call “the world.”
Toddlers adore nature. They adore its randomness, it’s textures, it’s unpredictability and it’s dizzyingly delightful dirtiness. Providing them with a place to explore nature, while growing yummy treats at the same time, will nurture their curiosity, their confidence, and their budding creativity.
Define a Space
You don’t need to commit your entire veggie garden for your little one to get an enriching experience. After all, the don’t eat that much! As little as 10 square feet of explorable space is enough, although you can be as elaborate and you like.
The first thing to do is to make sure the space is safe. Upon choosing a site, ask yourself if it’s within an easy dash of a road or potted with ankle twisting gopher holes. Look from a child’s perspective; for example, sharp, low branches don’t concern us but may be at eye-level with a toddler. Prune it up and clean it up, and then the fun begins.
Once you’ve established the space as child-friendly, don’t use any chemicals on the lawn, trees, etc there or in the vicinity. All chemicals leave residues and, even after several rains, I wouldn’t consider a chemically treated space safe for playful exploration.
The place to start, of course, is with yummy munchies. Start with edibles that are easy to grow, fun to pick and sweet to eat. Aidan adores his pots of strawberry plants.
Snap peas are another universal hit. I find that snow peas, with their edible pods, wilt quickly in the late June sun. Snap peas’ excitement is in the shelling. In negotiating the pod open (fine motor), he/she feels proud, establishes systems for making it go faster, and enjoy a sweet, healthy snack. It’s a win-win.
Everyone loves flowers, and there several multipurpose varieties out there. Marigolds, especially the lacy leafed “Tagetes” type, are pretty to look at, fun to smell and deter a surprising number of pests. Plant them in a perimeter around the garden.
Nasturtiums are the best of all worlds. They’re addictively easy to grow (throw the seed in moist dirt kind of easy), they grow quickly, look gorgeous, and the leaves and flowers have a peppery taste that’s great for grazing or intriguing salads.
As we all know, kids want to touch everything they see. Plant some Lamb’s Ear perennials for fuzzily tactile texture that’s easy to grow.soft grasses, like Ponytail grass, or Stipa, are always a hit as are California poppies with their head-turning orange and silky smooth petals.
As a kid, I always loved snapdragons (and still do). Besides having a deliciously sweet, clovey smell, kids will love squeezing the sides together to make the dragon roar.
Depending on how much space you have, consider adding plants they can play in. Giant sunflowers are startlingly easy to grow from seed and rocket over 6′ into the air. Young kids will love playing hide and seek in their leaves and watching the gigantic flower heads develop. Once bloomed out, they make ideal, ready-to-use bird feeders.
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