Children and gardens can be quite a vexed issue, both from the gardener’s perspective and from the child’s. On the one hand, footballs crashing through the borders, bald or muddy patches on the lawn, trees damaged by climbing or swinging from the branches, shortcuts taken through hedges, fruit canes denuded before any of the fruit can get to the kitchen can all make you tear your hair out. On the other, enforced lawn mowing and weeding when you’d rather be doing something far more interesting can engender boredom and resentment. Most important, of course, is the issue of safety in the garden, particularly with smaller children in mind, and especially if you have a pond or grow potentially poisonous plants. (I’ll look specifically at safety in the garden in a later column. )
But a garden can be a fascinating place for an enquiring mind, and encouraging children to take an interest in the garden can be a positive experience for all concerned. They may not become keen gardeners; they may have no interest at all now or in the future; or they may profess total disdain now but come back to gardening in later life. But with a bit of luck, they may at least learn the prime gardening virtues of common sense, care and patience – which aren’t bad lessons to carry through life.
If there’s a spare corner of the garden available, building a hideaway (with or without adult help ) can be great fun. This can be as simple as a pile of cardboard boxes arranged to allow an entrance to crawl through (though given the current weather this is obviously not going to be too durable ), or a wigwam of bean poles covered with an old sheet. There’s something inherent in human nature that makes us want a place to hide away, I think – the desire (though not necessarily the opportunity ) to escape to one’s own little world persists well into adulthood.
Most children are fascinated by the birds and animals that turn up in the garden: putting up bird feeders, nest boxes or bat boxes can be a way of nurturing their interest and developing their observational skills; and a guide book from the library can be a passage to an abiding interest in nature. Encourage them to keep a look out for butterflies, moths, bees and other insects too.
Many people’s interest in gardening was sparked by being allowed one’s own small patch as a child. Growing something edible in my own square yard on the edge of the vegetable garden, even if it was only radishes and a few peas, was immensely satisfying; and even the migraine-inducing combination of Virginian stock and orange pot marigolds didn’t put me off.
Smaller children will need help to prepare the soil, and some direction in selecting seeds is probably helpful for children of any age: opt for seeds that are easy to handle and that germinate quickly and reliably. Nasturtiums, peas, beans, etc. are all good ones to try; and you could look out for the seed packets now available that are designed specifically to interest children (though older kids might find this rather patronising: I know I would ).
Introducing an element of competition can spark an interest – see who can grow the tallest sunflower, the heaviest Hallowe’en pumpkin or the longest marrow. (If you do grow marrows, try scratching your child’s name on a young fruit and watch it expand as the marrow grows. )
Catch them early, make it fun, make it interesting and make it easy – and there’s just a chance you’ll have someone to supply you with home-grown vegetables, fruit, herbs and flowers when you’re too old and decrepit to garden any more.