Children are naturally attracted to plants. They pick dandelions and bring them inside, gather maple seeds and watch them helicopter to the ground and happily pick all kinds of berries as long as they can eat them right away.

Children also like to play in the dirt, digging holes and making roads for toy cars, damming up small streams and building hills or castles.

Since gardening combines the attraction to plants and to soil, it should be easy to get children interested in gardening.

But parents can make mistakes. My wife, Nancy, and I did with our own two children, and neither of them spend much time gardening now that they’re grown – although our son has shown a bit of interest in spurts.

Gardening is important for children. It gives them a connection to the earth and lets them know that everything is connected: soil, insects, earthworms, mammals, birds and the quality of air and water. Through gardening they can learn about pollination, pollution, nutrition, success and failure. A garden is a lesson in life.

The most important thing in getting children to enjoy plants is to give each child his or her own garden. It can be small, as little as one container with one type of plant for very young children. The child should have a say in what to grow but be led to something that is easy to grow. You don’t want them to fail in their first attempt. Also, if it’s food she wants to grow, plant something she likes to eat so she’ll be rewarded at the end of the work. If flowers, pick something dramatic like a sunflower. And plan for a garden where results are quick, like radishes and lettuce, which can be picked within a couple of months of planting, and nasturtiums, which bloom quickly.

A child’s garden should be prime space. It should have good soil, in full sun and as close as possible to a source of water.

The first mistake Nancy and I made was that we had one family garden, with no special plots for the children. Looking back, even when they went out to do an enjoyable task – picking peas, strawberries or raspberries, which they liked and they were allowed to eat as many as they wanted while picking – it seemed more like a chore.

I didn’t do a lot of gardening as a child, learning from Nancy after we had our own home. She did not have her own garden as a child, but the gardening she did was mostly with her grandmother – and that makes a difference. Parents are always around, telling children what they have to do and how to do it – so sharing a garden with them isn’t necessarily fun. Grandparents are, to an extent, an escape from the parents, people with whom children can share confidences and stories and, occasionally, tips from a wise elder – which can range from how to put up with their parents to how to grow great peonies.

We have tried to play that role with our grandchildren – although it has been easier with our first set of grandchildren than our second. The first set – both girls, one now a sophomore in college and the other a sophomore in high school – lived five minutes away and had a lot of alone time with us. We were the baby sitters of choice if we did not have other plans, and they visited one evening a week as a matter of course.

They enjoyed planting and picking vegetables and seeing the progress of the vegetables. They had their own wheelbarrow and a big red wagon for transporting tools. Having the correct tools is important when you’re starting. We still have their small pink rake, hoe and shovel. And there were all sorts of trowels, small shovels, pails and whatever you could use to carry water.

One granddaughter said she loved watermelon, and grew some successfully one year. We let her pick the largest to take home with her. The younger of the two always wanted to be involved when I put plants and fish outside in the garden pond in spring and took them inside for the winter. She is also the one who planted a patch of brown-eyed Susans next to our raspberry bed, which still grows well today. Both would gladly pick peas, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries – and corn when we still grew it.

Our younger grandchildren, a boy in first-grade and a girl in third, live just outside Boston and visit us every month or two, so they can’t be involved in our gardening as much as the older set were. But we let them pick and eat all the vegetables and fruit they want, plant (if it is the right time for planting and if they’re interested) and let them enjoy and take home flowers and vegetables that they have picked or that we have picked for them.

All four seem to enjoy gardening to an extent. The college student has kept a dish of succulents alive the entire school year and in January put in Nancy’s care a bonsai Christmas tree that she hopes to use next year. The high school student is more into horses and other animals – but she enjoys plants, too.

The younger grandchildren enjoy our gardens and the gardens of their other grandparents, and when we take wilderness walks they like to look at the wildflowers we pass. The boy says he will eat lettuce and spinach, but only the baby ones. We keep some ready to cut when he is here, and we will plant some more then.

Most important – and at this we succeeded with our children, too – they know that the world is a living place with limited resources and that it must be handled with care.

And they buy local – even if local is not their own backyard.

Tom Atwell has been writing the Maine Gardener column since 2004. He is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth and can be contacted at 767-2297 or at [email protected].

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