Gardening with toddlers. Is it impossible? No. Is it easy? No. Is it worth it? Yes! How else can you raise the next generation of gardeners and homesteaders without teaching them how to do what we do?! I definitely have my moments of frustration while gardening with Little A. But seeing her plant her own seeds, water her own plants and even pull weeds that are actually weeds warms this mama’s heart.
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Last year Little A was about a year and half old when spring gardening season began. Her ability to participate, engage and understand the process of planting seeds indoors or digging up a new garden bed were limited. She was content to organize piles of old seeds, moving them from one container to the next. She loved to watch me dig in the dirt and play with “the wormies” when I found a wiggly worm. She was a late walker and had just learned to walk around 18 months so still wasn’t totally steady on her feet.
This year, Little A is a very active and curious two and half year old. She wants to be involved in everything. So this spring I had to figure out how to engage her in spring gardening and seed planting on a level that would work for her. I quickly discovered that having her work hands on with me on my project led to more frustrations on my end. She didn’t understand that seeds had to be planted a certain depth. She thought that pouring more dirt on top of my newly planted seeds was being helpful. In reality, it buried the lettuce seeds in well over an inch more soil than what they were to be covered in. Needless to say, my big pot of early season lettuce in the greenhouse only has a few seedlings that managed to push their way to the top!
Here are a few ways we figured out how to garden with toddlers without causing too much parental frustration:
1. Give them their own dirt pile to dig in. I have several antique wheelbarrows filled with dirt that I used as planters on the deck at our old house pre-baby. Now they’re designated Little A’s gardens. Even before Little A could walk, she would sit in her walker and scoot over to the wheelbarrows to dig in the dirt. At our new homestead, the wheelbarrows are parked behind the barn near the greenhouse and gardening shed. When I’m working on projects, she has free reign to dig in the dirt, bury treasures, and plant random seeds we find. She has shovels, rakes, cups, old plant stakes, sticks and pretty much anything else she can find to play in her dirt pile and she loves it.
2. Give them a similar project to the one you’re working on. Earlier I mentioned the importance of teaching little ones how to garden. I also mentioned a mishap that caused me a lot of frustration and only a nibble of spring lettuce to feed our family. I decided to give Little A her own set of seed pots to fill with dirt and a pile of stray seeds I found in the bottom of my seed box. While I filled seed pots with potting soil and planted seeds, she had her own set to work with. I was amazed at how engaged she was in this project! We had such a productive morning when we worked side by side but on separate seed pots. I like to think of her seed pots as “practice pots”. She wasn’t too keen on letting the seeds she planted actually stay in the dirt and germinate. I think that will be a project for next year when she’ll be at a different developmental level!
3. Allow them to help pull weeds. This one was actually a bit scary for me to do this spring. Last year Little A was too little to understand the difference between where it was ok to pull out plants and not. I lost count of how many times last summer she pulled out perennials from my herb garden and I was a frustrated mama. Yesterday I embarked on a project to pull weeds in the strawberry patch. Little A came over to join and I was hesitant to let her help. She joined right in pulling weeds out of the aisles. She did an amazing job. She was so proud to show me each weed she pulled with a clump of dirt on the bottom stuck to the roots. I offered her lots of praise. She sang silly songs while we pulled weeds and it warmed my heart!
4. Keep a stash of outdoor toys near the garden. This is the key for us to be able to spend productive time in our garden. We have a big bin of toys in the barn near the greenhouse. While I rototilled the garden, Little A was a safe distance away playing with her outdoor toys. Sometimes I load up our little red wagon with toys and haul a load out to the garden so she can entertain herself when she gets bored with what I’m doing. When we were putting in our fence posts, Little A brought out her Snoopy fishing pole and practiced fishing. She had a blast going to each hole in the ground and played pretend “ice fishing” in the dirt.
The Honest Truth of Gardening With Toddlers
To be truly honest, some days these things just don’t work. I don’t know if it is just the life of being a two year old, but some days Little A is cranky, needy, and not cooperative. Maybe she was just a little cold, tired, hungry or getting a two year molar. Whatever the reason, no matter what we did to try to engage her in doing something she wasn’t having it. The more she didn’t cooperate, the more frustrated I became. So ultimately I had to stop what I was doing and made no progress on my project. Did I mention I was frustrated?
As a parent, I’ve had to make a pretty big mental shift in regards to making progress on projects. Instead of always thinking “I could do x,y and z so quickly if I was by myself and didn’t have any distractions.” I have to tell myself (repeatedly) “Being a parent is a gift. Teaching Little A how to garden is a gift. Patience is a virtue.” I have to learn to be more flexible. Instead of finishing my project in two hours, it might take me four hours or even a couple hours over the week to get done what I need to get done. This happens because I’m also parenting a very sweet little toddler who is growing, changing and learning how to “be a farmer.” She’s learning by watching what I do. If that slows down my progress, then so be it.
Just as Little A is learning and growing, so am I as a parent. Gardening with a toddler has taught me how to be more flexible. How to be more patient. How to celebrate the small things like a toddler joyfully picking weeds instead of pulling out a chunk of my beloved lavender.
When worst comes to worst and I find myself getting frustrated about gardening with a toddler, I take a tip from one of my favorite Seinfeld episodes. I stop, take a few deep breaths and say “Serenity now. Serenity now.” That act of doing that helps, and remembering the comical rant of Mr. Castanza yelling “Serenity Now! Serenity Now!” always brings a smile to my face and helps diffuse my frustration.
Gardening with toddlers is challenging yet rewarding. Raising the next generation of gardeners is totally worth it!