Gardening With Young Children: How to Get Started
By Kerry Tupperman

It is August, three-year-old Enrique and four-year-old Brittany, walk hand in hand making a circle around the corn patch at their preschool. When Brittany left on a family vacation in mid-June the corn was less than a foot high. Today it towers far above her head. Both children stand still, silent for a moment as they look up to the top of the stalks and to the blue sky beyond. At last Brittany says, "Look what we did!"


It is January, Brittany moves along the same garden path, circling the empty bed where the corn once grew. She carries a bowl filled with bits of cracker she has just finished grinding in a hand cranked nut chopper. She sprinkles pieces of cracker on to the ground then pops a few into her own mouth. Between mouthfuls she sings, "Some for the birds, some for me. Some for the birds, some for me."


Where to Begin

Every child care center has the ability to incorporate gardening activities into a child’s daily experience. Some schools may choose a variety of easy indoor growing projects, others may decide to simply revamp the playground landscaping by planting some new plants, and for others it will be possible to create a full scale children’s garden.


Where do you begin? Climate, space, and financial resources will all be determining factors. A Garden for Children by Felicity Bryan (Viking, 1987), and Sunflower Houses: Garden Discoveries for Children of All Ages (Interweave Press, 1994) and Hollyhock Days: Garden Adventures for the Young at Heart (Interweave Press, 1994) by Sharon Lovejoy are excellent references and a good place to start when considering gardening with young children.


Those working on a limited budget or with limited space will find Green Thumbs: A Kid’s Activity Guide to Indoor and Outdoor Gardening, and Grow It! An Indoor/Outdoor Gardening Guide for Kids useful. The Victory Garden Kids’ Book: A Beginner’s Guide to Growing Vegetables, Fruits, and Flowers will also be helpful to those planning extensive gardening projects.


Even avid gardeners will benefit from reading these books before buying the first seed or drawing up a garden plan. These remarkable texts make reentering the mind of a childhood gardening experience possible, and can help teachers create gardening environments for young children that are filled with promise, discovery, wonder, and surprise.


Organizing the Research

While reading about beginning a classroom garden, create lists of projects that seem interesting and the plants required, the crops children would most enjoy eating, easily grown flowers with sturdy stems for flower arranging, plants with edible flowers, dwarf fruit trees, plants for an herb garden, of indoor growing projects, and of winter gardening activities.


Prioritize by Climate

The lists of interesting possibilities will be extensive. Prioritize by moving the most exciting ideas to the top of each list and by determining which plants will grow in your climate. Books like the sunset garden guides for each region of the United States will provide guidelines, but consulting an experienced gardener or local nursery is essential.


Prioritize by Season

Now, prioritize the lists by season. Note when each plant will bloom or fruit and when it needs to be planted. Some plants will bloom almost continuously from spring to fall, and some will bloom just once, so choose some of each. Continuous bloomers will give the children a great feeling of accomplishment while plants that give their all in one short burst will dazzle their senses. Also, identify which of the plants are perennials and which ones will need to be replanted each year. Children enjoy seeing perennial plants emerge from dormancy each spring, but they also enjoy sowing the seeds of annuals each year. Try to select plants that don’t have to be planted simultaneously. If everything has to be planted at once it may become the work of the teachers not the children! For year-round interest, choose some plants that bloom or fruit in each of the seasons, especially fall. Exciting gardening projects are a great way to get a new school year started.


Choosing a Garden Site

After you have compiled a list of plants, organized by season, that will grow in your climate, note next to each plant its need for light or shade. Most vegetables require full sun, but there are exceptions. Evaluate the potential garden site in terms of light and shade. Ask yourself, "Will trimming a tree or hedge let in more light? Will more shade be created beneath larger plants as the garden matures?


Taking the requirements for shade and light into account, situate the garden or gardening activities as close to the classroom and play area as possible. Gardens or gardening activities that are far away from where the children regularly spend their time will be less integrated into the overall curriculum. If it isn’t possible to create a garden adjacent to the classroom, use parts of the playground. For example, plant a pumpkin in a container by the front gate or put in a potato patch beside the monkey bars.


Gardening Collectively

Instead of designating individual plots or plants for each child to maintain, make the garden a collaborative project. Whenever possible purchase child sized tools. Select sturdy tools scaled down for children’s hands rather than toys. The catalog, Gardens for Growing People (415-663-9433) is an excellent resource for reliable child-sized tools. Also, provide multiples of the most important tools, like watering cans and shovels.


When the spirit of collaboration reins in a children’s garden, watering and weeding never become chores. The children who enjoy watering will water, and the children who enjoy planting will plant. The children will feel drawn to repeat the gardening activities they enjoy most. Each child will make a unique contribution, and the work of the garden will be accomplished joyfully.



Young children enjoy basic gardening activities like digging, planting, watering, weeding, pruning, mulching, deadheading, composting, and maintaining a worm box, but they especially enjoy harvesting and eating the fruits of their labor. So, start a garden today!


Kerry Tupperman is director of San Anselmo Montessori School in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she also lectures and gives workshops on gardening with children.


Gardening Books for Children

The Harvest Birds by Blanca Lopez de Mariscal, pictures by Enrique Flores. Children’s Book Press, 1995, 0-516-80131-6 (trade), $14.95

Juan longs to be a farmer like his father and grandfather, but he has no land of his own. By listening to the wisdom of the zanate birds and working with a wise old man, Juan eventually earns his own land. In the process, he overcomes many obstacles, and the zanate birds teach him the wisdom of companion planting. Written in both Spanish and English.


The Maybe Garden by Kimberly Burke-Weiner, illustrations by Fredika Spillman. Beyond Words Publishing, 1992, 0-941831-56-6, $14.95 ($7.95, paper)

In this story, about the relationship between a mother and daughter, a little girl envisions a wild, imaginative garden. The garden of her dreams is nothing like the immaculate, ordered garden her mother enjoys. By the end of the story, an understanding is reached. Wonderfully understated, this book offers a gentle treatment of important themes about individual identity and the creative aspect of planting a garden.


Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney. Viking, 1982, 0-670-47958-6, $14.95 ($4.99, paper)

Miss Rumphius is a character for the eccentric in each of us. After traveling to exotic places all over the globe, she returns to live beside the sea. To fulfill a promise she made to her grandfather when she was a little girl, she wants to do something to make the world more beautiful and does it with flowers.


Mrs. Rose’s Garden by Elaine Greenstein. Simon & Schuster, 1996, 0-689-80215-3, $15.00

Mrs. Rose dreams of winning a blue ribbon at the country fair, but her vegetables are never quite large enough. One year she musters all of her determination and manages to come up with a miraculous fertilizer. It looks like her vegetables are so large that she will win every category. Mrs. Rose’s heart is even bigger than her vegetables, and she finds a clever way to share her success and joy.


Over Under in the Garden by Pat Schories. Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1996, 0-374-35677-7, $16.00

From acorn to zucchini, from ant to zebra butterfly, there are lush plants for every letter of the alphabet and at least one tiny insect hidden within the plant’s foliage. Those with sharp eyes can follow the progress of an endearing chipmunk through this garden as he eludes a hungry snake and successfully buries his acorn.


Gardening Resources for Teachers

Green Thumbs: A Kid’s Activity Guide to Indoor and Outdoor Gardening by Laurie Carlson, Chicago Review Press, 1995, 1-55652-238-X (paper), $12.95

With many simple, fun, and inexpensive ideas for getting started with gardening projects, this book is perfect for those on a budget or for those who want to start simply before committing a lot of funds. It shows how to make a watering can out of an empty plastic milk jug, how to make a compost bin out of an old laundry basket, how to make your own homemade non-toxic bug sprays, and much, much more.


Grow It! An Indoor/Outdoor Gardening Guide for Kids by Erica Markmann, illustrated by Gisela Konemund, Random House, 1991, 0-679-91528-1, $11.00 ($7.99, paper)

Every one of the how-to books in this series seems to contain a few unique ideas. This one has lots of good information about growing indoors and out, supplemented with colorful and fun illustrations. If you are working with limited space, read the chapters on "The Terrace Garden" and "Be a Fifth-Floor Gardener."


The Victory Garden Kids’ Book: A Beginner’s Guide to Growing Vegetables, Fruits, and Flowers by Marjorie Waters, Globe Pequot, 1994, 1-56440-361-0 (paper), $15.95

This is a great book for those who are really going to till a plot of land, although it may be a bit daunting for someone attempting a smaller project. Focusing on vegetables and a few hardy flowers, the author presents useful information about site selection, soil testing, seed selection, soil preparation, making compost, planting seeds, planting seedlings, taking care of the garden, harvesting, and closing the garden.


Additional Gardening Resources

National Gardening Association

Growing Ideas...A Journal of Garden-Based Learning is an excellent publication which features practical ideas for educators who garden with children. For more information, please call 800-538-7476.


Shepherd’s Seeds

Free guides for planting a children’s garden, starting seeds successfully, container gardening, composting, and butterfly gardens. For more information, please call 408-335-6910.


Seeds of Change

This catalog features heirloom varieties which can be harvested for seeds and replanted each year, classroom posters, and books about seed saving. For more information, please call 888-762-7333.


Kids in Bloom

Participate in a seed guardianship program, receive heirloom seeds, keep a log of their progress, and return the information to Kids in Bloom while being connected to other gardeners from around the United States. For more information, please call 317-290-6996.


The Seed Savers Exchange

Exchange heirloom seeds with gardeners from around the world! For more information, please call 319-382-5872.