Recently I was showing a friend the seedlings I have started for the garden. Her 12-year-old son Mason was with us and he became quite excited at the prospect of growing his own food. He wanted to do it all! He has now declared me his gardening mentor and we both look forward to hours together in the garden.

This child was lucky — seeing the tiny seedlings sprouting in their little cell packs struck joy in his heart and he is now an avid learner. Not all children are thunderstruck by the potential of gardening so it is up to us to help them appreciate the garden’s wonders. The joy of gardening is one of the best legacies you can leave your children or grandchildren.

There are many ways to get your children involved in gardening. How to go about it depends on the age and personality of the child. As with any skill, starting young has its advantages.

When children are toddlers, concentrate on the child’s sense of smell, texture, taste and color. Hold flowers under their nose, allowing a good sniff. Grow strawberries and feed crushed berries right in the field. At this age, children are eager to imitate their parents and willing to “help” in the garden. Allow them to plant larger seeds (with careful supervision — seeds can be a choking hazard). Provide a “truck” garden with their own spot of dirt and earth-moving toys. A spoon to dig in the dirt or a small watering can be fun.

From ages 4 to 6, kids love to explore and supervised exploration can be exciting. Keep garden activities fun. It doesn’t matter if the work is done properly, what matters is the experience and the sense of engagement with nature. Plant unique varieties such as colorful sunflowers, baby carrots and miniature pumpkins. For immediate gratification, let the children plant a few seedlings and tend their own plants. Lettuce and radishes are fast growers. We tend to eat what we grow and the pride in harvesting their own food can be immense.

As children mature, let their interests be your guide. Future entomologists might focus on bugs while future designers and artists may prefer designing a palette of colorful blooms. Grow edible flowers of nasturtium and Johnny-Jump-ups. Compete to see which sunflower grows the tallest or whose tomatoes ripen first. Add an element of surprise with red carrots, purple potatoes or black tomatoes. Conduct educational experiments. Weed or mulch one section of the potato patch but not another. At season’s end, compare yields. Have the kids plant sweet corn and take pride in one of nature’s sweetest harvests, planted and cared for by the children themselves.

Let kids have their own garden section in which to do what they want, but also allow them to help in the main patch. Provide a few kid-sized garden tools that fit their hands and remember garden gloves as well. Be sure the children know how valuable their assistance is and remember the goal is to instill a love and respect for growing things, not to have a perfect garden. Listen to their ideas. Occasionally the craziest-sounding idea turns into the best one ever. Attention spans can be short in younger folks so remember to factor that into the equation.

The National Gardening Association hosts a website all about kids in the garden. Rich in information, this site also provides a marvelous primer for getting children involved at all ages. See The University of Illinois also offers a site packed with information for getting children involved. See

Beverly Carney can be reached at