Gardening / Insights

Planting for kids: How to cultivate joy [Alaska gardening column #1310]

“It’s been said that gardens and children need the same things — patience, love, and someone who will never give up on them.” [Nicolette Sowder]

As a child, I spent many happy hours outdoors. I climbed trees, built stick forts in the woods behind our house, and harvested “wild” clay which I molded into tiny bird nests.

Beaches beckoned, too.

After a bowl of blackberry cobbler for breakfast, I’d head out the door wearing shorts, a t-shirt, and flip-flops. Following the stone path to the beach, I’d scramble up and over the driftwood berm and step onto the sand. It was a holy place for me, the beach.

Time didn’t exist

My day was my own to explore, weaving this way and that down the beach, turning over rocks to see who was home in the small tidepools.

Gulls as companions

Picking up a mussel or clam in their beak, they’d soar high above my head, pause in midair, and then let go of their package. Down, down, down it would to the ground, hitting the barnacled rocks with a splat. For years I considered clams and mussels to be trash food, fit only for gulls and crows.

While the ocean allowed a special kind of peace for an otherwise, how should I say, rough and splintered childhood, some of my most favorite times in nature were spent hiking the wooded trails of Mount Rainier National Park with my siblings and parents.

It was a game for me to come across a plant that Mom or Dad couldn’t identify.

Ferns, climbable madrone trees, blackberry thickets, and forests of bamboo that Dad planted by our house to create shade from the summer sun, conspired to create a love of gardening that manifested later as a full-blown passion, albeit much later in life, when I moved to Kodiak Island…

Planting for kids

Today’s column is an exploration into how to introduce children to gardening. Obviously, it’s not something that’s meant to be forced, hence the word “introduce.”

[Hi, Marion here. This article was originally published in the Kodiak Daily Mirror, the hometown newspaper for Kodiak, Alaska. Go here to access the archive page for the list of my past columns, written each week since 1986].

Before I go any further though, let it be known that I don’t have children of my own. Why? Raising a family didn’t seem the right thing to do when, in my early twenties, I elected to go to sea and work aboard research ships, over a career in forestry.

So as I approached this idea for a column, I leaned on my own childhood experiences and I turned to books and reached out to parents. Online, I discovered Their list of downloadable activities and educator resources made me feel like heading outside as a 7-year-old.

Here’s one of my favorite books:

“The Kids Nature Book: 365 Indoor/Outdoor Activities and Experiences,” by Susan Milord

There’s a project for every day of the year. Gardening-themed projects include:

  • “Print with Leaves” (October 9)
  • “Make a Rain Gauge (April 9 and sooo Kodiak!)
  • “Go on a Weed Hunt” (May 14)
When it comes to planting for kids, what do parents recommend?

Deborah Carver

Local Kodiak gardener Deborah Carver combined penmanship and gardening in a fun way. “We planted radishes with them when they were about 5 years old by writing their names with the seeds. They were so excited to see their names appear as the radishes grew.

“The best garden memories,” she added, “was harvesting potatoes with them. We loosened the soil with shovels and they dug with their hands and stacked them in their wagons.”

Some folks say that if you want to ensure a successful gardening experience with your child, start small.

On the other hand, the best way to kill any interest in gardening is to make it seem like an overwhelming chore. I’ve heard this sentiment over the years from folks who, in later years, pulled back from all things gardening because as kids, gardening was presented as a hard-core, must-do job.

Adrian Laurion

A mom from outside Anchorage, Adrian nurtured an interest in gardening with her son at a young age by planting the things he liked.

“They taste even better fresh and he loves learning new things and helping,” she shared in a text message. “This year he’s two and a half and he remembers picking strawberries and peas and harvesting potatoes. He has already started asking to go see the garden.”

Here’s how Adrian nurtured a love of gardening with her kids…

I would start with explaining what’s going on with the plants and letting them play, then letting them help with the more fun parts and not overdoing it or pushing it too much because it may kill interest.

Great Expectations: Sarah Eastwood

There’s a lot to be said for being flexible and letting go of expectations. Sarah Eastwood, also from the Anchorage suburbs said in a response to my Facebook query: “I gave my grandchildren their own little garden. I let them plant veggies and flowers in it. Whatever they wanted. It was great fun for them. Now they are older and still help me in the garden.”

Dear readers, today I’ve barely scratched the surface on the topic of gardening with kids. And perhaps it’s because of my childhood and gratitude for my Mom introducing me to the world of plants (which I wrote about in the New York Times bestseller, Chicken Soup for the Gardener’s Soul) I’m working on a booklet about playing in the dirt. If you have a story or recommendation you’d like to share, I’m all ears. Please email me at [email protected].

Meanwhile, it’s not too late to spell out a name in radish or cress seeds because, as I read somewhere recently,

At the end of the day, your feet should be dirty, your hair should be messy and your eyes sparkling.

I hope you enjoyed this article. Please leave a comment below and let me know what you think.

Cheers and blessings to you,

P.S. Imagine being able to cut your garden maintenance in half. Help your plants survive a drought. Make weeds easier to pull… After 35 years of gardening, I have learned one important thing: Compost is the answer to all your problems. Want to know how to make compost in just 6 weeks? Begin by taking this composting assessment. And hey, you might enjoy my Joy of Composting Facebook page. If you’d like to drop me a note, here’s my email address: marion (at)

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