I admit, the idea of toddlers in my garden gave me major pause and slight heart palpitations. My garden is my sanctuary, my safe space, my cultivated corner of the world; so, while the idea of gardening with my children was all dreamy and idyllic in my mind while I was pregnant, the reality of allowing them in my plant paradise as fully materialized and chaotic toddlers was mildly terrifying. Toddlers find particular glee in popping flower heads off of stems, plucking green tomatoes off the vine (taking a single bite, saying “yuck!”, and tossing the whole thing on the ground), and generally delighting in upping the ante in any space they enter. I pour a lot of love into my garden, so the idea of letting my two little wrecking balls through that gate wasn’t one I was particularly keen on.
While I was pregnant, I daydreamed about sharing my garden with the two people I knew I’d love most in this world as soon as I met them—my son and daughter. I yearned to raise them alongside my plants, allowing them to learn from Mother Earth like I had had the privilege to do since I began gardening. I couldn’t wait to watch the wonder in their eyes as a tiny seedling sprouted from a seed that they’d planted days before. I wanted to share with them all that I had learned. I wanted them to develop their own relationship with the land and the plants we’d grow together.
The daydreams were beautiful.
Now my children are almost three years old, and they have a relationship with nature and my garden, just as I’d hoped they would.
My son helped me spread compost in early spring, he planted our potato plants which dutifully grew into palm-sized spuds, and he loves watering the raised beds (though the weeds usually get more of a drink from his hose than the cultivated plants do).
My daughter isn’t as keen on doing the gritty work that my son is quite inclined to take up, but she says hello to the flowers as she walks through the gate, she asks questions (“What’s this, mama?”), and she treads carefully through my labyrinth of green.
I know the importance of engaging littles in the garden and doing my best to ensure that they have a positive experience so that they don’t grow to be garden averse. I know that it’s an important part of their learning to take a bite of that green tomato they’ve plucked from the vine too early, but I still wince and bite my tongue as I see my hard work hit the ground, unloved and uneaten.
I’ve learned along the way a few things that are important to helping the kids have a good experience while also maintaining my sanity. It boils down to giving them specific ‘jobs’, providing gentle explanations and redirection when needed, and reminding myself that their relationship development with the garden is more important than a perfect harvest.
By giving toddlers specific jobs to do, for example, “Hey, sweetie, can you please put this seed potato in this hole I just dug? Great, thank you, now cover it up with the dirt. Good job!”, it provides the toddler a sense of contribution and accomplishment and allows you as the parent/gardener a bit of control over the situation, easing your anxiety around having little people in the space that you’ve carefully cultivated.
I took the advice of a mentor of mine when my daughter started plucking tiny green tomatoes off their vines: I gently asked her not to do that, explaining that mommy really wanted to see the tomatoes grow big and red so that we could eat them together when they’re ready. It takes a certain level of maturity for a toddler to be able to understand and reason in this way, but I’ve found that tapping into their empathy, without shaming them or making them feel bad about what they’ve done, is really quite effective. Not only is it helpful to those baby tomatoes, but it’s also exercising the toddler’s empathy response and modeling conflict resolution.
As much as it’s satisfying to guide your toddler through a specific job in the garden, it’s also really important to let them do some exploration on their own without your guidance. However, you can still put some boundaries in place by deciding ahead of time which space(s) you’re comfortable ‘giving’ to your toddler. For example, I have a raised flower bed that still has a lot of bare potting soil because the plants haven’t filled it out yet. There aren’t any seeds buried that I’m worried about getting messed up with my toddler’s shovel. My son really likes to dig and move dirt, so I take him over to that raised bed and let him do what he wants. He gets some free play time, and I’m not sitting there anxiously hoping he doesn’t mess something up that I don’t want messed with.
Ultimately though, I want my garden to be a safe space for us, not just me. I know that the Garden is an outstanding teacher, and I want my children to be her pupils. So, when something gets trampled by little feet, or my son’s enthusiastic watering doesn’t exactly give my plants the quenching drink they thirst for, I remind myself that it’s ok. I’d rather lack a crop of Swiss chard this year than guard the chard at the expense of my child having a positive experience in the garden.
---- Photos from Morgan Barrett