By Renate Tilson

Let’s face it—kids and dirt go hand in hand. With spring beginning to bud, it’s the perfect time to put those dirty hands to use and teach your kiddos how to garden! Show them how to sow seeds and nurture plants, and they will learn lots about nature and patience.

Giving your children a miniature garden of their own provides the right balance of little tasks and big dreams. A small garden is easy to take care of, and your child will learn many skills as he or she nurtures seedlings, harvests vegetables, and cuts flowers for the kitchen table. Explain to your budding gardener that you will be there to help, but like a pet, the garden will be his or her responsibility. Although you will shoulder some of the work, it is important for kids to exercise stewardship for their green growing things.

You and your child can section off a corner of a larger garden or dig a new bed. A rectangular plot is a cinch to dig and can have clearly marked straight rows that are easy to weed. As much as possible, put them in charge of their plot. Let them decide what to plant and where to plant it. Kids love to dig and locate earthworms and bugs in the process. Have a jar with air holes handy so the critters can be captured and observed up close for a while.

Consider designating paths through the garden, spreading woodchips or lining them with stones. Besides being irresistible to children, pathways keep eager gardeners from trampling new shoots.

Whether you start from seeds or seedlings depends on your budget, your kids’ ages, and your patience. If you and your child decide to plant seeds, choose those that germinate easily. Radishes are a good starter, and pole beans germinate quickly and can readily be trained up poles to form intriguing teepees or, alternatively, a fun summer hiding place. Kids like extremes, so plant huge flowers like sunflowers. It may be interesting to note what height the plants attain and how long it takes for sunflowers to grow taller than the gardeners themselves.

Fragrant herbs, like chocolate or pineapple mint, are fun and make a nice contribution to the family’s iced teas. Pumpkins are always a success in the Willamette Valley: easy to grow, low maintenance, and a delight to find developing under those huge late-summer leaves. It may also be good to purchase some annuals—blooming or in bud—to give the garden a little jump-start.

To help your child develop a sense of ownership for his or her garden, make a chart of weekly tasks to be checked off when completed. Regular watering will give them a real sense of responsibility. Children love to water wilted plants, then come back later to see them perked up. Simple jobs can include flicking off flower-eating bugs, mulching, removing spent blooms, and, of course, giving tours of their garden to friends and neighbors.

As a parent, be willing to put up with a less-than-perfect-looking garden. Crooked rows and some weeds certainly are OK when you consider the bigger picture. An important lesson to be learned is that gardening takes time. Sometimes you just have to slow down and wait for things to happen. The seeds of love for gardening often don’t flower until adulthood, but they certainly can be planted in a child.