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19/06/2009 17:26:00

Seven Mistakes Beginners Make When Gardening With Young Children - And How To Avoid Them

Gardening is a fun, learn-as-you-go activity. Even experienced gardeners make lots of mistakes, and techniques which work for one garden, region, or soil type will not necessarily work for another. So if you have disasters in the garden, you're in good company.

However when you're gardening with little ones, you're very conscious that your main purpose is to enthuse them about gardening, and that with their short memories and deep feelings, disappointments have more significance.

While you can't and shouldn't hide the whims of nature, weather and human error from children, there are ways you can minimise the downsides so that the enjoyment is maximised. Here are the seven most common mistakes beginners make and how you can avoid making them.

MISTAKE NUMBER 1 - Planting too many things at once

Get the growing-your-own bug and the temptation is to want to grow everything. It's so enticing, like being in a sweet shop with a doctor's permission to eat the lot. The problem is that every plant you grow comes with a set of instructions to learn, timings to remember, and conditions to maintain. Most of them will not be difficult or time-consuming but the more you juggle, the more likely you are to drop one, especially if you are not experienced.

Whether you're a parent, a teacher or a childcare worker, you will have lots of other things to juggle already, so setting a strategy will make your life easier and give you a better chance of success.

Solution: Start with a couple of crops and get good at those. Then next year add a couple more. If you're a teacher and only want to do a few at a time anyway, then repeat a couple of familiar ones from the previous year and only try a couple of new ones so something is familiar and easy each time and there's less to take on board.

MISTAKE NUMBER 2 - Planting only one thing

The success of a plant is not only dependent on our effort. If it was, gardening would be much easier. Weather, breeding, disease, pests and pure bad luck can wipe out your good work. If you are based near potato farms and it's a bad year for blight, your organic potatoes could be affected by the fungus travelling in the air. In a bad year for cabbage whites, you could have several brassicas plants wiped out in a weekend. And in a dreadful summer you can struggle something awful to get a pumpkin past the size of a golf ball.

Not to say that it's all doom and gloom! Most years, most crops will grow just fine. Whatever the weather is, if it upsets one crop it will generally please another. But if you're only growing one crop, it's gone and the children have nothing to show for their hard work.

Solution: Hedge your bets. You could grow things which are different in type, like peas and squashes or cabbages and runner beans. Or if you really want to concentrate on one crop, grow more than one variety – for example one older, more traditional variety, and one new disease resistant hybrid. Look for advice on gardening websites or in seed catalogues about varieties which might be able to cope with the common problems which gardeners in your area complain about. Or you could grow the same crop in different ways. For example grow potatoes in the ground, but also in a tall tub. Or tomatoes on a window ledge and also in a pot on the yard. Or sow the crop twice a few weeks apart. This way you spread your risk and increase your chances of one of your set of plants being a success.

MISTAKE NUMBER 3 - Naming seedlings

In the home as well as in a classroom, it is natural and normal for children to want to have their own project. If they do some crafts, they put their name on the back. So it follows that it's nice to do the same for seeds. Unfortunately nature doesn't know that that seed belongs to your child. It doesn't know they'll be checking it every day to see how it grows. In real life, some seeds don't germinate. Some seeds which do make weak leggy seedlings. And some great strong plants somehow find favour with the slugs and disappear in the night while the others nearby stand untouched. Nature makes hundreds of plants precisely because it knows that lots will fall by the wayside, and it doesn't matter if some survive. But it will matter to children, if it's “THEIR” plant which dies.

Solution: Don't name individual plants or seeds with children this young. Get them to plant lots of seeds or plants all together. If you want the children to be able to look after a plant and take responsibility for it, get them to sow two or three each and then give them the best one to take care of. Or sow a lot together and then share them out when they are established and you can tell which ones are the strong ones. Or turn their personalisation to something related to the plant, but less unpredictable – like decorating a pot to put the final plant in, or creating pretty plant labels for a section in the garden.

MISTAKE NUMBER 4 – Trying to deliver all parts of the process in one go

Growing things is a cycle – from seed – to plant – to flower or fruit – to seed again. There are natural sections of this cycle. With some plants the whole cycle is short – like with lettuces or peas when you can get from start to finish in a matter of weeks. Other crops take a whole year to got through the cycle and some even two years. For very young children this can seem an eternity, and they can sometimes fail to connect what they did in the first stage with what happens later.

Solution: Start with a section at a time and be clear what you want them to learn from the activity. If you want them to learn about seeds, sow fast germinating seeds like lettuces or cress, or sprout seeds so they can see the shoots growing. If you want them to learn about planting, consider buying baby plants from a garden centre, ready to plant up – a wee bit more expensive but a more immediate lesson. If you want them to learn about where food comes from, take them to a pick-your-own farm and let them harvest some themselves. This is a good way to help them take in the processes and build your own confidence over a couple of seasons. Of course if you can cope with the whole cycle in one go, good for you!

MISTAKE NUMBER 5 - Not sowing or keeping spares

This follows on logically from mistake number 3 – in nature, many seeds would not result in a successful plant, so expecting them all to work in your garden is not realistic. If you want 10 cabbages and sow 10 seeds, if they all germinate AND survive, that's great. But if some of them don't germinate, or get eaten by caterpillars you're left with empty spaces.

Solution: Experienced gardeners sow spares of most annual plants – if you want to harvest 10 cabbages, sow about 20, some won't germinate, but of the ones left over, pot a few up and keep them until the ones you plant out are well established. That way if a caterpillar comes calling, you can replace the lost plants. With root crops the way to hedge your bets is to sow extra seeds and then thin them out (take a few out at a time) gradually until you are left only with the right number.

MISTAKE NUMBER 6 - Leaving it all to the adults

As with pets, sometimes children's enthusiasm for caring for something can wear off and the adult ends up doing all the daily grind. Something which starts off as fun can end up as a chore and the enthusiasm to repeat the project is gone. In the meantime the children have forgotten about the plants they planted and kind of lost interest in the cycle.

Solution: Keep the kids involved throughout the project, not just the one –off elements of planting and harvesting, but the more mundane watering, feeding and weeding. The easiest way to do this is to make a little chart, with tasks on for each week. Children love stickers so make watering and weeding a routine and get them to put a sticker on the chart when they complete the task. In a class group create a rota with pairs taking it in turns. This way it is more of an achievement for the children, they understand more about the effort which goes into the food they might want to push aside on their plate, and there is less slog for you, the adult.

MISTAKE NUMBER 7 - Not timing for terms

A huge percentage of annual crops mature in the mid to late summer. For those of you who work with school terms, it is dead easy to end up with a glut of produce in the middle of the summer holidays. Plants like beans, peas and courgettes will only keep producing if you keep picking them.

Solution: Choose your plants with care. Seed packets usually have the ‘harvest date' on them, and permanent plants like berry bushes will usually have it on the label. If you get plants donated from local gardeners, ASK them what the harvest dates are so you can be prepared. Look online to find earlier or later maturing varieties of plants which traditionally harvest during the summer holidays – for example plant autumn fruiting raspberries instead of summer ones. Try planting things at their earliest sowing date, even if you have to keep them inside for a few weeks, as this can help them to produce crops before the summer. Or conversely starting them right at the last part of the growing window may keep them from ripening until September. Take advice from other gardeners or online forums. Putting in a couple of hours extra work at the start will avoid working hard all year only to end up wasting the results!


These are just my suggestions for ways to maximise your successes. Gardening is a lot of fun and most of it works out great, but these ideas may help you to make the most of the efforts put in by you and the children you care for.

Stay well,





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