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4 Tips For Gardening With Children

4 Tips For Gardening With Children

By Kristina Howley, Proven Winners Color Choice
Photographs courtesy of Proven Winners Color Choice

If stepping into the garden can instantly improve your mood, just imagine how powerful that experience is for a child. If you’re reading this, you probably want to share the overwhelming goodness of nature and the joy of growing things with a child in your life. I wanted that too! I was a gardener long before I became a mother, so when my son came into the picture I immediately knew I’d share the garden with him to build an appreciation for plants and nature.

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Then came the how. The outdoors, and gardens in particular, somehow become a little scarier when we have a curious, vulnerable little person to guide through them. (If you’re like me, you might constantly be thinking, “Is that toxic? Is that toxic? Is that sharp? Etc.”) So I’ve gathered my experiences updating our own garden into a child-safe space and compiled a list of four things you can do to make gardening with children simpler, safer, and more fun.

1. Address The Toxic Plants

Young kids explore with their mouths. If you aren’t gardening with taste-testers, you can just skim read this step. However, if your kids have a habit of putting everything in their mouths (like mine does right now), start by assessing the plants that are already in your space. Look for potentially dangerous shrubs along walkways or seating areas. If you find some, decide if it’s best to transplant them to a spot that’s harder to reach or if it’d be easier to put a barrier around them for a year or so while the children grow out of this phase. I’ve split the list of the most common toxic shrubs to bring attention to the especially attractive toxic plants; look further below for exhaustive resources on toxic plants. 

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Common toxic shrubs with berries: 

Children are drawn to these brightly colored, berry-producing plants, so it’s especially important to keep them out of reach.

Buckthorn – Rhamnus – extreme discomfort

Cherry – Prunus – seeds can be fatal

Coralberry – Symphoricarpos – extreme discomfort

Cotoneaster – Cotoneaster – extreme discomfort

Holly – Ilex – extreme discomfort from berries

Laurel – Kalmia – extreme discomfort

Privet – Ligustrum – extreme discomfort

St. John’s wort – Hypericum – can be fatal

Yew – Taxus – all parts can be fatal

Common toxic shrubs:

Azalea – Rhododendron – can be fatal

Boxwood – Buxus – extreme discomfort

Burning bush – Euonymus – extreme discomfort

Clematis – Clematis – extreme discomfort

Daphne – Daphne – can be fatal

Elderberry – Sambucus – ripe fruit is nontoxic, but foliage can be fatal

Hydrangea – Hydrangea – can be fatal

Juniper – Juniperus – extreme discomfort

Lily of the valley shrub – Pieris – can be fatal

Oak – Quercus – acorns can be fatal

Oleander – Nerium – can be fatal

Rhododendron – Rhododendron – can be fatal

Scotch broom – Cytisus – extreme discomfort

Wisteria – Wisteria – extreme discomfort

Since I can’t list all of the toxic plants out there, you can consult a good university website like UCDavis or NCSU for more information. These sources provide reliable, science-based information on not just which plants are toxic, but what health issues you might see if they are eaten. 

2. Make It Safe To Explore

Plan for trampling. Whether it’s an intentional adventure or an unintentional fall, some plants will inevitably be damaged. Choose shrubs that will bounce back quickly and remove or relocate plants that will fight back (thorns, sharp edges, or those that release an irritating sap when broken).

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Resilient, easy to grow, non-toxic shrubs:

Butterfly bush – Buddleia

Bluebeard – Caryopteris

Potentilla – Potentilla

Rose of Sharon – Hibiscus syriacus and spp.

Spirea – Spiraea

Weigela – Weigela

Common shrubs to avoid planting due to thorns or sharp edges:

Barberry – Berberis

Blue or evergreen holly – Ilex x meserveae

Bougainvillea – Bougainvillea

Firethorn – Pyracantha

Hawthorn (some are thornless) – Crataegus

Roses – Rosa

Common shrubs to avoid due to possible irritation from sap:

Balsam fir – Abies balsamea

Buckthorn – Rhamnus

Daphne – Daphne

Dogwood – Cornus

Ginkgo – Ginkgo

Oleander – Nerium

Smokebush – Cotinus

Tree of heaven – Ailanthus altissima

3. Build An Engaging, Easy Care Garden

Spend more time enjoying and less time working by choosing plants that meet your needs – easy to care for, interesting, and safe. Making deliberate plant choices now will help you feel at ease as your kids explore in the future. (Note: I don’t advise eating any of these on purpose, they just aren’t poisonous.)

A few fun, non-toxic plants for kids and a little view of the value they bring to the garden:

Butterfly bush – Buddleia
pollinator magnet, easy to maintain, fragrant, chop down in early spring, very drought tolerant

Camellia – Camellia 
evergreen foliage, interesting flowers, no pruning necessary

Crapemyrtle – Lagerstroemia 
interesting foliage texture, extremely long bloom time, no pruning necessary

Forsythia – Forsythia 
great cut flower, very early to bloom in spring, no pruning necessary

Gardenia – Gardenia 
fantastic fragrance, interesting shiny leaves, no pruning necessary

Hawthorn – Crataegus 
pollinator magnet, berries draw in wildlife to observe, no pruning necessary

Indian hawthorn – Raphiolepis 
interesting thick leaves, flowers profusely, no pruning necessary

(Star) Magnolia – Magnolia 
early spring bloomer, interesting flowers, no pruning necessary

Lilac – Syringa 
classic fragrance, heavy bloom set, great cut flower, no pruning necessary

Mirror bush – Coprosma 
very tough, shiny foliage, no pruning necessary

Mock orange – Philadelphus
interesting fragrance, heavy bloom set, no pruning necessary

Potentilla – Potentilla 
extremely tough, easy to care for, flowers abundantly, trim in early spring, very drought tolerant

Rose of Sharon – Hibiscus syriacus and spp. 
easy to care for, drought tolerant, often attracts hummingbirds, no pruning necessary

Spirea – Spiraea 
blooms abundantly, attracts pollinators, great cut flower, no pruning necessary

Spruce – Picea 
evergreen, interesting foliage texture, fun for crafts, no pruning necessary

Pine – Pinus 
evergreen, interesting foliage texture, fun for crafts, no pruning necessary

Viburnum – Viburnum 
attracts pollinators, berries draw in wildlife to observe, often has pretty fall color, no pruning necessary

Weigela – Weigela 
blooms abundantly, attracts pollinators, no pruning necessary

Willow – Salix 
flexible branches brush together making a lovely sound, great for cut flower arrangements, no pruning necessary

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4. Make A Realistic Plan 

When you head outdoors with children, it’s good to have an idea of what you’re hoping to do, but I always try to keep my expectations light. In other words, I check my expectations at the garden gate. (“Oh you thought we were watering? How about a mud puddle adventure instead.”) Here are three main outcomes you could keep in mind when gardening with children:

Planned Activities

Although there are a million activities you can do with kids outdoors, these are a few simple garden activities that I’ve found that are actually fun and require little to no planning.

Bug Hunt
– Find as many types of bugs as you can in one section of your garden.
– Make up silly names that describe them – fluffy buzzer for bumblebees, slippery noodle for worms, etc. (A great way to work on vocabulary!)

Gather a Bouquet 
– Encourage them to narrow their choices down to three favorite flowers.
– Try to draw them like a still life with crayons or markers.

Scavenger Hunt 
– Make a list of things to find – something fuzzy, something round, something pink, something rough, etc.
– Put each item on the paper.

Sensory Bin Scooping
– Gather flowers, seed heads, leaves, rocks, etc.
– Get two bins. Fill one with water.
– Get a scooping tool out.
– Put all of the gathered items in the water-filled bin, notice what happens to each one. (ex. Does it sink or float? Did it change color? Etc.)
– Scoop up each item, one by one, and transfer them to the empty bin.

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Sneaky Gardening

Involving kids in real gardening tasks often takes triple the amount of time, but there are a lot more laughs and you might be surprised at how much more you notice with an observant tagalong helping you out. I grew up thinking gardening was full of games, and honestly, it kind of is. Here are a few “garden games” you can play:

Pick Up Sticks or Pinecones
– Simple garden tasks like these empower kids! They enjoy helping in a way that is real and visible.
– This is a great opportunity to practice counting as the sticks get piled up or put into a bin.
– Use the gathered sticks to build a mini fort for play people or stack them in a tower.

It’s hard to resist the responsibility of watering something, whether it’s with a hose or a small watering can.

Weed Matching
Pick one example weed and work together to find as many matches as you can. Pull them out as you go.
Compare similarities and differences between the plant you’ve found and the one you’re looking for. (ex. This plant has fuzzy leaves, but this one doesn’t.)

Child-led Experiences

Plan to let them explore without giving much, if any, input. See what they gravitate toward and how they choose to interact with their surroundings. Sometimes children are absorbed by repetitive play that may seem boring to us, but is valuable for their development and understanding of the world around them.

No matter the size of your garden, the plants you have, or what activity you’re up to, it is so worthwhile to spend time in the garden with the kids in your life.

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