If you're a follower of Lynda Hallinan's Sunday Star Times gardening column, you may have read, a few weeks back, of her disappointment with the discovery that kids and gardens don't go together quite as well as she once thought. In her childless years she confesses to having offered readers all sorts of encouraging advice to get their little ones out in the dirt – from growing sunflowers to sowing baby carrots. Once she had her own kids, however, she says she realised that small children aren't remotely interested in gardens or in eating the veggies that come from them. I enjoy Linda's columns, and she's a knowledgable gardener, but I can't quite agree with her thoughts this time round. After all, since when were little kids ever interested in anything for very long (especially the kind of activities that don't reap immediate results)? As for getting your four year old to eat a plate of cooked broccoli – I don't think so!
If you want to interest children in gardening, let them have a little patch of dirt they can call their own but don't expect miracles. Garden with them (after all, it's Mum or Dad they want to spend time with most, not the soil). Encourage them to join you in some basic, fun maintenance of the plot every now and then (kid-sized watering cans and wheelbarrows can help with this), but prepare yourself for the fact that you're the one who'll be doing most of the weeding. When things start to actually grow and produce edibles or pretties, your child's enthusiasm will be right there as they proudly admire "their" garden. In effect, what you're doing is showing your child what the soil is capable of – what good things it will return to you if you give it a helping hand. Though gardening may not be their daily focus, if you give children this sort of start, and model happy gardening through your own behaviour, eventually they are very likely to return to it – perhaps as an adolescent, a university student, or as a young parent with children of their own.
As far as getting children to enjoy food from the garden (and not just the fruit variety) my own practise, from the time our son could crawl, was to let him loose in the veggie patch about half an hour before dinner just as he was beginning to feel peckish. While I gathered vegetables for the grown-ups' meal, he would happily meander between the rows helping himself to whatever he wanted: peas (sometimes shells and all), courgettes, a nibble from a head of cauli or broccoli, or a bite of radish or carrot (I figured a little soil never hurt anyone). I was quite happy to harvest cabbages with bites out of them, content in the knowledge he was selecting what he wanted for himself while learning that a delicious meal was right outside his door. Needless to say, as a hungry teenager, his first port of call after climbing off the school bus, was the vegetable garden, followed by a long afternoon snack of baked potato or homemade wedges. A life-long vegetarian, his student flat is now easily identifiable by its avenues of greenery growing from an assortment of weird and wonderful containers, while his neighbours benefit from his daily delivery of food scraps to their compost bin.
Don't expect big things from little children when it comes to gardening. But do make sure you're modelling the behaviour that they're very likely to continue with at some stage in their life. And if you're kids first taste of vegetables is cooked and on a plate, don't be disappointed when they tuck into the chicken first!