Ah, there's nothing like spring with your child joining you in the garden. Little hands at work in the sweet, crumbly soil to create a wee enchanted fairyland. Phooey! (Or a stronger expletive.)
Tending a garden is not trivial work. To do any kind of gardening is to balance disorder and order, chaos and control. To be a parent is to deal with the same forces.
Certainly, children can get a lot of pleasure from growing flowers and vegetables. But let go of the sweet fantasy of the toddler tending the bean from seed to stalk or the kindergartner struck dumb with wonder as you explain evolution, photosynthesis, and genetically modified organisms.
The adult's dream of a flowery haven full of teaching opportunities quickly comes into conflict with the child's natural energy and need to act on things, not just look at them.
Here are some suggestions for how to decrease conflict and increase your and your young charge's chances of success. The desired outcome in this arena consists of plants that stay alive and no child or parent actually weeping or throwing things.
~ Don't wait until July. It will be too hot to plant, and there will be slim pickings at the nursery.
~ Be flexible. The act of gardening, with its necessary adjustments to weather and terrain and plagues and pests, forcefully promotes flexibility. Now, you're interacting with a small human being with a short attention span as well as with the larger forces of nature.
Bend a bit in matters of taste. While you're imagining an all-white garden, your child will be picking out the orange marigold that goes badly with every other color, especially his or her next selection, the red petunia with white stripes that resembles nothing in nature.
~ Start small. Many an adult tells of being turned off gardening for life by being given the chore of weeding a parent's half-acre. Your child can grow a surprising amount of interesting stuff in a half-barrel in the sun. Take care to put drainage holes in the bottom and fill it with a lightweight sterile soil mix rather than yard dirt. Mix in slow-release fertilizer pellets. String twine up a wall onto hooks. Have your child plant seeds of a vine like morning glory or small gourds or scarlet runner bean. Go to a farmers market or nursery and let him or her pick out a trailing annual like petunias or verbena for the barrel's edge and some spearmint for an area that will be shaded. Water with a watering can, not a hose, gently and thoroughly. (More later on the dire consequences of child plus hose.)
You could stick with the half-barrel or go bigger by preparing a sunny 4-by-6-foot spot. Surround this small patch with boards to define it. Put a narrow board across it, so your child can reach the plants without stepping on them or the soil. Improve the soil before you plant. In a city, this means a well-gloved adult will remove glass, cans, bottle caps, cigarettes, rocks, and lumps of concrete. Spread compost or well-rotted manure on the soil and dig it in lightly. Save the big rocks. Your child can use them to outline the planted bed so the plot won't get stepped on.
To see why it's important to be clear about where not to walk, picture an outdoor birthday party for a dozen 4-year-olds. Pavers are great—kids can hopscotch along them. Raised beds for vegetables and precious plants are even better for keeping plants out of harm's way.
~ Select structures that work for both adults and children. With a small yard, you have to decide whether you want a playground or a garden. A playground, unless it involves a swimming pool, gets old fast. The abandoned jungle gym and the rusted swing set are clichés for a desolate place; leave play structures to park planners. Instead, make a big, sturdy bench—it could be no more than firmly planted cinder blocks and a thick, wide board. A child can jump on and off it and, when exhausted, sit and rest beside you. Any kind of platform, as small as a bench or as big as a deck, works as a lookout, a stage, an island, or a fort.
~ Let the child make a mess, but not everywhere. If you take a minute to watch a child enter a yard, you'll see him sizing up the place for somewhere to climb, somewhere to dig, and somewhere to hide. Give your kid and a friend some trowels and a well-defined place where you want the soil loosened up.
When putting shrubs beside a shed or garage, plant those hydrangeas or viburnums 4 feet away from the structure, leaving room for a hiding place. Spread pine-bark nuggets underfoot to cut down on mud; the bark will smell good when it warms up.
~ Choose plants that will give you a relatively fast payoff. There are some seeds that can go right into the ground in that 4-by-6-foot space.
The whole plot could be sunflowers from seed. Food plants that work well from seeds sown directly outdoors include beans, peas, carrots, radishes, and summer squash. If you combine sunflowers with food, place the sunflowers where they won't shade everything else.
For plants like tomatoes, buy seedlings. (There are very few home windowsills sunny enough to grow healthy tomato seedlings indoors.)
A surprisingly cool plant for children is Brussels sprouts. A 3-inch seedling grows a stupendously strong and thick trunk by harvest time. The sprouts are fantastic plucked when they're the size of a baby fingernail.
Should you grow a squash like zucchetta trombolina (one of the selections in the John Scheepers seed collection "A Child's Garden of Wonder"), harvest those green submarines when they're small, or you will be overwhelmed. Prickly squash leaves can irritate skin, not enough to hurt but enough to provide a lesson in how plants protect themselves from browsing animals.
Also look for plants that are very pleasant to touch. Many of the scented geraniums have leaves that are both velvety and fragrant. Lamb's ears really are gray and fuzzy, and easy to grow in well-drained soil.
For a child's cutting garden, cosmos and black-eyed Susans provide the classic grandmother-pleasing daisy shape. You will want to demonstrate to your youngster that when you pull on a flower stem, you often pull up the whole plant. Trust your child with small scissors with rounded ends.
Children are supposed to like plants that are pretty, but they really, truly like plants that are weird, even monstrous. One very easy monster perennial is joe pye weed, which can get to be 6 feet tall, with meadowy pink flowers that are attractive to butterflies.
The tropical plants commonly known as elephant ears are weirdly beautiful. One of them, esculenta black magic has huge leaves that emerge green and turn to purply-black. Another, Alocasia amazonica, has dark-green leaves with dramatic white veins, in the shape of an African mask.
There's an easy rose bush, Rosa chinensismutabilis, with orange buds that open to yellow, orange, pink, and pinkish-red. Combine it with the buddleia that has orange-pink and purple all on the same flower.
~ Supervise watering. (Imagine that birthday party if one of the 4-year-olds gets a hold of a hose.) Watering is both the most important thing for keeping plants alive and the biggest danger in gardening with children, power saws aside. A blast of water tears or uproots small plants, washes away soil, and splatters leaves with mud.
It isn't easy to get across the concept of watering slowly and thoroughly, letting the water sink in. This is why God created watering cans. An adult or some calm, sane child should use the hose to fill the watering can. You then have a very pretty camera-ready tableau. Because your child will probably get bored after the second watering can, the adult in the garden needs to use a hose (with a soaker nozzle) to water the garden the next morning.
~ Finally, teach by example more than by explaining. If an adult is working in a concentrated, calm, meditative manner, it is a very good bet that a child will interrupt. With luck, the interruption will come with the question What are you doing and why?
The last but most important step: Take a look together every day at what's growing.
Some inspired advice: "Recognize that kids' gardening priorities are different, well, practically opposite of adults'." That comes from Cheryl Dorschner, a columnist at the Burlington Free Press. Here's a particularly good Web site for more information.