Gardening involves the great outdoors — sunshine, dirt, water and bright colors! Unfortunately, it comes alongside chemicals, sharp tools and plants or flowers that might not be safe for youngsters. Attention to a few details will keep little ones safe from harm when they're inevitably "bitten" by the gardening bug.
Kids of all ages can be taught to effectively plant, weed, water and tend to flowers and veggies, however, varying levels of supervision are necessary based on age and ability. First and foremost, insist on adult supervision for kids younger than teen years, says Toni VanHandel, chairman of the Children's Garden for the Jackson County Master Gardener's Association, who works with young gardeners, ages 5 to 8.
When gardening with young children, safety should be the only thing more important than having fun. Consider building an emergency kit of sorts to handle issues that might pop up, from forgotten sunscreen to unexpected stings or scrapes. Here's a sample list:
Ointment for bee stings and other bites
Band-aids for scratches and cuts
Bandanas to soak in cool water and wrap around neck
To gear up for a few hours in the garden, start early or plan for an evening session — no longer than two hours. "We try to schedule during the cooler part of the day so kids are going to be more comfortable. You want to make sure they have plenty to drink and they wear sunscreen," says Linda Chesney, stewardship coordinator for the North Mountain Park Nature Center, which offers a community garden and classes.
As for garden wear, consider covering legs and arms to protect from bug bites, UV rays and scratches. "If it's cool enough, they can wear garments with long sleeves and pants," VanHandel says. In addition, closed-toed shoes, hats and sunglasses offer added protection. For little hands, find gloves that let fingers breathe but protect from blisters and thorns. Once kids are geared up, take stock of gardening tools before pint-sized enthusiasts descend.
Assess children's age, maturity and level of ability, and brief them on which tools they can safely use, which ones require immediate supervision and which ones are off-limits. Electrical or gas-powered should be on the "off-limits" list, but kids can be taught to use shovels and rakes with a necessary degree of caution. Keep tools clean and use your own "tool" of persuasion. Encourage children to think about safety and invoke consequences for horseplay.
"We kind of start out with our tool talk, focusing on safety," Chesney says. "If they've worked with tools before, they know what kind of safety is involved. If we see kids that are not using tools safely, they know they lose the privilege of using that tool and that usually brings them right around."
When selecting plants and veggies, brightly colored plants and veggies will be fun for kids, but watch to avoid plants that attract dangerous insects, such as blue colored flowers, members of the daisy family and rosemary. Teach kids to identify — and avoid — wasp nests and bee hives.
While a big attraction for kids is getting to eat what they plant, make a rule that nothing be eaten, even tempting berries, without permission, and avoid plants with toxic leaves or thorns in gardens where children help out.
As for chemicals used in the garden, both garden gurus side on a no-chemical approach.
"As far as chemicals in the garden, my bias is you don't use anything toxic in a garden where there are children," says VanHandel. "If it becomes necessary to use something, it should be used only by the parent and should be kept locked away from children." Remember, organic chemicals can be toxic, too.
An often overlooked warning — water gardens and pond areas should be fenced off and inaccessible to young children.
Finally, after a few hours gardening, teach good habits in putting things away and washing hands. Then sit back and watch things take off.
"It's amazing. What might not seem like a good time to an adult, kids just love," VanHandel says. "I think their favorite things to do are weeding and harvesting."