Setting Ground Rules For Children

One of the most rewarding ways to spend an afternoon is gardening with a child. Please understand, I say this even though I don’t have any children of my own yet. For now, I get to borrow them, teach them about digging in the dirt, and hand them back a little messier than I found them.

You see, I don’t have to worry about washing their dirty clothes, their muddy footprints on the newly swept floor or making sure they take a shower before dinner; hence, the reason why I LOVE gardening with kids The most important aspect I would suggest to anyone interested in attempting such a feat is to do as my coworker suggests and,

  1. Lead by example. Children learn from us; they copy our behavior, they try to be like us… they can’t help it; it’s all they know. The good thing is we just have to identify a proper form of motivation and they will follow our lead. So, first thing’s first, we’ll have to offer them an incentive, something along the lines of an allowance (this may be the only way to keep them from eating all the blueberry’s while they pick them). Bribes always worked for me as a kid, “a penny a weed pulled is a penny well spent.’” We can feel free to demonstrate the diligence of pulling weeds, the patience of raking the soil, the art of choosing which seeds to plant where, and the joy of harvesting with the upmost confidence that our monetary motivator will do just the trick in having them follow our disciplined lead.



With a well-behaved child in tow, we can explore a multitude of gardening activities that get the dirty work done, while fostering a love for the outdoors and all things that grow.

My favorite and most rewarding way to grow is by seed… plus it’s the cheapest.

  1. Grow from seed. Growing from seeds is by far the most simple, inexpensive and rewarding gardening activity to do with kids. Let’s think about this, what once appeared to be a tiny, insignificant seed can grow into a mammoth sunflower or a winter squash. It’s an easy way to get a garden started while helping children understand, and in some cases remind ourselves, where a plant comes from. The ingredients for this task are as basic as purchasing seed packets, gathering soil and finding a small pot or two. If pots are hard to come by it’s really easy to origami one out of an old newspaper (a quick search on Google) or repurpose an old egg carton, preferably cardboard.



The first time I planted from seeds (aside from sprouting seeds in a plastic bag for a science class when I was ten) was at Beethoven Elementary School in the company of twenty-five children eager to do the same. I had just finished reading the book ‘Tops and Bottoms’ by Janet Stevens followed by illustrating on the chalkboard how root vegetables grow below ground and, most everything else grows above ground. I quizzed them asking, ‘Where does a carrot grow?” and waited as they shouted in unison, “Below ground.” My lesson lasted another ten minutes and ended with the children demonstrating their ‘pincher fingers’, where the index finger and the thumb close and open like a small alligator, to show me they understood how they’d be taking the seeds from my hand (finger dexterity is key to handling seeds, especially carrot and lettuce seeds).

And, lastly, I shared the garden rules: everyone would remain in a single-file line, use library voices only and when Ms. Tracy clapped her hands everyone was to throw their hands over their heads and give a big applause as a job well done (this was a clever way to stop everyone from playing in the dirt and reward the kid that dug a little too deep with a showering of dirt). And, most importantly, I emphasized, “Everyone would get to plant something, but not everyone would get to plant everything.” From there we marched out of the classroom and into the garden. The irony of the whole experience was, until that day I hadn’t ever before planted from seeds. In fact, I really hadn’t planted anything, ever. I had just taken on this new job as ‘Garden Lady’ and hoped, hoped, hoped the plants would grow in my absence. I encouraged the children to water, wait and watch the plants grow and I just prayed they would. To my amazement, when I returned three months later the radishes were overgrown and splitting, the swiss chard was three feet high, there was an over abundance of lettuce, the broccoli had flowered and was covered in what I later learned to be aphids and, the best part of all, the children were happy. They, or rather WE, had grown an entire garden from seed! With my limited knowledge, my enthusiastic encouragement for the children to water and my heavy trust in believing what the seed packet literature told me; WE had succeeded. The garden was such a success we celebrated with a harvest party. Together with our library voices in a single-file line, we harvested the vegetables, cleaned them and made individual salads for everyone to enjoy the fruits of our labor.

Though, I may not have been an expert gardener (to say the least) and I may not have planted a single seed before I took on the job as ‘Garden Lady,’ … I was smart enough to trust the instructions on the outside (and inside) of the seed packet! Planting from seed not only knocked my novice gardener status right out the door, but the children never knew the difference. I lead by the example of being a good reader and they followed my lead. We had success and I know you can too!

Tracy Wankner

Horticulturist, former ‘Garden Lady’ and LEED, AP



For those who may be new to gardening, confined to a small patio or don’t have a heavy-duty shovel to negotiate our clayey soil, I suggest beginning with the small, yet very affordable, project of creating hand painted terracotta pots. These pots will serve as fun art project and the new home for your budding herb garden.

  1. Hand Painted Pots.



Ingredients for success include:

  • 3 day project– Don’t freak out, these are not full project days, we’ll just pace ourselves with just a little piece of the project each day; one day for prep and sealing, one day for painting, and one day for planting. Each day’s break will allow ample time for drying to occur.
  • 1 to 3 terra cotta clay pots- this is the perfect time to repurpose our old boring ones, but first, we’ll soak them in warm water for about an hour before we do any scrubbing or sanding). Or, even easier, purchase a few new ones perfectly sized for the windowsill or patio.
  • A stiff brush or sandpaper– this will allow us to agitate the pots surface just enough for the paint to absorb.
  • A layer of newspapers– its very important to cover the floor or ground wherever we’re working, especially when kids are involved. My parents called this the ‘Tracy tray’ and it followed me everywhere I went (even to college). It caught my messes before they hit the floor and most of the time it totally worked.
  • Cotton Cloth- for additional cleanup
  • 2 colors of high gloss exterior paint– these colors should be our most favorites. One for the ‘base’ coat and one for the ‘design’, contrasting colors are best.
  • A sponge or paint brush– this can help us paint
  • 1 can terracotta pot sealer– to prevent moisture from moving from the inside out and impacting the painted surface. Likely for adult-use only, depending on the age of the kid.

Now, onto the fun part…we begin with covering our work surface with the newspaper and putting on a smock or old clothes for easier cleaning later. With the appropriate garb on we can start day one’s activities:

  1. Scrubbing or sanding the pots to smooth any surface bumps and imperfections- this is the perfect opportunity to help the child learn finger dexterity and the importance of proper preparation. Without a smooth and clean surface the paint won’t stick.

Wipe the pot with a damp cotton cloth, a little bit of dish soap- this removes any dust or leftover grit. Once completed, we can let the pot dry before painting. This allows us time to use the newspaper as a surface to draw the designs we’ll paint later (best to use pencils).

  1. Seal the inside of the terracotta pot. Terra cotta pots are porous until sealed. Apply a thin coat to the interior being careful to prevent any bare spots that could allow water to evaporate through later. Allow the sealer to dry for 24 hours. While we’re doing this we can distract/encourage the child to imagine the designs they will paint on the pot. *if desired you can use the terracotta sealer on the exterior of the pot, but this may make for a little trickier drying.

Day Two’s activities begin with checking if the sealer is dry. Ok, great, here comes the best part:

  1. Painting the outside of the pot- using the sponge or paintbrush we can start applying our favorite paint color (consider this the ‘base’ color) to the pot’s surface. After painting the entire exterior we can encourage the child to continue painting the top 2” of the inside of the pot. It isn’t necessary to paint any more of the inside as the pot will be filled with soil. Once completed, we get to exercise the patience of waiting again while we let the pot dry thoroughly.
  2. Apply a second coat- this ensures the paint is applied think and evenly enough for our designs to show through. We wait for it to dry before we get to go to the next step.
  3. Add designs. Using a sponge dipped in the paint designated for the ‘design’ we can begin to apply the design. If we’d like to get extra creative the sponge can be cut into shapes like squares, stars or circles. Otherwise it can be used to dab on a simple texture. With the decorating complete we will wait, once again, for the paint to dry. * if desired an additional coat of the terracotta sealer can be applied or a clear acrylic spray paint to coat the painted surface, just allow for ample drying times.
  4. Set the pot aside for at least 2 to 3 days before planting.