Gardening is an activity you can enjoy from childhood through retirement. While your gardening style may change over time, your love of gardens and plants probably won't. Sharing your wealth of knowledge and skills with young people is a great way to stay active and engaged. Intergenerational gardening has other benefits, too. Young people learn how to grow their own food and flowers — a lifelong gift they can use to improve their quality of life at home and in the community. They also glean wisdom from and nurture a relationship with an older adult. Older gardeners get physical assistance that may keep them active longer. Plus, a young gardening friend may nurture an older gardener's creativity or sense of adventure by suggesting new ideas or asking to try unusual plants. Intergenerational gardening is a win-win activity for everyone!
Here are some tips for creating and maintaining an intergenerational garden at home or in a public space like a community garden.
Intergenerational gardens are great projects. You may be working with your own grandchildren, a neighbor's kids at home, or as part of a larger volunteer educational program. If you're starting from scratch at home and building a garden just for you and a young friend or two, start small. If you already have a garden, create a separate area just for your intergenerational project, so everyone involved can contribute to the garden's design and maintenance.
To make your new garden a fun place for learning and growing, be sure the beds are easily accessible. Both containers and raised beds reduce bending and reaching. You can buy wooden half whiskey barrels or large, lightweight garden pots that look just like terra cotta or stone. Some of these are self-watering and some have casters or come with wheeled trolleys, so you can move them easily.
When planting large containers, place packing peanuts or empty plastic bottles in the bottom to take up space and reduce the weight. Most plants need only a 10- to 12-inch-deep layer of soil.
Raised beds can be temporary or permanent. Temporary beds are built up each spring to a height of 8 to 10 inches, a width of 3 to 4 feet, and as long as you wish. You can make permanent raised beds from cement, rot-resistant wood, or lightweight plastic lumber, or buy a raised-bed kit (most use plastic lumber). Avoid treated woods since they may leach harmful chemicals into the soil.
To make walking easier, cover paths with mulch such as shredded bark mulch. Make watering easier (and minimize hose dragging) by locating the raised beds close to a faucet, using soaker hoses or drip irrigation lines on timers, and mulching plants. If you are gardening from a wheelchair, use raised beds on legs so you can roll your chair under the bed.
Now that you've created your garden, it's time for the fun stuff. Here are some tips on selecting what to grow and keeping your plants healthy all summer.
Choose plants together. Empower your young friends by inviting them to choose plants they'd like to grow. You may have to temper their enthusiasm for growing peanuts in Minnesota, but you can probably accommodate many of their ideas. Consider some heirloom varieties, especially if there's a family connection to a plant, such as a tomato your grandmother once grew.
Visit the garden center together to buy seeds or transplants. Keeping your growing space in mind, encourage your young partner to select varieties for your plot. Make a list in advance of how many seed packets and plants you'll need.
Schedule workdays. Kids are used to schedules, both at school and with extra-curricular activities. Set up certain days and times to garden together so your young friend can look forward to it.
Don't expect young gardeners to do all the work. Kids can do many tasks in the garden, but you can count on their attention span being shorter than yours. Your job is to match the child's ability with the task at hand. Young kids are great at digging, planting large seeds, and watering. Older kids enjoy garden design, trellising, and mulching. Everyone should harvest! The most important thing is to keep gardening fun. For the first year, it may be enough to focus on instilling a love of gardening and teaching your young friend a few good practices. You'll probably need to do some weeding and watering between scheduled workdays.
Provide appropriate garden tools. Select ergonomic tools that are easy for you to use as well as good-quality, child-sized tools for your young friends. Using real tools sized for kids makes gardening more fun for children.
Develop a stockpile of fun ideas. Always have an engaging activity or two in mind on garden workdays, so the entire time isn't spent on chores like weeding. Kids relish harvesting, building trellises, making signs, mulching, and watering. Some also enjoy patrolling for pests.
Eat from the garden. Harvesting fresh vegetables is pure joy for kids. Be sure your young friends are there for the first tomato harvest and when it's time to dig the potatoes. Consider hosting a garden lunch or dinner that features the vegetables you grew and harvested together. If you're so inclined, invite your gardening friends to help prepare the meal, so they can see what great things can happen to their vegetables, fruits, and herbs after harvest. Don't forget a bouquet of fresh-picked garden flowers for the table, as well.
For more information on intergenerational gardening, visit NGA's Web site.
While gardening is a great activity for any age group, most gardeners in America are boomers or beyond. The annual National Gardening Survey has monitored lawn and garden trends for more than 30 years. In 2008, it reports that 81 million households participated in one or more types of lawn and garden activities. The demographic groups ranking highest were college-educated, 45 years of age and older, in married households, and with children at home. Nationwide, gardening households spent an average of $444 on lawn and garden activities last year.