Healthy Gardening with Children

By Anne Curtis, M.S.P.H.


Gardening with children can be a wonderful opportunity for learning. Children can learn how soil is prepared and cultivated. They can count out seeds and plant them, and they can watch as plants mature and produce flowers, fruits or vegetables. Older children can help design the garden. Children are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables that they have grown themselves, and gardening can also help them learn good soil safety habits.


Finding Space for a Garden

If you have even a small space that receives plenty of sunshine, you can plant a child’s garden. In fact, for young children, a large garden may be overwhelming. Vegetables and flowers can also be grown in containers on a patio or balcony – good container plants include herbs, lettuce, patio tomatoes and many flowers.


Choosing Interesting Plants That Are Easy to Grow

Select plants that are attractive to children and easy to grow. Fragrant herbs such as lavender and rosemary, colorful flowers and textured plants such as lambs ears, woolly thyme or succulents engage a child’s senses. Easy-to-grow vegetables include radishes, leaf lettuce, peas, zucchini and snap beans. Flowers such as cosmos, California poppies and nasturtiums are easy to grow and their bright colors appeal to children. Sunflowers are always a favorite, and many dwarf varieties are now available for the small garden. If you have room, try planting some strawberries.


Stay away from poisonous plants because children may put parts in their mouths. Common poisonous plants include foxglove, lily of the valley, monkshood (aconitum) and leaves of the rhubarb plant. More information about poisonous plants is available from the Washington Poison Center.


Choose plants with a short growing season, as children will see the results of their gardening efforts more quickly. Plants that are disease and pest-resistant will keep pesticides out of your garden. Talk with staff at a nursery if you are unsure what your “best bets” are for our climate.


Encouraging Children to Participate

Depending on age, children can help prepare the soil, select plants, sow seeds, weed their garden and pick flowers or harvest the “crop.” Young children should be closely supervised when gardening, especially when tools are being used, and always remember to follow soil safety guidelines.


Soil Safety Guidelines

Arsenic and lead are two toxic substances that we know are in Puget Sound soils. Arsenic is linked to cancer, and lead causes developmental delay and lowered IQ in children. The amounts we have found in our soils are not enough to be an immediate health risk for most people. However, children are most at risk from contaminated soil because they tend to put dirty hands and objects in their mouths. Also, children’s smaller, developing bodies are more easily hurt by chemicals. Other harmful substances in the garden may include pesticides, animal droppings and allergens. To lower the chances that you and your children accidentally breathe in or eat dirt or dust, we suggest you follow these guidelines while gardening:


Ÿ        Wash hands and face after playing in soil, especially before eating.

Ÿ        Use a scrub brush to clean dirt from under nails.

n">Ÿ        Dampen soil before gardening to control dust.

n">Ÿ        Do not eat or drink while gardening.

Ÿ        Wear gloves and shoes when gardening.

Ÿ        Use a rough doormat to wipe shoes and take shoes off when you go indoors.

Ÿ        Wash fruits and vegetables picked from the garden well (scrub with a brush) and peel root vegetables.

Ÿ        Don’t grow food near old painted structures (older paint may contain lead) or under a roof overhang.

Ÿ        Eat a healthy diet. Good nutrition keeps the body strong and helps prevent toxins from being absorbed.




Soil Safety


Public Health – Seattle & King County Environmental Health; 206-205-4394.

Child Care Health Program; 206-296-2770.

Snohomish Health District, Partners in Child Care –; 425-339-5230.


Poisonous Plants


Washington Poison Center; 1-800-222-1222.


Gardening with Children


Washington State University Extension, Master Gardener Program –

WSU King County; Master Gardener Hotline: 206-296-3440.

WSU Snohomish County Extension; 425-338-2400.