If you have a child on your gift list this year, and he or she looks susceptible, it’s time to pass on that benign garden bug. It doesn’t need to be missionary work to infect the kids around you (and you don’t get a toaster); just let them play in the mud with the right tools like the rest of us.
Many “kid” tools are insulting to the kids and the work: puny and unsatisfying in the hand, easily broken, and, worst of al, ineffective. What could be more discouraging than chipping away at a stubborn patch of dirt with the equivalent of a plastic teaspoon? Fortunately, some decent tools for junior are showing up. Even so, tools designated for children might be as unnecessary as they are easily outgrown.
Many youngsters do just fine with regular tools; Felco, for example, makes a pruning shear sized for smallish hands. Tools for use on houseplants or bonsai are a good size for small folk’s projects, but get solid stuff, not skinny, fragile plastic. For really young kids, you can pad the handles if necessary with bright tape, foam, pencil grips, or even the adaptive grips made for elderly or arthritic hands.
Consider D-handled spades or lady (aka flower) shovels as a concession to size, and teach a child to use her weight on a spade or fork in order to lift efficiently. Notice which of your tools your child picks up most often and hangs onto longest. A small, lightweight watering can—pick one up and test it for balance as well as weight—or a rake made for small spaces might help; seed-dispensing gadgets are good for small, inexperienced hands.
Amusing plants are good: squiggly Hankow willow; big, silly California Channel Island coreopsis; seeds for scarlet runner bean, yard-long bean; bush impatiens with its explosive seedpods. Radish and scallion seeds provide quick gratification; catnip amuses more than the cat; sunflowers and pumpkins and cherry tomatoes are classics. Skip the foxglove, oleander, and hellebore, if the child or the child’s friends or the child’s friends’ tag-along little brother might mistake the patch for a salad bar.
If you have a garden and the child lives near you, a plot of one’s own is a handsome present. The trick is to give the ground to the child and then stand back. No orders; advice only when asked. You may have a buffalo wallow as a unique garden feature for a few years, or an action-figure slaughterfest. Be sure this is a space you can give freely, maybe one you won’t actually have to look at: the back forty behind the laurel hedge, or that bit by the garage she likes to dig in already. Nothing toxic, like the shade-tree mechanic’s former dump. Marking the space with stakes and red ribbon and a sign makes it look like a gift, and those conscious of property and propriety (as small kids are, however the rest of us might feel) might want to draw up a deed for the new owner. The recipient of your gift might surprise you and grow big fat squash next spring.
Ron Sullivan is a professional gardener and arborist.