Photo: James Bombales

These days, most kids would rather design a garden on Minecraft than venture outside to get their hands dirty. But with a bit of encouragement, you can inspire their little green thumbs to grow. Ben Cullen is a fourth-generation urban gardener with a background in agriculture. An uncle to a niece and two nephews, he believes the benefits of gardening are endless, especially for young children. “It’s such a rewarding task because you’re reaping the rewards of yesterday’s work,” says Cullen. “Gardening is a great opportunity to develop an ethic.”

We met up with Cullen at the Backyard Living Expo in Toronto to get his tips on building a garden bed, choosing the right plants and embracing teachable moments.

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1. Start gardening with your kids at an early age

Photo: Kim Love/Flickr

“You should start introducing your kids to gardening as soon as they can walk,” suggests Cullen. Toddlers will benefit from the sensory experience, with new smells, textures and shapes. “For slightly older children, it gives them a leg up in their education because they’ll have an innate understanding of how the natural world works when they learn about it in school.” First-hand experience in the garden also helps children develop a sense of responsibility. “Gardening relates to the environment, food and health, so it teaches kids to value those things.”

2. Build a garden bed at ground level

Photo: wamblicious/Flickr

“Raised beds are tricky because you’ve got the issue of height — are you going to build it higher as your children grow?” asks Cullen. “You can always do that, but I tend to recommend raised beds for elderly people and those with disabilities because it’s more accessible, but you can always do a small raised bed at ground level.” There are many advantages to planting a garden at ground level. According to Cullen, the soil will warm up faster, there will be less weed pressure, and you can control the type of soil you use. “Ground level is where kids are, and that’s where they view the world from,” says Cullen. “The beauty of it is, you have the flexibility to put it at their level, to make it accessible to them. That’s going to maximize their engagement with the garden.”

3. Save money by DIYing your own garden bed

Photo: Kate Brady/Flickr

“We tend to overthink these things, and you can get away with a really simple design,” notes Cullen. “If you do it yourself, it’ll be a more rewarding process, and your money will go a lot further.” Cullen recommends working with basic building materials or upcycled garden containers. “Search for creative opportunities, like using an old bathtub. Kids love it because it’s something they haven’t seen before, and obviously it’s environmentally friendly,” says Cullen. “Be creative, work with what you have, and if you don’t have anything available to you, find a place that deals in recycled building materials.”

4. Sunflowers are perfect for first-time (or impatient) gardeners

Photo: Johan Neven/Flickr

Gardening can teach children the virtue of patience, but when you’re first starting out, you’ll want to up the excitement. “I think sunflowers are one of the most dramatic ways to introduce kids to growing from seed because it’s easy,” says Cullen. “A sunflower grows very quickly. If you plant a Russian Mammoth, it’ll grow very, very tall — much taller than your kid.” Cullen says the experience of planting a sunflower and watching it grow to new heights is a lasting one. “Hopefully it will inspire your kids to grow other things,” says Cullen.

5. Encourage kids to grow their own food

Photo: Chris Feser/Flickr

“My own passion for growing really started with food,” says Cullen. “Everybody eats and there are some vegetables that are really fun to grow, like potatoes.” Kids can grow their own potatoes from scraps — once a potato has started to sprout, simply cut it in half, allow the ends to dry out overnight, and then plant them in soil. “For kids, there’s a lot of magic in digging a potato out of the ground. Carrots are really fun, too, because often kids don’t realize that you pull them from the ground. Both are easy to grow and very rewarding.”

6. Let preteens plan their own garden

Photo: Aaron Baugher/Flickr

“By the time you’re a preteen, you’re starting to develop your organizational abilities,” says Cullen. “Give preteens the opportunity to plan their own garden that they can take ownership of. When you’re that age, you definitely want your own space!” Letting your tween grow their favorite flowers, fruits and vegetables gives them something to be proud of and instills confidence in their gardening abilities.

7. Start seeds indoors in preparation for spring

Photo: James Bombales

Seeing as though spring has been cancelled, it’s now more important than ever to start seeds indoors. “Start your longer season crops like tomatoes and peppers, which need heat,” says Cullen. “You’ll have more mature transplants if you start them now.” He also suggests getting creative with your plant varieties. “There’s nothing like opening up a seed catalogue to realize how the grocery store has been cheating you your entire life. There are black tomatoes and purple carrots out there! Try something different, you’ll realize how easy they are to grow.”

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