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Gardening With a Toddler

In the fall of 2009 I met with two "firsts" in my life—I became a first-time mom and a first-time homeowner, with a yard too. (Hooray on all counts!) Though I had managed to gain experience in gardening while still a renter, the youngest child I had ever tended was about 4 years old. In other words, no diapers, passing communication skills and the ability to entertain himself if, say, I needed a minute to run to the bathroom. I quickly learned just how different an infant and a preschooler are!


Gardening-wise, my daughter couldn't have been born at a better time of year; she broke us in over the winter, when in our area the ground is frozen solid.

By last spring, we had a good enough routine going that I snatched a few hours here and there to start a garden—I planted only about eight perennials but it felt like a huge accomplishment.

By the fall of 2010, I had shaken sleep deprivation enough to trust myself to choose a few new shrubs. I also planted some bulbs.

The best time has come this past spring. Juliet is now a walking, somewhat-talking little person who loves the outdoors as much as I do. I've made much more progress in the garden, I think mostly because I've been able to set aside the guilt I used to feel if I wasn't always near her when at home. She's perfectly happy to play with her dad while I'm outside! I've also found a few strategies that I hope will help other gardeners with very young kids...or anything else that places a lot of demands on your time and energy.

1. Adjust your standards. This was hard for me at first, since I work on Horticulture and we aim to bring our readers info on the best, most distinctive plants and the best way to go about design and gardening tasks. In my mind there's a "right" and "wrong" way to do things, but I've had to throw that away in my personal garden in favor of shortcuts and just plain getting it done with the time and materials immediately at hand.

2. Divide your space. I focus on our front yard. I have a perennial garden bordering the sidewalk and the walkway to our door; containers on the landing and steps; and I redid the foundation planting. The backyard, luckily hidden by a fence, just has some patchy lawn and really happy weeds! I might take it on next year. (I use the same approach indoors. The downstairs is fairly neat; our master bedroom usually looks like a dorm room.)

3. Choose low-maintenance, locally appropriate plants. This goes back to point 1, above, a little. I have a lot of "common" plants in my garden. I admire (to a degree) the "plant snobs" who pick rare or unusual plants instead of the 'Stella d'Oro' daylilies and Flower Carpet roses of the world. I do have a few plants that are peculiar to see in our neighborhood, and our yard looks "different" because it's not 90-percent lawn. But for the most part I use old standbys—in my area, salvia, coreopsis, sedum, boxwood—because they're easy to find locally and they stay happy without a lot of special care.

4. Take 5 minutes. The British magazine Gardenlife—now out of print—had a column where they would list out quick tasks: "If you have 5 minutes, do this this this," "If you have 10 minutes do that that that," "If you have 15 minutes..." etc. I take 5 minutes where I can to do little chores. For example, I put Juliet to bed, then scoot outside and tidy up my containers or weed a small section before I clean up the kitchen.

5. Share and enjoy. Juliet loves to be outside, and there's no place in the yard or garden that is off limits to her. (Obviously, she can only explore with an adult.) I made sure to avoid using poisonous plants like foxgloves. I also don't use any pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers in the garden or on the lawn. She loves to "help" water and weed and to pick flowers and leaves. Just about anything she wants to do, I let her try. She isn't super-effective, for obvious reasons, but it's fun to work with her and see things from her perspective and "logic." When watering she puts the watering can's rose right on a flower; I think this makes perfect sense to her since she puts her own cup to her face to drink!