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Growing a Garden with Teenagers

Growing a Garden with Teenagers

Posted by Matt Gerber on Nov 3rd 2019

How can I grow a kid’s garden with teenagers? This was a project I recently took on in my 9th grade biology class. I told my students that they needed to grow a kid’s garden with a team of elementary students. 

This article is the third in the series, which has been looking at growing kid’s gardens for different ages. We learned some really helpful things as my biology class worked with younger kids and I hope it helps you grow your own kid’s garden for your family!

Today I am going to write about the high school kids themselves and what I learned watching teenagers garden. Another teacher told me that I could never get teenagers excited about gardening, but I found that to be untrue. Teenagers get excited about gardening when a few simple ideas are put in place! Hopefully the lessons I learned will be helpful for you. If you are a gardening enthusiast and want to pass that along to your children, or just seeking a new way to connect with your child, garden can be an amazing thing for teenagers.

The first thing that stood out with teenagers in the garden was what I call the 50/40/10 rule. 50% of their engagement depended on their own interest in gardening. It seemed to be connected to any previous experience they had with gardening. Kids who had gardens at home were excited about this, kids who had never gardened were open to it and kids who had been forced to work in their parents’ garden dreaded the project. 40% of teenager engagement depended on how valuable they saw the project to be. Participation and data collection was part of a grade, so that built in some value.

For a few other groups of teenagers, I had to create other reasons to find value in gardening. One group was planning on growing primarily things that could be eaten and they hoped to sell them to make money. Another group tried to grow a cacao and a coffee tree with hopes of making their own coffee and chocolate. For several of the groups, knowing they would be teaching elementary students about gardening added enough value to get them engaged as well.

This was surprising, because I had one class that did not get paired up with any elementary students. I thought this would be the class that grew the most elaborate, healthy gardens. However, they were less engaged, overall, than the groups who spent a lot of their time simply trying to keep the little ones from pulling up the flowers. Using the garden to teach others added a lot value and the teenagers were more interested in gardening when this value was there.

Finally, 10% of their engagement was generated through my own excitement and encouragement. Kids who had no interest in the project could be motivated enough to engage for about 10% of the time. This showed me that if a parent is not truly committed to the gardening project, it will likely not go as well. Gardening is something you do with your teenager (and their friends, most likely). It is not something they do with you.

If I wasn’t excited on one of the days we went out to our gardens, then they mirrored that attitude. (Though, none of them would have acknowledged it!)

As the gardening project has gone on from year to year, I have seen many successful gardens and a few gardens that turned into piles of weeds by the end of the year. As you look at growing a kids’ garden yourself, I hope you can take advantage of what we learned!

Here are a few basic rules to follow when starting a garden for teenagers:

1.  Share the responsibility – a little more work than play.

Teenagers know that gardening can be hard work. It was not successful for me to try and hide that fact from them and then hope they would magically engage. I saw the highest levels of engagement when I clearly explained the work that would be required, but also the enjoyment we would get out of our efforts. It also helped when I described some aspects, like teaching the elementary kids and enhancing our school grounds, as genuinely fun. Overall, gardening is a bit of work and a lot of reward.

2.  Plants with purpose.

The question that I posed to the high school kids who were about to garden for the first time was simple. What are you trying to accomplish? Are you trying to enhance the landscape? Do you want to grow some veggies? Do you have a favorite food you have been wanting to grow? Is there a crazy plant – like a coffee tree or apple tree – that you have always wanted? These are the things that get teenagers gardening. It requires some purpose in the work and some focus in the garden.

3.  Design a space.

At the younger ages, having some space to explore or make the garden feel special and inviting was important. For teenagers, they need to be involved in the design to really dive in. With so many design and build tv shows and magazines, kids get into the idea of being able to create a unique space. Asking how to design a garden that fits us is a great way to start the design process.

4.  A second year crop.

Little kids want something to grow NOW! They want to see the watermelon form and be ready to pick. Teenagers like the idea that their efforts today will pay off for a long time. They get that a garden is an investment and getting a return on that investment will be so rewarding! If you can incorporate some plants that will produce more in their second or third year, then you will have teenagers who are committed to the garden for more than just the season.

This banana plant is a perfect example of something that will produce fruit down the road.

5.  The tools make the work easier.

If you are going to get a teenage gardening, then you need the right tools before you walk out onto the dirt. Little kids treat gardening tools like toys. Bigger kids understand that the tools keep them clean. Teenagers want tools that make the work easier. Having these ready in advance will make your first day in the garden a lot smoother. A side note – the more dig-ready your garden is on day one, the more likely your teenager is to stick with gardening for the season. When we started our gardens for the school, I had a bunch of teenagers ready to garden. None of them were ready to clear weeds and till dirt. I almost lost the entire group just preparing the plot, based on what kids expected gardening to be.

The next big decisions you can make with your teenager involves the kinds of plants to put in your garden. Here are few of the things I learned about gardening with teenagers from my class’ project.

1.  Grow various ethnic foods you can cook and eat.

Every teenager has seen a tomato and tried a cucumber. Growing another cucumber in the garden won’t inspire them the way it does a younger child. Growing something exotic that you can cook and eat will excite them more. I saw this with a kid who would not get excited about the gardening project until I agreed to let him grow a Carolina Reaper. He was leading the gardening charge after that! 

2.  Grow something you would see at a flower shop.

Teenagers love things that are unique and exotic. They want to stand out in positive ways, so growing something that will stand out is a perfect way! Your teenager can think about how to design a bouquet or put together a vase for the dining room table. They might try and put together the sweetest smelling space in the world or add flowers that take years to produce the perfect petals. There is a bit of a challenge in this idea that my students were drawn to.

3.  Grow something you can give.

No matter the age, being able to give something to another person that you grew with your own hands is priceless. Make a plan for this and consider involving your teenager’s friends. If your child knows that something they grow will be given to others then they will try and make it great. One of the best things you might arrange in this area is a reciprocating type of gift. If your child gifts the strawberries, then grandma will turn them into jam that they can share together. 

4.  Add something fun!

There are so many great ideas that work well with teenagers. A few of my favorites include selling your produce at a farmer’s market or just on the sidewalk in front of your house.

One of the most successful ideas I have heard involves connecting the garden with significant events. For example, on “planting day” you plant everything in the ground and then have a giant barbecue with your friends. Planting is a lot of work, but when planting day is a special day that includes a party it becomes a significant event. On weed pulling day, grandpa brings over homemade ice cream to finish it off. On harvest day, you make a bunch of different items out of your watermelon and throw a big bash! A lot of neat things to consider here that add fun to it.

I have also heard of gardens that really took off because the garden became something that they did with their friends. At the start of the season, the friends come over for a sleep over and to design the space. They have four hangouts over the course of the summer to care for the plants together and then split the proceeds or the produce at the end of the year. The entire project became a way to build friendships and the hard work was just one more fun thing to do over the summer since it was purposeful.

So there you have it, the secrets to growing a garden with a teenager! My students got really involved in our schools’ gardens and these were things that made it happen. The teenage years can be tough, but with some planning and positivity you can do something really fun that will be memorable forever. Who knows? You just might start a legacy of gardening that you will enjoy for years!

Here is the summary:

    • Shared responsibility – a little more work than play.
    • Plants with purpose – what are you trying to accomplish? Landscaping? Veggies for the fall? Growing a favorite food? This will require some focus. Growing something to grow it is just plain work. Growing something for a purpose is worthwhile.
    • Design the space
    • A second year crop
    • The tools make the work easier.
  • Grow various ethnic foods you can cook and eat!
    • Thai Chilis
    • Arugula
    • Wild Spinach
  • Grow something you would see at a flower shop!
    • Tulips
    • Roses
    • Flowers that are unique and family favorites
  • Grow something you can give!
    • Flowers for grandma
    • Tomatoes for the neighbor
    • A garden basket filled with various items from your garden
  • Add something fun
    • Sell your produce or have a
    • Connect the work with an event/celebration (Its Planting Day! So we plant it all today and then when we are done, we have a big barbecue with friends! Planting the plants is the hard work, so connect the hard part with a fun, eventful part. Today is weed pulling day, so when all the weeds are up, grandpa brings over his homemade ice cream!)
    • Include a friend (the two of you get to have 4 sleep overs over the course of the summer to work on your garden, culminating in a giant garden party for your whole friend group)