When my grandmother planted a row of peanuts here in Minnesota to appease my younger brothers, she wasn’t expecting a horticultural success. And it wasn’t, although they did manage to coax a few stunted specimens out of the ground. The real reward from that exercise was watching her grandkids fall in love with gardening.
Enjoying gardening, and having a willingness to try new foods go together. These are the markers of successful gardening with children, not necessarily filling your freezer or pantry for the coming winter. Have realistic goals and be aware that they will spill the seeds, they will ‘weed’ the wrong plants, and of course they will get dirty. Try not to take things too seriously– When working with kids, taking things too seriously almost guarantees failure. In spite of the mud and dirt, there are many good reasons for trying:
- Gardening is a fun way for families to spend time together outdoors, engaged in moderate physical activity. Everyone can help, everyone works together.
- Kids are far more likely to eat lettuce, green beans or tomatoes that they have planted, watered and nurtured themselves.
- Children are not born with the patience or the ability to deal with long-term projects. Gardening is a good way to help them learn that some things take time.
- There is of course a nutritional value to growing even a small amount of your family’s food. Fruits and vegetables can be served at peak freshness and be as organically grown as you choose.
- There is a financial reward here as well. Write down the cost of one package of green bean seeds and then compare the amount you harvest with grocery store prices.
Those are the reasons why; here are some ‘how-to’ tips for novice gardeners:
If you are a first-time gardener, keep it small. You might even want to start out this year with a simple container garden. Plant crops in various containers that can be placed on your deck, or somewhere in your yard that receives six or more hours of direct sunlight daily.
Plants in containers will need to be checked for moisture, daily or twice-daily in hot weather. You don’t want to drown the plants either so make sure your containers come with drainage holes or add some yourself.
Starting seeds indoors– DON’T. Why? Unless you set up a light system, your seedlings will be tall and leggy and not survive the transition to the outside world, and if they do survive, they will be weak and unproductive. Plant seeds directly into your containers at the appropriate time. Here is the opportunity to really get your kids involved. Children love to plant seeds. So if they are messy and spill some of the smaller seeds, don’t worry, be happy. Buy extra seeds when working with kids. And be sure to let the kids make some choices, maybe even one wacky one (peanuts, remember?)
Harvesting is another garden chore that kids love to be a part of. Show them which veggies are kitchen-ready and let them help with the picking.
So having discussed why, and how, here are some thoughts on what plants you might want to try:
Tomatoes and sweet peppers (the red, orange and green varieties) n eed about one 5 gallon container per plant or try the new upside down containers. This is one crop where it is probably easier to go to a garden center and buy seedlings. Tomatoes and peppers are hot weather crops so make sure you put them out after danger of frost (after May 20th). They are heavy feeders and like to be fertilized. Kids often prefer cherry or grape tomato varieties.
Lettuce is a cold weather crop and can go out quite early—even April depending on the weather patterns. Sow these tiny seeds in rows, in inexpensive rectangular tubs. Try a variety of lettuce types. Lettuce grows fairly quickly and you can reseed bare spots that you have already harvested.
Cool Beans! Green Beans are another kid-friendly crop. Decide if you want to plant bush beans or pole beans. The first kind is usually grown in rows that produce one heavy crop followed later by a second lighter one. But these can also be grown in containers. Pole beans need to grow up against a trellis, on so mething that their tendrils can grasp. Some people use straight narrow poles from garden centers or branches arranged in a ‘tee-pee’ then plant the beans around the outside perimeter. VOILA you have created a shady, green, outdoor play space for your little gardeners. Pole beans tend to produce small usable amounts of beans all season long.
If your family enjoys broccoli, rejoice. It is another easy-to-grow crop and usually produces enough to freeze a few bags for later consumption. Broccoli florets should be soaked in salt water before preparing them for the table or the freezer to remove pests.
Try zucchini, a notoriously easy and productive plant that will provide you, your friends and neighbors with an abundance of the versatile produce. You can find creative recipes such as one that substitutes zucchini for apples in apple crisp! Or layer slices of zucchini into your lasagna.
Go on, eat some flowers like nasturtiums. This plant’s young leaves add a spicy flavor to salads and their flowers are safe and edible. So are the flowers of Johnny-Jump-Ups, pansies and violets. Remember this is supposed to be fun for the kids and help them rethink foods. Speaking of flowers that can be used as a food, kids adore watching the progress of sunflowers as they rise up from seed-in-hand to towering giants. If you don’t want to toast the seeds for your family you can always serve them to grateful birds throughout the fall and winter.
Lastly, devote some time and space to flowers, even if they are not edible. Home grown vegetables feed the body, but flowers are food for the soul.