Gardening With Young Children
Gardening with your kids can be both challenging and rewarding. Here are a few tips from my own experience to make it a fun experience for both you and your child.
1: Use organic or chemical free seeds. Toddlers like to eat them. A recent example happened while I was planting snap peas with my six-year-old this spring. I looked around and saw that my two-year-old was following right behind and digging them up for a snack!
2: Keep transplants out of reach until ready to use. I'll never forget the day I set my healthy tomato seedlings out on the porch to get some sun, only to return a few minutes later to find nearly all of them plucked up and thrown over the side. Now I usually buy tomato plants, it's much easier.
3: Start small. Choose just a few plants that your whole family likes to eat and are easy to grow.
4: Be patient! It may take some time to teach your kids that young plants must be handled carefully, or how to tell which ones are weeds and which aren't, but they will get it eventually.
5: Have fun and get dirty! Your kids will teach you how to do this best.
A Kid Friendly Garden Plan
Here in the Southeast, Zone 7 in gardening terms, we can grow both cold and hot weather plants successively. I try to rotate legumes, such as peas and beans, with other plants in order to replenish the soil. We also compost vegetable scraps, dead leaves, grass clippings and chicken manure. If using manure, make sure the compost has aged a year before putting on your vegetables.
Cold Weather Plants:
Garlic- A must for any kitchen and medicine cabinet, this wonderful herb enhances many dishes and heals many ailments. Plant in the fall or midwinter. We like to get organic bulbs from the grocery store. Just pull the cloves apart and plant pointy end up. Each clove will grow into a separate bulb. Harvest soon after the leaves die.
Carrots- These tiny seeds are hard for little fingers to plant, but very exciting to harvest. If you have heavy soil, the short, chubby chatenay varieties are a good choice. Plant them in late winter. Follow planting instructions on packet.
Snap Peas- Delicious and sweet, the crunchy pods can be plucked right off the vine and eaten whole. Don't be surprised if few of them make it to your kitchen. They are almost always a hit! The vines do not grow very tall, so they need little support. This makes them very accessible to the munchkin population! Snap peas begin to die as soon as the hot weather hits, so cut the vines and fill the spot with summer plants. They will do well planted after this nitrogen fixing legume. Snap peas can be grown in both spring and fall.
Onions- Not every kid's favorite, but you will be surprised at their eagerness to break off the sweet leaves for a pungent snack. Purchase white onion sets at your local feed store for one of the easiest, hassle free crops ever. Plant the baby onions pointy side up in late winter. You can harvest as green onions early or let the bulbs mature in the ground until the leaves fall over and die. Pull up in sunny weather and allow to dry for a day, then bring them in and either spread out or hang in bunches to dry and cure.
Lettuce- Like carrots, lettuce seeds are difficult for little fingers to handle, but if you plant a mixed variety, the harvest can be a delight. Children will be more inclined to eat a salad if they can cut and prepare their own. Plant in late winter and harvest the outside leaves until hot weather starts to cause the stems to grow tall. Then cut the entire plant before it becomes too bitter.
Warm Weather Plants: Be sure to keep all seeds and seedlings well watered in the hot weather especially.
Snap or Shell Beans- These summer legumes will help return nitrogen to the soil after your non-legume plants are removed. The seeds are large and fun for small hands to poke in the ground. Give your child a handful and see where they come up! Bush varieties make it easy for kids to harvest. Show them how to use both hands to pluck the beans so they will not pull up the whole plant. We like to grow blue lake snap beans and the purple podded crowders. The whole family can help shell the latter, but beware of flying peas!
Tomatoes- Inexpensive transplants can be difficult to find if you wait too long past the last frost date in your area, so make sure you get them early enough. You can transplant into larger pots if you do not have the space ready in your garden. These nitrogen loving plants will do well if planted after your snap peas and given a generous scoop of compost in the planting hole. Choose varieties that are disease and pest resistant. We have had success with both the Roma and cherry types, which seem to be the most fire ant proof. The cherry ones are also great fun for the little ones. Watch out, though, or you may end up with a pile of green ones on your kitchen counter from overzealous harvesters.
Cantaloupe- This is a pretty easy melon to grow. Just mix plenty of compost into the planting hill. Help your children count out six seeds for each hill, then thin to three when they come up. Train the vines between your other plants and keep the maturing fruits off the dirt with some straw mulch. When ripe, the fruit will fill the air with sweet perfume and you will know it is ready for eating. This is a definitely a family fave at our house!
Cucumbers- Fun to grow and fun to pickle! Kids will enjoy peeking under the leaves for hidden cukes. These are grown like the cantaloupes and are quite easy. Grow a multi-purpose variety for both slicing and pickling, so you can enjoy the whole spectrum of flavors with this versatile veggie.
Sweet Potatoes- You can buy slips or grow your own from an organic sweet potato (sometimes called a yam) from the supermarket. Cover the whole potato with compost and soil and keep in a warm spot until the vines are several inches tall. Cut the vines about an inch above where they are growing out of the potato and plant up to the leaves, watering generously. Keep well watered until roots have grown. Then water less, as these plants prefer dry conditions. Sweet potatoes require a long growing season, so plant soon after the last frost date. Harvesting can be as exciting as finding buried treasure! Dig well before the first fall frost on a sunny day and spread out to dry. Then bring them in to cure in a warm spot (we spread them on a table in our kitchen for lack of a better place) for a couple weeks before storing in a cool, dry place.