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The trees are bare and the sky is gray. Framed by our bay window, our two small raised garden beds look lonely for the company of thriving plants, a scattering of Sponge Bob garden tools and my kids’ curious hands. In the soggy soil lie seeds patiently awaiting the sun’s request for volunteers. Noticing my faraway look, my oldest daughter, Danielle, skips up. “Mama, is it time to plant our garden yet?”
“Not quite, but soon. What do you want to grow this year?”
“Peas! Butterleaf lettuce! Broccoli–”
“Broccoli? But you don’t care for broccoli. Are you sure?”
“Yep! I like broccoli from our garden. It tastes soooo much better!”
“Why is that, do you think?”
“Because we do it together, and it’s fun. That makes it taste good!”
“Kids love growing their own food, so it becomes a fun science project as much as a tactic to encourage them to eat more vegetables and fruit.” These words, from Elizabeth Pantley’s lovely little book, “The No-Cry Picky Eater Solution” ring true. A piece of broccoli served up at a meal— cooked, raw, slathered in butter, or fancifully arranged on a plate — is invariably met by my daughter’s face twisted in disgust. But in the garden, we’ve never achieved a full head because the first starters get picked off by little fingers and eaten!
It is too early to plant, but not to plan. Danielle pulls out some paper and crayons and draws pictures of the vegetables she wants to grow. I pull down our bag of seeds left over from last year and compare the two. She crosses a few pictures off and we have our list of seeds to buy.
“Can we go get them now?”
Gardening sounds nice, but certainly it is only for someone with the luxury of free time, and what parent has that? Having one more thing to take care of is daunting when you have children, but it is all in where you set your expectations. If you want to grow a highly productive garden and put up a portion of your harvest, then you’ve got your work cut out for you. For my family, the goal for our garden is to share meaningful experiences with our daughters. Experiences that will plant seeds of loving memories that grow into life skills and a sense of wonder for the natural world. The fact that I get to get my hands dirty and have a few fresh veggies to nibble as they ripen is just a bonus. Best of all, the garden is there all spring, summer and fall, waiting to be explored as it entices us outdoors.
If you have a yard, choose a sunny, preferably south-facing, highly visible spot and install one or more raised beds. Placing your garden center stage will not only make it easier to remember to care for, but will attract more attention from family members and friends. I recommend raised beds for the simple facts that they are harder for kids to accidentally trample while playing, and they are easier on your back while working. Gardeners recommend them for the improved drainage, faster warming of soil temperatures and choice soil composition that comes by filling beds with a good garden mix. Many home and garden stores have raised bed kits that are easy to assemble; choose a kit with untreated wood. The home center will also have garden soil and compost.
If your home has limited space, look into community gardens or container gardening. A container of mint or strawberries that a child can care for provides a wonderful experience. A small pot in a sunny window will grow Territorial Seed’s City Garden Mix — a great source of fresh salad greens that you can trim with scissors and eat for months. Herbs are also easily grown indoors and are fun for kids to smell and taste. Be sure to give them the opportunity to harvest the herbs to be used in a meal.
If you are not sure what to grow, start by taking a look in your refrigerator. Which of those vegetables grow in the Pacific Northwest? Territorial Seed Company has catalog that is free upon request — a fantastic information resource about plant requirements. As you buy seeds, take a glance at the back of the packet for spacing requirements. My kids love growing pumpkins, but they’ll quickly overrun an entire garden bed. These are best planted in the ground where they have lots of room to run. Pumpkins and gourds are worth it, though. The big leaves, vines and showy fruit never fail to capture a child’s imagination and generate excitement. In a world of techno-gadgetry, it’s heartening to watch your children drag their friends outside to see their pumpkins.
Consider participating in the “Plant a Row for the Hungry” campaign. Kids love feeling empowered to help other people, and a garden is a perfect place to plants seeds of compassion.
Make it Fun
Kids of preschool age can make a shopping list by drawing pictures of the veggies. They can also be in charge of finding the seeds on the rack. Allow each child to pick out a packet of seeds that appeals to them, even if it is something unusual. Also let each child pick out a set of kid-sized garden tools and gloves, so they can work along with you. It helps prevent sibling squabbling about access to a particular tool.
Consider purchasing a small outdoor thermometer to stick to a window and show kids at what temperature you can begin to plant seeds. While it is soil temperature that truly matters, air temperature is an easier gauge for little ones. For older kids, getting a soil thermometer and noting the relationship between soil and air temperature is a fun science experiment.
• While planning is the obvious skill practiced in this step, children also become tuned into the seasons and weather as they wait for temperatures to warm up enough to germinate seeds or sustain starts.
• Waiting teaches delayed gratification.
When you begin to wonder if you can get by with just a sweater and no jacket, it’s probably getting close to planting time. I like to plant during Spring Break, but many people wait until after the beginning of April. There are two general methods for starting seeds: sowing indoors and planting directly in the garden bed. Warmth-loving plants such as melons and tomatoes are best started inside for us here in the Pacific Northwest, whereas root vegetables and leafy greens often prefer direct sowing. You can start your indoor seeds in early March.
For direct sowing, follow the instructions on the back of the seed packet for spacing and depth requirements. To make planting easier, I like to string a one-foot-by-one-foot grid across the beds, in the style popularized by Mel Bartholomew in his book, “Square Foot Gardening.” Pop one broccoli plant directly in the middle of a square, three-by-three for carrots, three-by-three for spinach, etc. Drawing a grid in the soil works well, too.
Be sure to involve your kids in the planting process. I poke the holes at the correct depth and spacing with my finger (no need for a ruler, your best guesstimates are usually fine) and let small hands drop in two or three seeds. Sometimes a hole might get thirty seeds or the seeds might land everywhere but in the hole. That’s okay, just pick them up or dust them over with dirt and catch them during thinning. My kids don’t usually hang out for the entire process, so I break it up into two or three different days. Also, they might help for five minutes, swing and chase each other for five minutes, then return and help some more. Always allow them to come and go as they please. Also, don’t hesitate to set the seeds aside and join in the chase. One of the biggest boons of a backyard garden is drawing us outside for fresh air, sunshine and play.
Our local farmers’ markets often have vigorous plant starts and an OSU Master Gardener available. Visit the Master Gardener first and ask which vegetables and varieties produce well in your area. For example, there are hundreds of varieties of tomatoes, all with different yields and levels of persnicketiness. With all this information fresh in your mind, cross over to the plant stands and have fun. Once you’ve located a variety you want, let your kids choose which plant looks the best. The owners of the plant stalls are also often enthusiastic plant-care encyclopedias.
If the weather is dry, be sure to water and keep the soil moist until your sprouts are well established. A watering can or a hose with a diffuser will keep your seeds under the soil.
Make Grazing Safe
Ensure that all parts of your plant choices are non-toxic, because kids (especially toddlers) have a tendency to pick and nibble at everything. For example, rhubarb has tart and tasty stems but highly toxic leaves. Potato leaves, as well as potatoes that have been sun exposed and have a greenish color, have high concentrations of glycoalkaloids that make them naturally pest resistant, but can also make people sick. If you want to include these plants, create a new space, in a different physical container, and teach kids that it is not safe to graze there.
Make it Fun
Let your kids choose one veggie start they want from a farmers’ market stall (provided it does not have toxic parts) and go with it. My 2-year-old chose spaghetti squash. I know nothing about spaghetti squash, but perhaps it’s time I learned. Kids love having ownership of their plant.
For indoor sowing, you can make and decorate pots together from eggshells, empty toilet paper rolls or even newspaper. All of these can be planted directly into the garden. Use a sterile potting mix or peat moss.
Consider leaving a small portion of the garden unplanted for digging. Bring a few toy pots and pans and spoons to make a small mud-pie kitchen. It’s an excellent way to bring back some traditional garden play while containing the “kitchen” to an appropriate part of the yard.
Planting is an exercise in patience and precision; although neither should be expected.
Other learning opportunities abound. Older kids can measure soil temperature, hole depths and distances between seeds, as well as calculating how many seeds are needed. It’s also fun having your kids guess what plant will grow from each seed. For toddlers, narrate what is happening as you plant. For example: “This seed will absorb the water, then when it’s warm and sunny enough, a little baby broccoli plant will climb up through the dirt and reach to the sun.”
Delayed gratification — always — delayed gratification.
Planting two or three seeds per hole ensures at least one sprout, and that some thinning will be required. Thinning prevents overcrowding and competition for water and nutrients. One healthy carrot generally outgrows three crowded carrots.
Once the sprouts are up about two to three inches above the soil, with two or three sets of leaves, they are usually ready for thinning. It is best to wait for evening when the soil is often damp, to reduce root damage and stress. One at a time, pull all but the healthiest-looking sprouts from each area. If you planted in rows, refer back to your seed packet for proper spacing. Now that you know the best practice, feel free to utterly disregard it. In reality, I thin whenever I have a spare moment while supervising my kids’ outdoor play — and since the seed packet is long gone, my best guess for spacing in the one-foot square usually works out pretty well.
Make it Fun
Many thinned sprouts can be eaten, such as beet greens, lettuces and bean sprouts. Let your little ones make a salad from your thinnings, then share it at dinner that night (even if the yield isn’t much).
• This step offers more practice with precision. Refrain from being overly critical, and notice their efforts.
• If all the beet sprouts come up while thinning, say, “You did it, you pulled the extra seedlings up! Uh-oh, though. Looks like all of the plants came up. Which one do you think looks the best? Let’s see if we can plant it back in there. Do you want try?”
• Have older kids experiment with leaving some of the sprouts crowded, and compare results.
Avoid using fertilizers other than organic compost to ensure safety for little grazers. If your soil has a deficiency, discuss your options with a Master Gardener to apply only what you need in a form that is safe for little explorers that may go from digging, to grazing, to digging again.
If your neighborhood has free-roaming cats, arc PVC pipes over your garden beds and cover with bird netting that is weighted at the ends to prevent them from becoming community litter boxes. Once plants are established and most of your loose soil is covered by healthy plants, you can remove the netting to allow more growing room and easier grazing for your kids.
I have resisted the temptation to put in an irrigation system, as the garden’s plea for water keeps us connected. While watering, we notice weeds to pull and peas to munch, and creepy crawlies to investigate. We also usually end up with a long play session outside, often drawing in neighbor kids and their grown-ups for a visit.
Watering in the morning is optimal for allowing soil to fully absorb the water before the heat of the day arrives, and to sufficiently dry foliage of plants prone to fungal infections before night. But lets face it, with kids, this just isn’t going to happen — at least not regularly. We water mornings, evenings, and all times in between. Try to teach your kids to water the soil as opposed to the plant leaves and your garden will survive. It’s surprising how much toddler treatment a garden can tolerate and still provide a plentiful harvest.
Water the soil until it has seeped about one foot into the ground. Deep watering encourages root depth and prevents water stress, as it takes longer to dry out. I fill a large bucket with water and allow my kids to dunk their watering cans, then I follow up with my big watering can. They usually don’t hang out long enough to get a deep watering in, so a diffuser on my hose gets the job done quickly after they’ve lost interest. If it dries out too fast, in a day or two, add additional compost or a mulch to encourage water retention.
A good test to see if your garden needs water is to dig down a few inches, then try to make a dirtball with a few handfuls of soil. If it crumbles readily then it’s time to water. I know it’s time to water when the leaves go limp and the garden cries out, “Water me!”
Make it Fun
My girls each have a favorite watering can that is theirs alone. With my toddler, I like to narrate what the plants are thinking. “Oh Gabi, thank you so much. I was so thirsty!!” When that plant begins to sink beneath the depths, I animate another plant that calls out in a raspy voice for water.
• This is a great time to teach water cycle lessons to older children. I like to talk about how water dissolves nutrients, enabling the plant to draw them up. When we eat the plants, we get those nutrients and the water.
• This step also teaches care and responsibility. My kids love feeling needed in this way.
Now for the gratification that has been so long delayed! Since picking produce is self-explanatory (and when it’s not, it’s specific to the species), let’s skip right to how to make it fun.
Make it Fun
We usually get a bumper crop of one vegetable particularly favored by that year’s conditions. We harvest, wash, package and deliver the bounty to other people in our neighborhood. My kids love being veggie fairies and sharing the fruits of their labor — and the recipients are often touched by the gesture.
If you have been a part of the “Plant a Row for the Hungry” effort, bring your kids to the local food bank and allow them to present their crop for donation. The realization that they are able to help grown-ups and families is a big confidence-booster.
Allow your kids access to a colander which can be used anytime for harvesting. I’ll ask for some lettuce, and the screen door slams behind my older daughter as she dashes out with her colander and clippers, her sister toddling after. She may even eat some with dinner. Permit school-aged children to harvest lettuce with scissors, leaving about 1/2-inch of leaves above the soil. They’ll be amazed at how quickly it will regrow again and again.
The demands on our time as parents is relentless, and the last thing anyone needs is to feel they should do another single thing. Starting a garden with children isn’t about adding to the busyness of your life, it is about providing a mechanism for nurturing connections with each other, our community, and nature, while benefiting from exposure to soil bacteria, improved diet, and excessive smiling. Success in this endeavor is not measured by yield, but by the meaningful moments spent together. If this is something you feel your family needs more of, this is a lovely way to start. A garden is always there, conveniently located in your own space, waiting to offer its gifts to your family.