Edible Gardening with Children
School's out and there's no better time to enlist your kids to grow fresh edibles. Many summer crops grow fast and yield bounty that children like to eat. Start your kids playing in the dirt early, and they'll develop an appreciation for home-grown food and healthy habits for life.
If you don't have children, gather your neighbors' kids instead. Or simply vow to rediscover your inner child by taking time to view your garden with wide-eyed wonder, kneeling down to breathe in the scents and to inspect your emerging edibles from a ground-level perspective.
With the popularity of school gardens, some parents may even face a bit of role reversal, with their kids being the ones pestering them to plant veggies. Regardless of the youngsters you round up, don't be intimidated if they seem to have more gardening experience than you do. The following is a quick-start guide, no matter who's just beginning to dig in the dirt.
Select a sunny spot in your yard with a nearby source of water. Work in compost or other organic material to a depth of eight to 12 inches to improve the fertility of the bed and ensure that it drains well. Older children can use a shovel or rake to help prepare the soil, while the younger set may be content with stomping on dirt clods to break them up.
Solicit opinions about what to grow. Summer crops include beans, corn, cucumbers, eggplant, melons, peppers, pumpkins, summer squash, sunflowers, tomatoes, tomatillos, and zucchini. Warm-season herbs are good companion plants for attracting beneficial insects to the fray, and include basil, borage, chamomile, cilantro, and dill.
Depending on the ages of your entourage, decide whether to grow their choices from seeds or plants. Large seeds that reliably sprout and are easy for young hands to grasp include beans, corn, pumpkins and sunflowers. Sow any of these directly in the ground.
You may be better off buying transplants of eggplant, peppers and tomatoes, all of which can be fussy about germinating if our early-summer skies stay gray. Planting a few seedlings also provides instant gratification and helps remind your kids to water the bare spots where they've sown seeds that haven't popped up yet.
Strategies for the Long Haul
Find ways to provide some action during the long gap between planting and harvest.
Choose edibles that grow by leaps and bounds, such as melons or pumpkins. Make a chart measuring how far their vines advance each day.
Build a teepee out of bamboo planting stakes, then train climbing pole beans up the stakes for a shady retreat. Plant a forest of tall sunflowers with a secret, open center in which your child can putter or daydream. Make a bench out of two overturned pots and a board.
Select plants that do something interesting along the way. Show your child how to squirt a kernel of corn or thunk a melon to test for ripeness.
Older children may get a kick out of growing a pizza garden, complete with peppers, tomatoes, basil and oregano. Competitive tykes might like to grow enormous vegetables, such as champion-size pumpkins or baseball bat zucchinis. Or go for oddball colors, such as purple string beans and yellow cherry tomatoes.
Some children may be more excited about bugs than vegetables. Buy a bag of live ladybugs to scatter at dusk. Supply a magnifying glass to watch the ladybugs devour aphids or to get up close and personal with earthworms, green lacewings and the like.
Take photographs, starting with the first day of planting. Turn over a camera to older children to document their own progress.
Hand-draw and color plant tags out of cardboard, construction paper or oversized popsicle sticks. Laminate them or slip them inside plastic sandwich bags, then attach them to stakes in the garden.
Don't underestimate the magic of mud. If watering becomes too much of a chore, fill the buckets for your kids, then promise them that after they water their garden, they can have a few extra buckets to make a mud hole or draw pictures on the pavement.
To avoid the, "When will we get there?" questions from younger children, tie maturity dates to events they can relate to. Tell them, "The pumpkins will be ready by Halloween," "You can pick the beans when Grandma comes to visit in July," or "The corn will be ready for our Labor Day picnic."
Be prepared to step in and take over weeding and watering duties, or to stand back if your budding gardener insists on tending everything.
Arrange for a trustworthy friend to take special care of the garden if you leave on vacation. There's nothing worse for a child—or an adult—than to discover that their tenderly nurtured seedlings have died due to someone else's neglect.
Growing their own food often results in children eating—or at least trying—vegetables that they otherwise reject. Kids who detest eggplant, for instance, might give it a nibble if they've grown their own.
Show your children how to check for ripeness by looking for the last tinges of green to vanish from a red tomato or the swelling of bush beans within their pods.
Put younger children in charge of spotting what's ready to be picked. Older children can use a pair of sturdy kitchen scissors to harvest their crops.
Praise every effort. By learning to plant, nurture and harvest, your children will gain an appreciation of nature and an understanding of what they can accomplish by taking responsibility for a patch of earth. From such youthful beginnings do mighty gardeners grow.
This article was first published in the Summer 2014 issue of Edible Santa Barbara.
Copyright, Joan S. Bolton. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text or photos in any form is prohibited without written permission.