HOW GARDENING WITH KIDS CAN BRING FULFILLMENT
From increasing outdoor time together, adding exercise, incorporating lessons in patience, teaching science and more, there are a number of good reasons and benefits to engaging your children in gardening. And who knows, maybe growing their own foods will also entice your little ones to try something new and fresh.
Getting Kids Interested in Gardening
Gardening is, first and foremost, an exercise in patience. It can take months before the tomato seeds you planted put out their first fruit. Thankfully, not all vegetables need such a long growing season; and along the way to waiting for those tomatoes to ripen, there is plenty of gardening work to do that will keep the kids engaged. Thankfully, children are curious by nature and are generally eager to help with many of the necessary tasks along the way.
Giving children ownership is one of the first steps to engaging them. Let them have some say in what gets planted. Rick Harden, City Schoolyard Garden coordinator at Johnson Elementary School (and local parent), suggests beginning by letting kids explore the vegetable area at the grocery store and picking out foods they are curious about. “Get carrots with the greens still attached or spinach with the roots,” he advises, letting the kids see what the plant looks like in a more natural environment instead of prepped and ready-to-eat in a plastic bag. This begins to give them an idea of what they would like to grow themselves.
Having their own tools also helps engage children. Child-sized gardening gloves, shovels, hand trowels and more are easy to find. Although plastic ones will not hold up as well as metal ones, they can be a good place to start. Teach your children how to properly care for their tools along the way by cleaning the dirt off after each use and putting them away to help extend the life of the tools.
If you have the space, consider letting your child have his or her own little portion of the garden in which to plant and/or dig whatever their heart’s delight may be. Mark it off so your child knows to stay within their boundaries (and you, yours). It could be as simple as some sticks with string strung between them, a small garden edging or a planted boundary of low growing herbs, but a visual boundary lets your child point out their garden to visitors, which brings a huge sense of pride and ownership.
Even if your garden isn’t big enough to give your child a dedicated portion, you can engage them in the various necessary tasks like working in compost, weeding, thinning sprouts and watering. This can help remove the novelty of gardening, advises Harden, by teaching them what the regular chores of a garden that must be attended to are, so that as they get older, they will be naturally more engaged. Talk to them about how the worms they see in the garden are beneficial, and how the bees and other pollinators help the garden produce food.
Planning A Garden with Kids
When planning your garden, keep it simple. If this is your first time gardening, it is better to start small. You can always expand the garden over time. And, stick to a few varieties, choosing plants that will do best in your garden. Tomatoes need 6–8 hours of sunlight a day, so if your garden is more shaded, keep that in consideration. Read the instructions that are on the seed packet or on the plant marker before committing. It’s perfectly okay to ensure success by purchasing starts, particularly on plants that have longer germination periods and need to be started inside in late winter months, such as tomatoes and peppers. Ideally, you’ll want to have your soil tested to determine whether it is more acidic or alkaline to help you determine how to best augment your soil. It can take a few weeks to process, but if you’re eager to jump in this spring, you can always wait until the fall to test your soil, which gives you the winter months for whatever amendments you give your soil to settle in. The local Virginia Tech Extension office can help with testing your soil, although there are some DIY tests you can do that can be quite fun with kids.
Organic gardening―gardening with natural fertilizers and pest control―can be a bit more challenging than using chemicals but is better for pollinators, the soil and, of course, your family.
Using a cup of soil, put two tablespoons of soil into a non-reactive container and add ½ cup of vinegar. If the soil fizzes, you have alkaline soil with a pH of about 7–8. If the soil doesn’t fizz, add a few tablespoons to another container and add distilled water until the soil is muddy. Add ½ cup baking soda, and if your soil fizzes, you have acidic soil with a pH of between about 5–6. If your soil doesn’t react, you most likely have a neutral soil, which is good!
Soil in our area tends to have a lot of clay in it, which means it holds water, but doesn’t necessarily drain well; and when it dries out, it becomes hard and brittle. To help augment it, add in organic material. Compost or humus worked in will help the soil drain while keeping it from drying out completely between waterings. Organic gardening―gardening with natural fertilizers and pest control―can be a bit more challenging than using chemicals but is better for pollinators, the soil and, of course, your family. Consider starting a compost bin for an inexpensive boost to your soil quality.
Planting A Garden with Kids
In early spring, try planting snap peas, greens, carrots, radishes and lettuces from seed directly into the ground. As the weather warms up, plant squash, okra, pumpkins, watermelon, cucumbers and beans from seed directly into the ground, while purchasing pepper and tomato plants. You can purchase starts of other plants, particularly squash and cucumbers, but you’ll find they grow quickly and easily from seed. Tomatillos―the main ingredient for Salsa Verde―are another easy-to-grow plant that is resistant to most pests and diseases while offering a bit of a dramatic appearance to the garden. Don’t be afraid to plant a few varieties of tomatoes―large beefsteak tomatoes for sandwiches, roma tomatoes for sauce and sweet cherry tomatoes for popping in your mouth while working in the garden. Kids love cherry tomatoes, so if you want to ensure some make it into the house, a second cherry tomato plant is always a good idea.
Warm days in late winter and early spring can lead many an eager gardener to planting early, only to lose an entire crop due a late frost. Warm air can be deceiving, but it is ground temperatures that you need to pay attention to in gardening. There are some plants that will do well with cool ground temps, but warmer weather plants like tomatoes, peppers and squash need the ground to be consistently warm before they do much growing. In our area, late April to early May is a good time to begin planting your summer garden.
There are some plants, such as lettuce, carrots and radishes, that you can continue to sow throughout most of the season, although you might want to skip it during the hottest months of the summer (July and most of August) and pick it back up as it begins to cool down.
Don’t limit your garden to just food either. Flowers, particularly ones kids can pick, are always a good choice. Zinnias are a colorful addition to the garden, easy to grow from seed and make a fantastic cutting garden. Sunflowers are another fun choice while marigolds are a hardy natural pesticide making them a common companion plant for tomatoes.
Herbs are another great addition to the garden, while often acting as natural pest deterrents. While basil is known as a natural companion plant for tomatoes, it is an annual while many other herbs are perennials. Oregano, sage, chives, sorrel, rosemary and thyme will fill in over time, so when planting them in the garden, be sure to give them room to spread out. Mint is easy to grow but will also easily overtake a garden and is best left to container gardening.
Tending to A Garden with Kids
Once your garden is planned and planted, it will still need regular attention with watering, thinning seedlings and pulling weeds. Rain barrels, which collect runoff from your roof and gutters, are great for gardeners. Rain water, unlike water from a hose, is untreated and soft, which is better for your plants. It’s also free, and when wells and municipal water supplies run low in a drought, rain barrels can be utilized for watering plants. Another bonus of rain barrels is when the spigot gets left open on a rain barrel, it’s not nearly as devastating to your water bill as a hose left on overnight. Gardens prefer to be watered in the cool of the day rather than in the full sun, which can evaporate the water quickly, so an early morning or later afternoon stroll in the garden with a watering can could easily become a regular family activity.
Harvesting, the absolute best part of a vegetable patch, should be a family affair. Encourage your child to nibble on items as they move through the garden; this is why a second cherry tomato plant is so helpful. A child who may turn their nose up at a salad on the dinner table may find themselves enthusiastically nibbling fresh baby lettuces straight out of the garden.
As with anything done with young children, there may be some behind-the-scene tasks performed when they aren’t looking. As a toddler, my daughter once moved a marigold every single day in her little plot; and while they are hardy plants, they aren’t quite hardy enough to withstand an enthusiastic toddler moving them every day for weeks on end. She never noticed that the marigold at the end of the summer wasn’t the same she started with thanks to some after-bedtime replacement, but she was oh, so proud of that marigold in her garden patch.
It is also important to remember when gardening with children that one doesn’t have to be too particular with planting―rows don’t have to be perfectly straight and seeds might get spilled. Gardening is meant to be fun. If your child gets bored with the task at-hand and wants to do something else, there is always another task they can do, such as building a scarecrow or making plant markers that are still garden-related.
If your yard isn’t big enough for a garden but you still would like to engage your child in growing plants, a container garden is also a good way to add color to your deck, porch or front steps. Just as you would let your child choose items for growing in a garden, give them some ownership of the container garden.
Gardening, which seems like a simple act of growing things in the dirt, can introduce your child to new foods. It teaches them patience and the value of working at a task that doesn’t have an instant reward. Along the way, there can be lessons in math, science, history (where some of those foods come from!) as well as taking those foods into the kitchen and learning to cook with them. It may start with a patch of dirt and a few seeds, but it can grow into something much bigger with a little bit of effort and love.
BECKY CALVERT lives on an urban homestead with her husband, daughter and a gang of chickens. Follow their adventures at chickenwirepaperflowers.com.
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