Who’s the best teammate for a project ever? Mother Nature. That’s right. If planting a vegetable garden feels intimidating — too much nitrogen in the soil, huh? — not to worry. The majority of the magic that happens once that seed or transplant goes into the soil is thanks to nature. And what a beautiful lesson to teach children: the power of nature and the respect it deserves.
Home gardening is just a whisper of what it actually means to farm. Sure, every bit of knowledge you can find on say, how to grow cucumbers that aren’t bitter, or how to make sure your lettuce doesn’t bolt, and what is bolting anyway, is helpful, but just, well, just start. The rest will come. Trust me. I’ve lived it. And one of the best parts of gardening with kiddos, not only are they more apt to eat what they grow, even when failures happen, everyone learns something along the way. You can get into it as much or as little as fits your family’s lifestyle. Whether you consult more formal lessons (see resources at the end of the article), or you simply grow, eat, and repeat.
As the one-time manager of a school garden, I had loads of fresh compost and soil trucked in to amend the tragic state of the soil on the property. That is if you could’ve called it soil. Hardened clay in which the only things that thrived were weeds and Bermuda, is more like it. So, in came the soil, and then while I sat paralyzed for a month, thinking I had to know everything there was to know before planting, the Bermuda grass took over, and the lovely mounded rows were covered, making my work that much harder to begin.
While my hardscrabble story turned out beautifully — even after an apocalyptic swarm of pests destroyed our brassicas — don’t waste another season letting the same performance paralysis stop you. Together, the students and I learned about the pests, how to keep them at bay organically, and the next season we gave it another try. What better life lesson than that? Now, let’s begin!
Know just enough to start. It’s true that there is no need to be a master gardener before beginning. We do, however, recommend that you have a tad bit of knowledge under your belt: Know where your city falls on the plant hardiness map and what grows best in which season in your zone and have a few proper tools on hand.
Know your zone. With just a little research, you just may be surprised to learn what grows best and when in your region. We often think of summer as the prime time for growing a garden, but in some areas, summer is the toughest season. Central Texas, for example, can hit the 100s with scant chance of rain for weeks at a time from May through September.
It isn’t that vegetables and herbs won’t grow in those conditions, but gardening in those conditions certainly isn’t for the faint of heart. We recommend that beginners find the season in your area when you will work with Mother Nature, and not against her. To become knowledgeable about seasonal vegetables, consult the United States Department of Agriculture’s map for plant hardiness.
When, but now what? Beginners may be tempted to assume that because salads are perfect for warm weather, that vegetables for salad grow in warm seasons. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Scorching summers in some zones will burn up delicate greens. The trusty Farmers’ Almanac provides general guidance on this.
Once the seeds go into the ground, it can be hard to be patient. Consider planting some from seed and others as transplants. Kids — and you — will get a bit of immediate gratification and simultaneously learn the dying art of waiting.
Radishes, carrots, squashes, peas, and beets will sprout pretty quickly. Eggplants, broccoli, kale, peppers, and tomatoes are easier to grow from transplants that are either purchased from your local garden shop or that you start in small pots and transplant into the ground when ready.
Gear up! Even though our hands can be the best tools in both the kitchen and the garden, kids love gear. Whether they’re gloves, trowels, watering cans, tools can be a big motivator in getting children involved in gardening chores.
To keep that motivation going, consider purchasing a few tools that are child-sized. No need to go overboard — just like cooking, gardening doesn’t require a whole variety of tools (who needs a garlic press when you have a chef’s knife?). That said, we recommend springing for garden gloves (in general unnecessary, but oh so fun to wear), a trowel, and a watering can that are appropriately sized for your child.
An adult-sized watering can may seem doable, but fill it up with water, and it gets too heavy to hold. Seasonally, you can find child-sized tools at department stores and nurseries. Or check out a top 10 list of the best kids gardening toolkits for 2018.
Start Small. I started with two 50’ x 70’ plots and had never even successfully grown a houseplant. Don’t be like me. You can fit more into a container or raised bed than you might realize. If you have a small patio, or simply want to dip the proverbial toe into the water, start with containers. Or if you feel ready to dig in, so to speak, opt for a raised bed.
Containers. You can grow a single vegetable or herb in something as small as a half-gallon container. Do a bit of research with your kids even if it’s just reading the back of the seed packet, to see how much room the roots need to grow and how much space is needed between each plant. Bonus: A seed packet affords several opportunities for children to practice a variety of skills, from measuring to reading the weather.
When selecting containers, you can be as fancy or as frugal as you’d like. There are plenty of gorgeous pots out there, but you can just as easily upcycle a plastic container (make sure it wasn’t filled with any product that is toxic to consume), which can, in itself, become a lesson in sustainability. Whatever type of container you choose, make sure it has drainage holes and will accommodate the full-grown vegetable or herb in both depth and diameter.
Raised beds. A quick Google or Amazon search will turn up a wide variety of sizes and styles of raised beds. We recommend selecting one no wider than 3’ – 4’, which will allow gardeners the ability to reach the middle of the beds with relative ease. The goal is to minimize frustrations for young beginners, and nothing can be more frustrating than feeling small in a big world. While some kits offer convenience and easily snap together, building your own can be a less expensive alternative. If you can operate a drill, you can build a bed. And few things feel better than starting out with a stack of wood and some screws and building something useful together.
Check out Sunset Magazine for a step-by-step guide, complete with a list of materials, for building your own.
Keep up the good work. Once the garden is planted, make a plan with your child on what needs to be done to maintain the garden. Be deliberate about teaching what seem like simple skills: how to water, how to weed. The younger the child, the more “cheating” you’ll need to do. Allow them some independence on the task but know that you may need to come up behind them (preferably when they aren’t around to see) and water more deeply or thin more effectively.
Don’t forget the final step, the ultimate goal of gardening with your child: Eat what you grow! Stay motivated by looking up recipes featuring the vegetables in your garden that you want to try at harvest time. Consider picking out the simplest of recipes that your child can prepare from start to finish, or for younger children, at least a small portion of it.
Involve them as much as you can, especially after the first harvest. Cooking and eating what you grow is an invaluable lesson on what it means to eat “from seed to table.” By working in a garden, growing, and eating the food they grow, children learn from first-hand experience where their food comes from, and an endless number of lessons are derived from that, including those about the connections between what we eat and the health of our bodies, as well as the connections between what we eat and the health of the planet.
Think of gardening with your children as a journey. No need to have it all figured out before setting off. Just a pocket full of basics is enough to get you started. There’s so much more benefit to learning along the way.
Kids Gardening, a 35-year-old, garden-based learning nonprofit that provides school garden tips and lesson plans that can translate to home gardens.
And if you find that a fire is really lit in you or your children, check out Junior Master Gardeners.