Last year, 7.7 million American households tried edible
gardening for the first time. That's a lot of newly green
But it's likely a lot more parents out there have their green
thumbs still hidden in their pockets-parents who are tempted to try
gardening with kids but need a little help.
HOW DOES YOUR GARDEN GROW?
"We connect with nature by trying to get out with our kids as
much as possible. The outdoors has so much more to offer than any
indoor thing that costs money. We also try to live as green as we
can, and promote all the ways to do that to our kids. It is their
Earth, their future, and they need to be educated on how to save
it." Tom Prehm "My kids and I garden together. They each have their
own plot of land, so they can pick the types of vegetables to grow.
They have to learn about which types grow best in our climate and
about the amount of sun each needs. We also have a flower garden,
which we use to create bouquets for our dinner table."
"Our family connects with nature by making sure we do our part
keeping the earth clean and safe by not littering, picking up
garbage when we see it, recycling, composting our food and planting
our vegetable and flower gardens every year. We also enjoy outdoor
activities, including family bike rides for pleasure and errands,
walks to the park, picnics, and climbing trees." Karen Steele "Our
daughters love to connect with nature by exploring the outdoors.
They are both very girly girls, but love to get down and dirty
looking for bugs, planting flowers and going on nature hunts. Our
girls also get up close and personal with animals at the zoo
because their daddy is a keeper. They have a great love and
understanding for all creatures big and small."
"When my daughter observes someone behaving in a manner that is
not 'earth friendly,' I try to use it as a teaching moment. Instead
of throwing garbage on the street, what would have been a good
thing to do? Why do you take a water container to school every day
instead of a new water bottle every day? Why don't we feed the
animals at the zoo? At home we try and reinforce the idea of saving
energy. What happens if we leave the water running? Or the lights
on in rooms that we aren't in? Our visits to the Morton Arboretum,
as well as the zoo, help provide us with opportunities to enjoy and
discuss the wonders of nature as well."
"Our 2-year-old daughter learns that nature is everywhere. We
always explain the cause and effect of things like why we recycle
our juice boxes or why we water the plants. We want her to feel
connected to 'her' Earth." Darleen Caldwell "My kids connect with
nature by learning about the animals that are in our neighborhood
and how they are part of our natural ecosystem. We also do
gardening in the yard together."
"I've always wanted my children to learn to cherish the
outdoors, and I found the best way to get them excited about nature
is through their own interactions with the natural environment.
During the warmer days, we take hikes, sit outside at night, visit
wildlife centers, etc. Also, my children help plant and maintain
vegetables and flowers we grow in our own backyard. The important
thing is that nature gives my children inspiration, entertainment,
comfort and perspective. As modern life becomes more complex and
over-stimulating, an appreciation of our natural world offers my
children a gift that will last a lifetime."
"While my kids love being outside and catching bugs and looking
at animals, they are now into recycling and helping to preserve the
world they live in. They are realizing that all this natural beauty
will be gone if we don't work together to keep it that way."
"My daughter loves everything about nature-plants, animals, the
sky, the moon, even cool breezes make her smile. When we're out and
something catches her eye, we stop and I let her explore. Wherever
we're rushing to can wait. I let her pick up the dried leaf that's
dancing across the lawn and examine it. We'll chase bunnies and
squirrels together and talk about where they go when they get away
from us. If she sees a flower she likes, I let her touch and smell
it. She has learned so much about our Earth and her vocabulary has
exploded, all because we take the time to notice everything nature
has to offer."
"I visit North Park Nature Center to hike with my children who
are 6 and 8. We also have a hammock in the backyard, where we've
planted a butterfly garden and see opossums, squirrels and
woodpeckers-in the heart of urban Chicago. We even planted a birth
tree, when our daughter Sage was born, which robins chose to nest
in. We also go camping every year where the trees are taller than
buildings. It's so important for city kids to appreciate and love
nature and not be afraid to get their hands dirty."
For me, the idea that the fun of growing a garden might get my
kids to eat more veggies appealed. But who has the time, energy and
patience, right? If that's you, read on. As I'm learning, with a
little planning, gardening with kids is more doable than you might
imagine. And there's a bounty of easily accessed resources to help
along the way.
1. Go with what you've got. To begin, assess
the space you've got. Balcony? Patio? Backyard? As long as you can
find a spot with six to eight hours of sun and ready access to
water, you can grow produce.
Ron Wolford, an urban horticulture educator for the University
of Illinois Extension who advises school gardens around town, says
"grow" bags and "earth boxes" are good solutions for families
with very little space or a limited amount of soil. The
square-bottomed "grow" bags, made of polypropylene, can be
purchased with self-watering trays and planting medium. "Earth
boxes," which you fill with standard potting mix, have a built-in
water reservoir. Plopped on a patio or balcony, these are the
easiest possible gardening solutions for anybody, anywhere.
But if you've got at least a 4-by-4 or 4-by-8 spot of dirt that
gets good sunlight and has a ground-level water source (water tap
and hose), go ahead and get muddy. A nice little raised-bed garden
can be yours.
2. Where will your garden grow? If you're game
to try a raised bed, get outside to gauge exactly where to put it.
Creating a sun chart will help you figure this out.
Remember that the site needs easy access to a ground-level water
source. Determine the dimensions of your bed (4-by-8 is standard,
but you can halve that if you have less space, or get creative and
plan a triangular or even circular bed.) If theft (by bunnies or
neighborhood pillagers) is a worry, consider buying stakes and
3-foot-tall chicken wire to enclose each bed. (Fold the bottom 6
inches of wire at a 90-degree angle outward to keep bunnies from
digging.) But before building the beds, spend a little time
figuring out what to put in them.
3. What to plant? Chicago's growing season will
let you get two plantings into each garden bed: one spring and one
summer. You'll simply pull out the spring plants when they're spent
(May-June) and then re-plant the bed with the summer garden
(mid-May to early June). For best success, plan to include produce
that kids can easily grow-and grow quickly. Beans, spinach and
onion sets are large and easy for little hands to handle. A variety
of color is also fun.
Spring planting: For the spring planting in mid-April, Wolford
suggests bright green Black Seeded Simpson and Red Sails lettuce,
plus onion sets grown as scallions-all of which grow to maturity in
six to eight weeks. Spinach is also a fast, spring-planted grower,
as are radishes. Cabbages go in now, too, and are easy to grow, but
take longer to mature. If your soil is deep enough, plan to put
some fingerling potatoes in. (These can also be grown in the Earth
boxes, grow bags or in deep pots).
Summer planting: For the summer planting mid- to late-May,
Wolford recommends Thumbelina or Purple Haze carrots, and vibrantly
hued Bright Light Swiss chard. Scarlet runner beans can go in an
adjacent pot, tethered to a teepee of garden stakes. Because
summer-crop tomatoes, zucchini and cucumbers take a lot of space,
don't put too many in. Wolford suggests limiting each bed to two
tomato plants. (Celebrity, a disease-resistant variety, is a good
choice), plus one zucchini or one bush-like cucumber, such as
Spacemaster. Flowers, such as edible nasturtium and bug-repellent
marigolds, are nice to add in pots.
These are some of Wolford's faves for kids, but you can ask your
local garden supply store for more variety recommendations. Go to
dictionary/veggies for more detailed information on what to plant
4. Produce-planning party. You're almost ready
to get the kids into the act. But first, grab some crayons and draw
a few possible layouts of the bed you'll be planting. Fill each
picture in with a different potential "menu" of veggie options
you've researched. (Check out these guidelines to figure out how much space
each plant and/or row of plants will occupy when mature.) Do a few
spring garden layouts and a few summer options. One spring garden
drawing, for example, may have rows of lettuces, radishes and green
onions only. Another might include cabbages, spinach, onions and
lettuce, with some pots of potatoes along the side. (For the summer
drawings, remember that you'll want to stick tall/larger plants
like tomatoes on the north side of the garden to avoid shading
With the drawings ready, it's party time! Get the kids together.
Show magazine pictures of the veggies you're thinking about
growing. Slice up a few veggies for kids to taste. Show the
drawings of planting possibilities. Take a vote. Sketch a final
spring and summer plan to reflect your kids' choices. (To keep
everybody happy, remember that you can always plant some items in
pots.) If you are unsure of your plans, ask an expert for advice
online at "Ask A Cook County Master Gardener": tinyurl.com/
mastergardener. Go buy the seeds together.
5. Build the beds. With your garden diagram in
hand, you're ready to build the beds. Despite the fact that Chicago
was established over some of the richest soil on earth, a lot of
that good soil, sadly, has been contaminated. To avoid the risk of
lead poisoning, city kid-gardening experts say it's best to grow
your garden in a raised bed, filled with 8-12 inches of amended
soil. For instructions on how to make the bed frames, visitthegardenhelper.com or eartheasy.com.
You can also buy frames for the beds. Rather than trying to fill
finished beds with bags of dirt purchased from the local home
improvement store, Wolford suggests hiring a landscaping company to
deliver a mix of 1/3 compost and 2/3 soil to your home. On the
appointed day, spread a tarp where the dirt will be dropped off
(your driveway, in the front yard near the street or backyard near
If you've formed a Kids Gardening Club (see sidebar), get kid
helpers to form a bucket brigade to tote the pile of dirt to the
6. And so your garden grows. It's almost
planting time. To avoid freezing your spring babies, wait until
mid-April to get them in the ground. Once planted, it's a good idea
to cover them with a protective covering at night (for a week or
two) in case the temperature dips. Newspaper, old window sheers
(curtains) or old lightweight blankets can work. You can also buy
"remay" cloth (spun polyester) from home improvement stores or
gardening centers. (Be sure to remove the covering in the
Veggies in each bed will need at least an inch of water each
week. To give them that, Wolford says it's important to really soak
the ground, giving plants a deep drink. Kids can do this before
leaving for school in the morning, or, when they come home from
This is a good drink schedule for the plants anyway because on
hot or sunny days, it's best not to water between 10 a.m. and 3
p.m., as half of the water will evaporate. Wolford says to avoid
watering the foliage of the plants, which can promote disease.
Instead, water beneath leaves, at the base of the plants. You can
do this by hand, but the easy way is to buy some soaker hoses. As
your plants grow, pull out weeds. Harvest the veggies as they
By mid-May to early June, pull out the spring plants (leaving
cabbages in a bit longer) and plant your summer crop. Once those
plants are at least a foot tall, spread mulch over the ground to
keep weed growth to a minimum and to help soil retain water.
7. Eat and enjoy! Your garden will grow enough
vegetables for your kids to eat and share. Remember not to let
adult taste buds rule the recipes. Some kids may like raw
vegetables better than cooked. They also may prefer veggies "naked"
with no dips or dressings. Consider taking kids to a kids' cooking
class for more ideas.
And while they celebrate their achievement, start the discussion
on what they'd like to grow next year.
Monica Kass Rogers writes about food, fun and sometimes
gardening from Evanston. She'll be growing lettuces, radishes,
herbs and taters this spring with her three boys.
See more of Monica's stories here.
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