Last year, 7.7 million American households tried edible gardening for the first time. That’s a lot of newly green acres.
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 urbanext.illinois.edu/firstgarden/planning/
dictionary/veggies for more detailed information on what to plant when.
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 other plants.)
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 the alley.)
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 raised bed.
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 morning.)
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 school.
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 ripen.
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.