Children In The Garden

Do children and gardening work well together? Or is it just more trouble than it’s worth to have the kids “help” you in the garden?

Having kids “helping” in the garden does often make more work for the gardener (at least at first!) but I have always believed children and gardening can be a great combination! My daughters have been gardening with us since they were pretty small although their contributions as toddlers mostly consisted of stepping on the seedlings, pulling the “pretty flowers” apart and eating all the ripe strawberries as I worked!

In spite of these minor glitches, taking the time to include the kids in our gardening plans has become a good investment for our family. We have some wonderful memories of afternoons spent working together in our family garden plot. Our kids have a handy, practical life skill and don’t believe that their food magically appears in the back room of the supermarket wrapped in cellophane. They think much maligned veggies like Brussels sprouts and cauliflower are a really “cool” treat. In addition, my oldest daughter once started over 200 bedding plants from seed for me early one season when I became bogged down with other work – and has become one of my best garden helpers!

So, plan now to make your garden this year a family affair! Here are some ideas to get you started.

  1. Start early, not late! Begin in mid-winter with a trip to your local greenhouse to look at the seed displays or by sending off for some of those yummy full-color catalogs from the major seed companies. Get the enthusiasm flowing!
  2. Show the kids all the wonderful variety that exists in the vegetable world. Let them pick out a few varieties of their own to try. Most kids love weird things, so go ahead and try one or two – like purple beans, pink tomatoes or blue potatoes!
  3. Give them rights to a small plot of the garden to call their own if they are old enough and help them to draw a diagram showing where their goodies will be planted. Pay attention to the proper spacing recommended for each variety and consider limiting the “crop” to only two or three different kinds of vegetable for the beginning (or very young) gardener.
  4. Plan to use work-saving techniques in all of your family garden, but especially in your children’s plots. For instance:
  • Use heavy mulches during the summer months to conserve moisture and keep weeding to a minimum.
  • Consider replacing your sprinkler with a “soaker hose.” Place the soaker hose under the summer mulch for maximum effectiveness.
  • Plant in “blocks” not in “rows.” This makes maximum use of the available area, and when the plants are beginning to reach maturity, the shade created will cut down on the sunlight that weeds need to grow.

And, finally:

  • Explain to your children why you believe gardening is important. Explain to them why things work the way they do in the garden, why this “bug” is a “good bug” and why that one is a “bad bug.” Taste unripe melons. Pinch basil to make it grow bushier! Encourage questions, give age-appropriate answers and if you don’t know the answer to the question yourself, make it an ‘adventure’ and look up the information. I’m often amazed by what I have learned (or re-learned) just by answering children’s questions!

What kind of vegetables are suitable for young gardeners?

Over the years we have noticed some clear-cut winners in our garden. For instance, my kids are CRAZY about green beans. They love to plant them, they love to pick them, and they love to eat them raw from the garden. We usually plant three or four different kinds. You can get beans in green, purple and yellow colors, round and flat shapes – and each type tastes a bit different. Bush beans are easy for small kids to pick and they are so fast and easy to grow that kids don’t lose interest. Pole beans on a trellis can be positioned at the end of the garden or in a remote corner for use as a ‘secret hide-out’ or as a shaded cooling-off place for the little ones to play in while you finish your daily gardening tasks.

Of course, melons are a good thing to have around for kids of all ages! There are some very space-conscious bush varieties available for people who don’t have large gardens. You can get ‘bush’ watermelons and muskmelons from most major garden seed sources. They taste just as good as their larger counterparts, but only take up a few precious feet of garden space. Some of the bush muskmelons can be grown in large containers, as well.

Around our house, pumpkins are another hit. When the little green pumpkins are about softball size, ‘write’ each child’s name on one or two with a ball point pen, pressing just hard enough to break the skin. The name will ‘scab over’ and grow in size with the pumpkin.

When the fruit matures, turn the kids loose in the garden and let them rustle around in the dead vines to find “their” pumpkin! (By the way, as another benefit, this practice can pretty much end the fights over who gets the biggest or the tiniest pumpkin in the patch, since each pumpkin is special by virtue of having been personalized.) If you have a good year and end up with more pumpkins than you have kids in your own family, write the names of your neighbor’s kids on a few and invite them over for the pumpkin treasure hunt in the fall!

Tomatoes are another vegetable (fruit actually!) that exists in great variety. Yellow, orange, pink, purple, white, green and even multiple-colored fruits are available – in addition to the usual red! Tomatoes come in several sizes, ranging from tiny 1/3 inch nuggets to huge juicy beefsteaks weighing more than a pound! Shape is another story – how about a tomato that is shaped like a banana pepper? A tomato that is shaped like a bell pepper and can be filled with salad, or stuffed with pasta goodies and baked? A tomato that is round, but FLAT? A tomato with “ruffles?” You could try a different experimental tomato every year and never be in a tomato “rut” again! (Although yellow and sometimes orange tomatoes are available from the nursery nowadays, to get the really unusual shapes, sizes and colors, you will need to search out mail order seedhouses and grow your own transplants from seed.)

Another possibility to consider, especially if you do not have enough room for a large garden – is an herb garden! Herb gardens can fit into any available space where they can get several hours of direct sun each day – you can even grow herbs on the windowsill or on the patio, in pots. Your children can help you grow a “Pizza Garden” with garlic, basil, oregano and marjoram!

Finally, perhaps the most difficult question of all: How do you get the kids to eat what the garden has produced?

Although our family loves most veggies, I do know several die-hard vegetable haters. I can’t say I have totally reformed them, but I have managed to give them some good experiences with the vegetables they hate! Here are some tricks I have found that often help:

  1. Offer the “hated” vegetables raw: Kids will sometimes eat vegetables raw that they wouldn’t even consider touching once they are cooked. I have a young friend who once loudly stated that she couldn’t stand spinach, yet happily ate a bunch of it in a salad, raw, with sweet Catalina dressing! Other vegetables to try raw: garden peas (fresh from the vine, peas are as sweet as any fruit!) turnips, broccoli, green beans, okra, carrots and cherry tomatoes. Raw vegetables, in addition to tasting better, have more fiber and retain more nutrients than when cooked – so if your kids prefer them this way, count your blessings! Offer several kinds attractively arranged on a special party platter with a favorite salad dressing for dip.
  2. Try a change in cooking techniques. Steam or stir fry your vegetables until just barely tender and still brightly colored, instead of boiling them. Grilled vegetables in the summertime are a special treat! Try grilling eggplant, pepper, and tomato chunks, halved beets and carrots, sweet potato slices and whole small onions. Brush them with an herbed oil while they cook for something really special!
  3. Do something really different: Once I tore chard leaves into two-inch square pieces, dipped them into flour and a light tempura batter and quickly deep-fried them. It was great, and chard is one vegetable I don’t usually care for! Other vegetables are also good this way – green beans, onion rings, slices of squash, broccoli tops, sweet potatoes strips and carrot spears (pre-cook these last two a bit first.) Serve with a dish of ranch-style dressing on the side for a dip.
  4. Work to change attitudes: Flavorful produce straight from your own backyard is a gourmet treat! You cannot buy anything in the market anywhere that rivals it for freshness. Whenever you serve something from your garden, do it with a party platter, a pretty parsley garnish and pride! Your family will feel like royalty!