Faith to Grow - Simple Gardening with Children: a KidsOutAndAbout Resource
by Katie Beltramo
I planted my first garden the spring before I became a mother. With no prior experience, my expectations were low, so the harvest amazed me. Now it’s a family affair, and each season brings suspense, like when we tried Brussels sprouts. We planted seeds and they sprouted, grew into small plants, then big plants, and the dang things looked like nothing we’d ever seen. Suddenly, we recognized them: the growth so incremental, our expectations so mistaken, that we could identify them only when they matched the grocery store Brussels sprouts exactly.
Gardening is like parenting on a small scale. There have been setbacks and losses along the way, like when a critter ate all of our late-summer strawberries, but there is also great joy and satisfaction. In both enterprises, books and advice can’t measure up to the wisdom of experience, and alas, that wisdom is chronically overdue. Best, then, to jump in and try not to spend too much time wringing your hands. It helps to have faith that things want to grow. If you’re not already a gardener, the prospect of starting a garden can be daunting. But the rewards of gardening with children are many. Sharon Lovejoy, author of Toad Cottages & Shooting Stars and other books about gardening with children, points out that gardening provides invaluable opportunities for sensory engagement even for babies.
Getting started. Lovejoy advises to start small with a container garden. A half barrel with some pebbles and holes in the bottom for drainage and plenty of soil is the perfect small garden for a sunny spot, and it can be a home to several small plants or even a 60-pound pumpkin, like Lovejoy once grew. “A container gives a plant the spotlight,” she explains. If you grow something easy-to-pick like cherry tomatoes, you’ll find that even kids who are avowed enemies of vegetables will swipe them to eat and “they feel like they’re getting away with something.” It’s a good reason to avoid pesticides (or any –icides) in your garden. Lovejoy’s rule is “never use anything on or in your garden that you don’t want in your child’s mouth.” Don’t worry: a little dirt is nourishing!
Here are a few easy vegetable crops your children might enjoy:
Kids can throw lettuce or spinach seeds on the soil in the most haphazard manner, then rake it a bit and presto! Within days you’ll see teeny-weeny plants and when they grow, they’ll look just like the lettuce at the grocery store, so it’s easy for kids to recognize. Wait for a whole head to mature, or send your children out each evening to harvest the biggest leaves for your salad with dinner. You’ll love this inexpensive luxury.
Peas are fun and pretty. Plant them in early spring, providing a fence or trellis because they like to climb. Kids will love watching the plants’ progress as they “grab” for support and produce small white blossoms that signal where the peas will grow, but they’ll enjoy the hunt for pea pods among the foliage even more. The peas are so sweet that probably none will make it to your kitchen. Instead, you’ll be splitting open pea pods in the garden while a cluster of children grab them eagerly from your hands.
Herbs are quick-growing and satisfying for young gardeners. Spend an afternoon at a nursery and let kids choose their favorites as you gently rub leaves to release their scents. We love mint in iced tea or lemonade. It is incredibly hardy and it will come back year after year, so plant it somewhere it can run wild or submerge a plastic pot in your garden to contain the roots. You can incorporate your harvest into cooking or craft projects, or just eat leaves straight from the garden. My kids strip our purple basil plants down to the stem. Leta Maler from CulinaryHerbGuide.com suggests growing a pizza garden with basil, oregano, and garlic. Two other easy-to-grow kid pleasers are lemon balm—“They will be amazed at the lemon flavor with no lemon!” she predicts—and thyme, which kids can sprinkle into chicken soup.
Squash grow quickly and start with showy blossoms, so it's easy for kids to identify the "babies" and watch as they grow. Zucchini are famous for being growing abundantly as well as pretty quickly. At our house, we like to slice them lengthwise in thin pieces, then marinate and grill them for side dishes or an extra layer in sandwiches, but if it turns out your kids don't like them, you can grate them and hide them in bread or even pasta sauce. Pumpkins take more time, but it's very exciting for kids when they can grow their own jack-o-lanterns for Halloween.
Kids love to harvest potatoes. Next time you leave a couple of potatoes on the counter too
long and they start to sprout, cut them into a few pieces and bury them in a mound of dirt. Potatoes grow a big plant above ground, but of course the edible parts are the roots. Dig in the dirt for buried treasure: a messy and deeply satisfying task.
With easy crops like these, you’ll find that things grow regardless of your inexperience and mistakes. Near the swing set last year we found new ground cover. When little white flowers appeared among the green leaves, we realized that it was strawberry plants. Last summer my kids had nibbled garden strawberries and discarded the yucky bits from their perches on the swings. After our plants had been eaten, we’d given up on strawberries for good, but they seized their opportunity in spite of us. Like parenting, gardening yields unexpected fruits and a comforting reminder that life prevails.
I love Sharon Lovejoy's terrific books on gardening with children. Here are some supplies that she recommends having on hand for your young gardener:
- Large spoon for digging (a small trowel will work, too)
- Watering can (have them dip it into a larger bucket for refills to avoid water waste)
- Small harvest basket (harvesting is the second-favorite activity after watering)
- Large plastic magnifying glass (for examining plants, bugs, and worms)
© 2020 Katie Beltramo.
Katie Beltramo, a mom of two, is editor of Kids Out and About--Albany. She also blogs at Capital District Fun.