Kids and gardening go together like chocolate cake and ice cream, and gardening with kids can be easier and less expensive than you might think.
By using simple, proven techniques and taking advantage of recycled and upcycled materials, you can create a beautiful garden that will provide hours of entertainment and education for your kids — and just might get them eating more vegetables, too!
Picking the site
When most of us think of vegetable gardens, we think of long rows of plants in a large brown square at the back of a huge backyard. The idea of starting and maintaining such an area with your kids is rather intimidating, even for experienced gardeners!
Take heart — vegetables can be grown anywhere there is room for a container or two, like a sunny porch or balcony, a wide staircase, or even a south-facing window. Try to choose a sunny patch that won’t be damaged by a little over-enthusiastic watering.
Container gardening is ideal for kids, as children can explore and harvest from all sides without disturbing a surrounding garden or compacting the soil.
It also lets your young ones claim specific plants as theirs and theirs alone, which will encourage them to take responsibility for the well-being of their leafy friend.
If you have the space for a dedicated vegetable garden and prefer to grow there instead of in containers, consider planting a raised bed that is no more than three feet square.
Or, if you are growing plants with very young children or if your garden will be up against a wall or a fence, make it only two feet deep.
Little arms will be able to reach all the plants with ease in a small bed, and raised beds help remind little feet to stay off the soil to avoid damaging tender new shoots or delicate root systems.
Choosing what to plant
Plant choices are as individual as the gardeners themselves, but some basic principles hold true. If you live in a cold northern climate with a short growing season, certain plants will not thrive no matter what you do.
Choosing the wrong vegetables for your climate will only make the process frustrating for both you and your child.
With annual vegetables, the seed packet will provide a wealth of information about the plant’s needs in terms of space, light, and soil conditions, as well as the number of days from sowing until harvest.
For best results in terms of your child’s enjoyment level, choose fast-growing, hardy, drought-tolerant varieties. These sun-loving vegetables tend to sprout quickly and well, and their rapid growth is profoundly satisfying.
If you are choosing to build a container garden, dwarf varieties of many common vegetables make a good choice as they do not require large containers, nor do they take a lot of room when fully grown.
Beans, peas, corn, cherry tomatoes, carrots, lettuce, squash, and cucumbers are always popular, and many are available in “child-friendly” varieties that are easy to grow and produce results quickly.
Of course, the only way to know what your kids want to grow is to take them shopping for seeds with you. Let them pick and choose, giving them only the most gentle guidance (“That one takes 120 days to grow and we don’t have that many sunny days before autumn”).
When kids pick the seeds themselves, they will be much more likely to protect and nurture their young plants — and more likely to try a taste of the resulting produce. Who knows, you might just discover a closet vegetable-lover in your child!
When should seeds be planted?
The best time to start a vegetable garden from seeds is in very early spring, before the last frost.
Seeds started indoors get a head start and are more likely to provide a good yield before the end of the growing season. That being said, don’t worry if your child decides to start in late June — there are plenty of fast-growing varieties that you can start from seed even as late as mid-summer.
Even then, starting the seeds indoors can help ensure success as you can better control temperature, water, and sunlight exposure for the fragile little seedlings than if you start them directly in the soil.
In the autumn and winter, you can still garden with your kids by planting an indoor vegetable garden. All the steps are the same, except you will need to plant your plants in containers indoors.
Depending on your location, you will probably need some additional lighting to help the plants grow as the winter sun is too weak for most plants, even on the sunniest windowsill.
Creative seed starting containers for starting seeds indoors
So what do you need to start seeds successfully? Every garden center has stacks of seed starting trays with cute little peat pots or compressed pellets, but you don’t need to get fancy to successfully start seeds indoors.
The most important thing is to have a sunny location, good quality soil, and protection for the delicate root systems.
Cardboard egg cartons make wonderful seed starters as you can plant the egg cartons directly in the garden once the plants have grown a little. Empty toilet paper rolls are also a good alternative, as are small pots made of newspaper rolled into a tube.
Yogurt pots and tin cans are fine for starting very small plants that you intend to grow right in those containers provided you remember to poke a few holes in the bottom for drainage, but they don’t make great seed starters for other plants as kids inevitably damage the fragile roots and stems during the transplanting process.
Coffee cans and other similarly sized containers make lovely container gardens, especially when painted. Broken wicker baskets or even plastic storage bins, laundry baskets, and baby bathtubs are a great size for a kid-sized garden.
Soil mixes for success
These mixes are ready to go and easy to use, but they can be expensive, too. Compressed peat pellets are another easy choice, and kids love seeing the little discs expand to their full size when soaked in water, but they do need to be watered regularly and watched to make sure they don’t dry out.
If you prefer to create your own seed starting mix, an easy recipe is to mix together equal parts topsoil, compost, peat moss, and vermiculite. All are available at your garden center, and the final product is much less expensive than commercial seed starting mixes.
Many folks are omitting the peat moss, preferring to mix in a little sand and natural leaf or grass mulch if anything.
You can use soil from your existing soil, but be aware that it may contain insects, weeds, and diseases that can overwhelm the tender seedlings. It may also be weak in nutrients and need to be amended with compost.
Getting started with planting
I lay down newspaper on the kitchen table and floor to catch dirt and water spills and to make clean up a breeze – the whole mess goes straight into the compost bin when we are done.
Wear an apron, and give each child a large spoon or a child-sized trowel to work with.
Set out your seed packets, pots, and a small watering can or jug your child is able to lift without assistance.
Fill a large mixing bowl full of your soil mix. It is helpful to lightly water the soil and mix it well before hand. You want the soil to be moist but not soggy for best results.
Don’t forget a damp tea towel or rag for wiping hands and catching spills and a marker and some popsicle sticks or paper for labelling the plants.
Choose which vegetable you are planting first and label each container. You may find it simplest to write directly on the container with a permanent marker, or you can make your own stick-style plant labels out of popsicle sticks, or even just paper covered in tape for durability. Fill each container almost to the top with soil, then have the kids poke a small hole in the top with their finger or a pencil for larger seeds.
For smaller seeds, simply sprinkle them on top of the soil and then put a little extra dirt on top.
Providing loving care
Seedlings need a warm, humid environment until the first little leaves appear. You can purchase commercial greenhouses with several shelves covered with a clear plastic tarp that helps keep in the heat and humidity, or you use bricks and boards to make your own shelves and cover each pot with a recycled plastic bag or a recycled clear plastic food container for the same effect.
Most seedlings take at least a few days and up to two weeks to germinate, so plan on leaving your seed-starting area in place for several weeks and choose your location accordingly.
When watering seedlings with young children, a plant mister is a better choice than a watering can as the tiniest seeds can easily be washed away or drowned by over-enthusiastic watering.
Keep in mind that the spray of the plant mister may not be reaching the soil once the seedlings get a little larger. You may need to check the seedlings at least once a day (more often in hot weather) to ensure the soil has not dried out.
Some plants will be happy in your small containers for a long time before you need to transplant them to something larger, while others will quickly outgrow their pots.
If you are planning a container garden, you can transplant into the containers indoors anytime. Plants that are destined for the outdoors need to be gradually acclimatized once all danger of frost has passed.
As much as it may pain a perfectionist to see children accidentally trampling plants or ripping out seedlings thinking they are weeds, it is all part of the learning process.
By giving over ownership of at least part of the garden to your kids, they are much more likely to become emotionally invested in the plot and its bounty, and will be willing workers and eager consumers of the vegetable bounty you produce, especially when they discover that peas taste so much better right off the vine than the canned or frozen variety.