Vegetable gardens not only bring fresh, seasonal produce to your table and immense satisfaction to your soul, but they can be inspirational and educational for your children.
Working with compost, worms, water, seeds, insects, plant growth and the final fruits of your labour instil in children not only the importance of being involved with their own food production and food security, but also a sense of responsibility.
It also gives them the opportunity to learn about the environment and cycles of nature.
I once interviewed a 6th generation farming family for some research that I was conducting. They home school their children and spoke of the benefits of growing food. The children are actually able to see what they are learning about in textbooks.
For example, when they are learning about plant life in a book, they can walk outside and witness seed germination and cotyledons before their eyes.
Planting a garden with children is an act of patience and for best results it should take place over time rather than attempting a marathon weekend gardening extravaganza, which usually results in rapid burnout and “Can we do something else yet?” or “I’m too hot” comments.
I have found that preparing the ground (digging in compost and manure) should be left to the adults as shovels and rakes are cumbersome for little ones to handle.
It is valuable however, to let children into the garden after the initial “stir up” is complete because finding worms is an exciting past time. Stop here to explain what worms do and how they help the garden to flourish.
What to plant
When the ground is prepared, plant a mixture of both quick growing seeds and seeds that produce interesting looking vegetables and yummy straight-off-the-plant snacks.
I also recommend planting some seedlings so that growth can be observed taking place above ground while the seeds germinate below ground. This tactic keeps continued interest in the garden.
While not every vegetable that you plant will be a favourite of your children, you can have them taste everything at least once. It is also important to remember that taste buds are continually developing and changing during childhood, so don’t give up if they do not like something the first time. Try and try again in the future.
I find that planting interesting looking vegetables like Armenian cucumbers that grow twisty, purple runner beans, rainbow chard and candy cane beets that are striped just like the favourite Christmas sweets can spark a new interest in otherwise “boring” vegetables.
Additionally, planting edible flowers like calendula and nasturtium adds an attractive and fun element to the garden, not to mention their ability to attract beneficial insects like butterflies and bees.
Plant herbs in pots and let your child be “in charge” of watering them.
Give your child their own special watering can and keep the herbs in a convenient location so that it does not become “chore-like” yet gives them the sense of responsibility and importance.
It is important to plant vegetables and fruits that can be picked and eaten straight from the plant in order to allow children to make the correlation between growing and eating food.
Sugar peas, cherry tomatoes, carnival carrots and strawberries are just a few of the more popular options although my daughter has been known to grab a lettuce leaf or flower petal to munch on at times.
Making it fun
For vegetables that normally require preparation and cooking before eating, let your children help with the harvest.
Pulling beets, yanking carrot tops and trying to guess what colour the carrots are, and digging potatoes akin to a treasure hunt provides for an interactive, fun component to the harvest.
This year, a main highlight in our garden is the single pumpkin plant that is taking over more than its fair share of space. Each day, my daughter puts a marker at the end of the vine and then she can see how much it grows in one day. Currently, it is spreading into the yard, up the hedge and over the neighbour’s fence!
If you have the dreaded slug or snail encroaching on your garden, although pesky to you and your garden’s wellbeing, they are fantastic opportunities to discover what creeps about in the dark. Head out with flashlights and conduct a hunt.
Despite all of your efforts to create a perfect, bountiful garden, there is no doubt that something will not grow or something else will get eaten. While disappointing, it is also an opportunity to teach children about the unpredictably of Mother Nature.
The skills learned and knowledge gained from a family garden are well worth the time and labour not only to provide your family with fresh, organic produce but to teach your children the greatness of life and the wonderful things that grow and exist in the outdoor world.