If I were a betting kind of gal (and I am), I'd wager that your kids bring home a Styrofoam cup packed full of soil and a bean seed from school at some point during the year. But what to do with that seed once it's home? Growing food in pots is a small enough project to knock out in an afternoon and a long enough project to produce delicious results. It's also a great way to introduce children of all ages to the pleasure of growing food.
Getting kids interested in gardening is pretty easy to do – they love sticking seeds in the soil. And, as my 5-year-old niece, Nathalie, so elementally stated: "You stick the seeds in, and then it needs water and sun," – pretty simple stuff. But it's helpful to know from the onset that not all vegetables grow well in containers. By planting in a contained environment, you are inhibiting the plant's growth to some extent.
Think about it: Plants can send out roots and root hairs only as far as the walls of the pot allow. Restricted by the pot, not all plants will come to full maturity and produce food. This presents the biggest challenge of growing food in small spaces.
The most important thing to remember, as with any project, is to have fun. Here, we cover a few tips on getting started and ensuring success for your little urban farmers.
To start a garden in containers, you must use potting soil in your containers. These soil mixes are formulated to maintain a certain level of lightness so that plants are able to breathe, drain well, and still hold in some moisture. (Air is right up there with sun and water in importance to healthy, thriving plants!)
Look for organic potting soil mixes from smaller regional companies rather than the national brands you'll find in big-box stores. Choose a potting soil that has no added fertilizer or nutrients – seeds do not need this to germinate, and it's better to add some on your own later, as needed, by way of a few handfuls of compost.
Most plants need a little legroom to stretch their roots. Choose a pot that's a bit bigger than the plant will actually need. It is better to leave a little wiggle room than to have plant roots mashing up against the container walls. If you allow for some growth, you increase the odds of your plant growing to full maturity.With seeds, water the surface of the pots daily – they only need a full soak once the plant is established. Aim to keep the soil perpetually damp, never wet and definitely don't let it dry between waterings.
Plastic pots are the least expensive container option. Although they are usually the least attractive option, they hold their moisture longer than clay or ceramic pots and are lighter and easier to move around. Encouraging children to paint artwork on their own containers will spruce them up, and will inspire them to take ownership of the plant as it grows.
Clay pots, the next most inexpensive options, are porous, so air moves easily through their walls. This is helpful in that it allows roots to breathe and keeps them out of direct water, but it's not helpful in that the soil tends to dry out quickly. If you choose clay pots, be sure to purchase a saucer or plate to sit under the pot. This works both to keep moisture off the surface of your deck or patio and to hold in moisture for the plant.
Deciding What to Grow
The ultimate goal is for your garden to be productive, though it's helpful to choose something kids can harvest independently and appreciate eating. Snap peas are an excellent choice, as are herbs, both of which can be planted in the first few weeks of April. Herbs will single-handedly change the flavor of most recipes and most are of cut-and-come again variety, allowing for long term production.
Lettuces, too, are wonderful to grow at home. They take up little space, germinate and produce (and reproduce!) quickly, and offer fresh greens for salads, or for a nice leafy garnish. Seeing greens poking out of the soil will encourage watering and plant care – a great daily chore for little ones.
Outside of immediate kitchen uses, you can satisfy the green thumb of seriously picky eaters by considering a plant's use beyond the kitchen. Lavender makes a subtle herb rub for roast chicken and can also be used as herbal stuffing for a small, cozy pillow. Scented geranium leaves can be chopped and used in sweet recipes or steeped to make teas.
Whatever you grow, enjoy the fun and wonder of gardening: Watching a pea plant emerge and uncurl itself to bring forth its first leaves is an experience every child (and adult) should have!
Amy Pennington is a Seattle cook, author, urban farmer, teacher and TV show host. Learn more about cooking and gardening locally at www.amy-pennington.com.
Editor's note: this article was originally published in April of 2014.