As a child, my brother, sister and I had weekly chores that, like most children, we dreaded. Unlike most children, however, I grew up on a small "homestead" where we raised small animals and fed ourselves from a huge vegetable garden behind the house.
In summer, weeding ranked high on the list of to-dos, and I used to hate sitting in that garden with the sun beating down on my back, hunched over and pulling weeds. Now, though, when I think back, it is with nothing short of awe and appreciation: Awe for my parents and their dedication to growing their own food, and appreciation for the quality time we spent together in the garden.
Lots of parents today are after the same experience. Growing food at home has become a national pastime of sorts, and why not involve the kids? It gets them interested and educated about food and also keeps little fingers busy with a constructive task.
When starting a garden at home there are three basics to consider.First, you must have sun! At least six to eight hours of direct sunlight a day for leafy greens and 10 to 12 for fruiting plants (hello, tomatoes, cukes and beans.) Easy access to water is also a must. If you have to lug gallon jugs up some stairs and across your property, the odds of your watering often are slim. Finally, you need to think about your soil. When digging new beds, it's always helpful to add a few bags of compost (figure a ratio of about 3:10 compost to topsoil). Compost aids in drainage and water retention, and provides a habitat for microorganisms, which are crucial for soil health.
Next up is deciding what to grow. Fortunate are we in the Pacific Northwest, as we are blessed with a warm maritime climate capable of growing food year round. For spring, the options are endless. Too often I've seen beds overcrowded with out-of-season plants and poorly laid out plantings. Avoid this by using one of many local planting guides (Seattle Tilth's Maritime Northwest Garden Guide is an excellent resource) to choose your favorite vegetables for the time of year.
It's best to plot out your garden ahead of time and stick to the plan. The map can be used as refrigerator art, allowing kids to keep track of what's happening in the garden on a weekly basis. And you can take it to your local nursery as a shopping list.
Most plants can be planted by seed here in Seattle – we are quite fortunate in that way. Seeds are perfect for little hands. Parents can lightly ‘draw' rows in the soil for kids to plant in. Lettuces, carrots and radishes need only be planted a half-inch deep. Drawing out the lines in soil beforehand gives small children a guide and will keep your beds orderly and (nearly) free of rogue plantings.
For large, heat-loving plants like tomatoes or peppers, you'll want to plant starts. These vegetables, though not impossible to grow, are sometimes challenging as we have a cooler summer than some climates. Planting starts also allows you to get a crop in later in the season if you've missed the ideal time to sow. We call for using pea starts in our May map – it's too late to plant out seed, but a great time for starts.
Children can help plant the starts. Mark off locations in your soil and have your children dig holes twice the diameter of the plant start, and twice as deep. From there, help to loosen the start from the plastic container and plant your vegetable start upright. Kids can cover up the hole by patting soil over the plant, but have them leave the soil light and fluffy. You don't want to pat the soil too hard – this will compact drainage pathways and inhibit air circulation around the root of the plant.
The last step in gardening is to water. Water, water, water! This is the single most common reason for failed home gardens. You must keep seed beds moist (not saturated) in order for seeds to germinate. Once seeds germinate and start growing, they will need more water.
Hand held watering wands work great for kids, as they don't demand that constant pressure be kept on a trigger. These wands are light and easy to maneuver and the stream of water is gentle enough that seeds are not displaced and starts are not damaged. Rotate weekly Garden Captains to be responsible for watering! Make a game of it, and any chore is fun.
Way more fun than weeding, anyway – I can assure you that.