It’s almost time to plant warm season crops! Here’s a guide to kid-friendly crops good for beginner gardeners.
For conditions to be right for these plants, you need nights that stay 50 degrees and warmer. Put your transplant in the soil when it’s too cold, and it might not be able to grow. Spring weather is changeable, so a cool night or two could come up after you have planted. If that happens, there are ways of keeping your little plants warm. I put a full bottle or jar of water next to each tomato start (the water cools down more slowly than the air), and I cover both water and plant with plastic for the night (I call it a tomato sweater.)
Grow from: Starts.
Tips: Plant your start so that it sits deeper in the soil than it did in the pot. New roots will grow out of the part of the stem you have covered in soil. Stake it and use some kind of cage; the growing vine will need some support.
What to plant: Tomatoes come in a dazzling variety, so it’s important to pay attention to the type you get. There are three main factors to consider when figuring out if a tomato is right for you.
1. Growth Habit. Determinate plants grow to a specific size, and then stop growing. If you are gardening in a container, a hanging basket, or a small space, you want a determinate plant. Indeterminate plants grow as long as conditions are favorable for them to do so. If you have a nice big garden space, then indeterminate plants are great.
2. Time to Harvest. Because our summers are fleeting, there’s a very limited time available for a tomato plant to grow before nights start getting cold and foggy. The earlier the maturation date, the more forgiving the plant will be to a beginner gardener. Don’t plant anything that needs more than 85 days. It’s best to stick with plants that take 75 days or less.
3. Size of fruit. Smaller fruit are easier to grow, and will give beginning gardeners bigger yields. While you’re learning vegetable gardening, leave the big beefsteak tomatoes to the experts. Otherwise you may find yourself at the end of the season discovering that yes, it is possible for a tomato to be rotten and unripe at the same time.
One standout variety: Among indeterminate tomatoes, there is one variety that is the easiest, most reliable, and most kid-friendly to grow in Seattle. That is the Sungold cherry tomato, which matures in under 60 days and produces lots of orange, sweet, not-too-soft fruit that kids will inhale by the pound.
Grow from: Seeds, or starts if you can find them. Often I buy bean seeds, and make my own starts indoors, which is a fun thing to do with kids.
Tips: Make sure you harvest them at the right moment. Wait too long and they’ll become difficult to eat.
What to plant: Beans also come in a large variety. If your kids have adventurous palates, you might try broad beans such as scarlet runners, which have fleshy pods containing bright pink beans. Or you could go for something more conventional. You do need to decide between growth habits: bush beans are easier to place in odd corners of your garden, and they don’t need any extra supports. Pole beans need some sort of pole to climb up, and can get very big. I have planted both, depending on what space I have. Some people have even made structures for beans to grow on that double as hideouts for playing kids. Check out this one.
Grow from: Starts
Tips: Watch for the right moment to harvest these. Make some sort of structure so the vines can climb off the ground.
What to plant: A cucumber fresh from the garden has a completely different taste from what you find in the store, though that likely won’t be enough to convince reluctant cucumber eaters, so if you have one of those, don’t plant cucumbers. Look for plants with short maturing times. Pickling cucumbers are tasty when fresh, and pickles are easy to make! (If you have a pickle eater.)
Summer Squash or Zucchini
Grow from: Starts
Tips: Allow lots of room for these vines to grow. Don’t wait too long to harvest. Big fruit tend not to be as good to eat.
Choose: Plants with short maturing times that fit your children’s food preferences. If your child won’t eat zucchini from a store, she won’t eat it from a garden. If your child won’t consider a patty-pan or a crook-neck squash, it’s best to stick with cylindrical fruit rather than argue. Same goes for color.