Caroline Lewis is a Portland, Oregon, urban gardener whose company, Verdura Culinary Gardens, is dedicated to helping gardeners be more successful at raising their own organic vegetables. A licensed landscape contractor, Verdura installs raised bed gardens including trellises and drip irrigation systems, creates custom year-round planting plans, and offers vegetable garden coaching and maintenance programs. Caroline welcomes your comments and can be reached at caroline [at] verduragardens.com.
There are many reasons to involve your kids in vegetable gardening. They learn where their food comes from, they develop healthier eating habits, and they spend more time outside. But to me, the best reason is a somewhat selfish one: seeing the look on their faces the first time they pull a carrot out of the ground or taste a sugar snap pea right off the vine.
We have worked with quite a few families over the years, learning from experience that children are much more likely to eat vegetables they’ve grown themselves than anything from the store. Kids are smart — homegrown veggies taste better. And when they’ve nurtured the plants themselves, they’re curious to taste them.
Based on feedback we’ve gotten from our smallest clients, the best gardens contain the following: carrots, peas, strawberries, potatoes, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, pumpkins, and green beans, pretty much in that order of importance. You’ll notice that many of these can be eaten right in the garden, which in my view is entirely the point. My own kids loved shelling peas so much that I don’t believe a single pod ever made it into the kitchen. I have to admit I was just fine with that!
Beyond what a child will actually be interested in eating, other factors to consider in planning your garden include seed size, ease of care, nutrition, and productivity.
We’ve had children as young as two help us plant peas and beans. The seeds are large and quite easy to plant. Peas go in now through late spring, but beans should not be planted until the ground is well warmed up. (Here in the Pacific Northwest, that usually means mid-May to mid-June.) Our favorite sugar snap peas are Sugar Ann, and we have had great success with Provider, a filet-type bush bean.
Other seeds that are normally quite tiny — such as carrots and lettuce — are now available as pelleted seeds. They come coated with an organic clay, making them much easier to handle and to see once you drop them on the soil. For kids as well as adults, we particularly love Yaya or Napoli carrots. Both Johnny’s and High Mowing have reasonably good selections of pelleted lettuce, onion, carrot, and other seeds.
Plant starts are another option that can increase your odds of success, given that you don’t have to fuss with seeds and already have a healthy young plant. Plant starts can be a good option for most vegetables except root crops and others that are easy to direct seed and don’t like being transplanted, such as peas.
Be sure to seek out local, organic starts whenever possible. Buying starts from local organic farmers instead of big-box stores means you’ll have healthier, non-GMO plants that are well adapted to your particular climate — and, of course, you’ll be supporting a local farmer! (In Portland, we love starts from Gales Meadow Farm at the Hollywood and Hillsdale farmers’ markets, as well as anything from Naomi’s Organic Farm Supply.)
Beyond ease of planting, the next consideration is how much effort particular crops take to grow to maturity. Radishes are a great choice because they mature quickly (25 to 30 days), giving everyone a quick reward for their efforts. Homegrown radishes taste milder and sweeter than store-bought, and varietals like the French Breakfast radish are a colorful and fun addition to the garden. Radishes can be planted from March all the way into the fall, so with a little planning, you can have a steady supply of them.
Carrots, peas, and beans require little in the way of care once they’re growing, and are bothered by few pests. But even bug-prone crops like broccoli provide important lessons in organic pest control, which some kids frankly rather enjoy.
Asparagus is one often-overlooked vegetable in gardens. People tend to shy away from it because it requires its own bed or patch, and is a long-lived perennial that can’t be harvested until it’s been in the ground at least a year. Many of our clients don’t have the patience to wait a few years for a harvest, but I think it’s a shame. Asparagus bought at the store or even the farmers’ market is never as good as when just harvested (this is also true for peas, by the way), and those first spears poking out of the ground cause quite a bit of excitement for kids of any age.
We all know that kale is a superfood, and ideally we should all be eating a lot more of it. But if your family isn’t fond of kale, you may wish to skip it for something they will eat. (Side note: I hid kale in lentil soup, minestrone, and stews for years, and my kids didn’t mind it a bit. Other people I know put it in smoothies with fruit, and no one need be the wiser.)
If you have reasonably adventurous eaters at home, I recommend trying spinach, carrots, kale, Swiss chard, broccoli, peas, and green beans. Tomatoes go without saying, especially Sun Golds, which are supersweet and ripen nicely even in cool climates.
But the bottom line is, grow what you like and what works for your family. If no one will eat it, what’s the point?
Many homeowners have limited garden space. Some of our clients have just a single four-foot-by-eight-foot bed to grow veggies for their entire family. That’s where careful planning and succession planting come in. And if you’re in this for not just the educational experience but for a meaningful harvest, then you may want to consider how productive certain plants are.
Broccoli, for example, is really delicious grown at home, but takes up a lot of space for the yield. Depending upon the type of broccoli, we allow it two or four square feet per plant, which yields one head plus some side shoots. On the other hand, in those same four square feet, in that same time frame, I can grow 16 carrots, four small heads of lettuce, nine beets, and two plantings of 16 radishes each.
Another consideration is how much a plant yields over time. Pull a carrot and it’s gone, but a single bean or pea plant will continue pumping out pods for many weeks, as long as you keep harvesting them before they get too mature. We typically harvest bush beans and peas for at least a month or two after they start producing. And they can be planted four per square foot, which means quite a nice harvest.
And finally, utilizing vertical gardening techniques greatly improves a small garden’s yield. Rather than letting vining plants like cucumbers sprawl all over the ground, we plant them one plant per square foot on a trellis or other vertical support, and tie them up as they grow. The cucumbers are less prone to disease and pests, and will continue to flower and produce fruit over the entire growing season. Other crops we grow on trellises include tomatoes, vining peas and beans, melons, and vining squash. Kids seem to particularly enjoy the colorful spiral supports we use for growing cucumbers.
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