“Mama, do we have any carrots?” My 3-year old is standing not in the kitchen, but in the backyard. She’s peering into our raised garden bed, where I’ve been growing vegetables with her and for our family since she was a baby.
Together we’ve successfully grown peas, green beans, lettuce, kale, chard, basil, carrots, summer squash and parsley. We nurtured a volunteer pumpkin grow in our front yard that provided four perfect pumpkins for our jack-o-lanterns last fall.
We’ve also had a few flops, like the eggplant that never flowered, a tiny melon plant that keeled over shortly after being transplanted and a batch of broccoli that were devoured by aphids. This year we are experimenting with sweet Walla Walla onions and a purple cauliflower.
Cultivating young gardeners will reap benefits far beyond healthy eating habits, teaching patience and an understanding of cause and effect among other things.
The first time we grew carrots from seed, my daughter was 2. I drug my finger through the dirt near the edge of the bed where she could reach and showed her where to sprinkle the seeds.
As the seedlings popped up, I showed them to her. When she pulled a few before they were ready, we talked about what was happening under the soil, and why we needed to let the plant keep growing. When the carrots were finally ready I let her harvest them and decide how she wanted to eat them. Some went into a salad and some went into a soup. She was so proud to sit at the table and eat something she had helped to grow from such a tiny seed.
I recently read a 2007 study published by the Journal of the American Dietetic Associations that found that children who participated in garden projects had increased interest in eating fresh fruits and vegetables. Plentiful other sources will also tell you that gardening is an excellent form of exercise – burning 200 or more calories per hour – and school garden programs are connected with reducing risk of childhood obesity.
While I’ve certainly seen and experienced those benefits, I garden with my child because I want her to know where her food is coming from. I want her to have an understanding of the cycle of life as it is played out right outside our door.
But mostly because it is fun.
“Gardening can be a small simple project,” says Kate Purcell, who designs family-friendly food gardens in my town. “A garden doesn’t have to be perfect for a kid to love it.” You can turn a small corner of your yard, a few pretty containers, or a strip of sidewalk median into a mini vegetable garden. Kate worked with my mom to edge her tiny backyard lawn with an edible border, and my daughter has helped to plant and harvest several rounds of lettuce and herbs there.
Are you ready to get your kids started? These five vegetables will help kids have a successful first garden. They grow quickly from seed or starts, are hardy, and taste great. You can grow them in containers or straight in the ground and They’ll make it easy for your kids to plant, tend and harvest their own tasty rewards this summer.
Snap peas should be planted in early spring. They grow best in cool weather, making them a good child’s introduction to the garden. Once the pods set they ripen quickly and can be eaten raw off the plant, shell and all, when still small. When the pods are larger, teach your child to shuck them – popping the peas out of the opened pod. This is a fun family activity and a good opportunity to talk with your child about her day.
Kale plants grow incredibly healthy leaves, loaded with calcium, iron and antioxidants. It grows well in the cooler spring and fall months, but will also grow year-round in mild climates. A kid-favorite way to prepare kale is roasted and lightly salted, which turns the textured leaves into the healthiest “chips” they’ve ever eaten. Be sure to tell your young gardeners that Tuscan Kale is also called “dinosaur kale.”
Runner beans, like the ones grown in Dixie cups in 1st grade classrooms everywhere, grow incredibly fast in warm weather. You can train them to grow up poles tied into a teepee shape and create a kid-sized hide-out. Even if you simply grow them vertically on a trellis, your kids will love hunting under the broad leaves for ripe pods before dinner.
Carrots are fascinating to kids because of the mystery: they see the leaves, but the carrot is hidden under ground. Show your kids how to scatter carrot seeds around the base of the pea plants. By the time the pea vines have died back the first carrots will be ready to harvest. Planting heirloom carrots in a mix of colors, like yellow and purple, will add an extra element of surprise to the harvest.
Teeny Tasty Tomatoes
Cherry tomatoes are a delicious treat eaten straight off the vine, still warm from the sun. Once your kids discover this you may find that ripe tomatoes never actually make it to your kitchen. Two easy, productive varieties are Sweet 100 and Sungold.
What better way to get a child interested in eating his vegetables than having him grow them himself? Plant a few veggies with your kid today!