Here are a few tips to help you get started.
1. Consider Going Organic
Let’s face it: There are few things in life as tempting as a ripe tomato fresh off the vine. Children love to eat vegetables from the garden, and they often want to eat those vegetables in the garden, without the extra step of going inside to wash what they’ve just picked. If you decide to garden organically, without toxic pesticides or chemical fertilizers, you don’t need to stop your kids when they want to pop a cherry tomato directly in their mouths.
Organic gardening is also better for the environment, and it will bring a wider variety or interesting and helpful creatures to your garden, like butterflies. Going organic means incorporating some hands-on techniques, like pulling tomato hornworm caterpillars off your plants. In my experience, kids love hands-on techniques, and searching for enormous, green caterpillars is something most children would do for fun.
If you’ve never tried organic gardening, rest assured there are many resources available, both online and in our community. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and advice!
2. You Don’t Need a Farm
Even if the only space you have for a garden is a flowerpot in a sunny windowsill, you can still grow something your children will eat!
Many herbs grow very well in containers, and some varieties of vegetables have been bred to do well in small spaces. Seed catalogues will note which varieties do well in containers, as will plant information tags at a nursery. These plants are quite happy to live in inexpensive or improvised pots, even plastic buckets, as long as you provide plenty of sunshine, water, and quality potting mix.
Adding a few bright, orange flowers to a bowl of salad greens is a great way to get a child’s attention, and most children are delighted to try eating something they helped to grow.
If you’re feeling more adventurous but are pinched for space, a community garden is a great place to grow your summer vegetables. Raymond’s community garden is located next to Raymond Village Library and the Windham Community Garden is located next to the Windham Police Department on Route 202. Both still have plots available for a low annual fee.
3. Choose a Wide Variety
Gardening adventures always involve a fair amount of trial and error. I’m still a novice gardener, and I’ve never had a summer where every single thing I planted has flourished. (I even had a very embarrassing summer when my zucchini plants died. Luckily, we had enough cherry tomatoes that summer to distract the kids!) To avoid disappointment, for both children and adults, try planting several different types of vegetables.
It’s also a nice idea to plant vegetables that will ripen at different times. Peas, lettuce, and radishes can be planted now, even though we’re still a month away from the last frost. With any luck, you can be harvesting radishes and lettuce while your tomato plants are just getting established.
Besides, having a garden filled with unusual varieties, such as purple carrots, strawberry spinach, or striped eggplants, can tempt even the pickiest of eaters to try something new.
4. Be Flexible
In parenting, gardening, and life, it pays to be open to new experiences, and to keep a healthy sense of humor!
Last summer, we planted purple carrots. They grew beautifully, and the kids checked them every day to see if they were big enough to pull and eat. One morning, however, the carrot tops were wilted to the ground. I pulled one out, only to find that some little creature had eaten the entire carrot from underground.
I was upset. My children were thrilled. Suddenly, the garden was a place of mystery and excitement! My three-year-old and seven-year-old spent the rest of the morning poking around the garden with sticks, trying to find holes made by our mystery rodent. That carrot incident led to an impromptu lesson in ecosystems for the kids, and a lesson in keeping a sense of humor for me!
Four-legged pests aren’t the only problem when you’re gardening with children, especially small children. I planted several bell peppers last year and tried to baby them as much as possible through Maine’s cool, rainy months. But we never got to eat a single pepper.
When the peppers started to disappear, I thought perhaps deer had ransacked the garden; instead, it was my three-year-old son. The moment those bell peppers took on a tinge of yellow, he picked and ate them. All of them.
I’d been looking forward to trying at least one of those painstakingly nurtured peppers but, as my husband reminded me, at least our son liked to eat his vegetables.
And that, after all, is the ultimate purpose of a kid-friendly garden.