By all rights, I never should have turned out to be a gardener. I tell parents that if they want their children to be gardeners when they grow up, that they should never make them pull weeds. My parents made me pull weeds. We had a vegetable garden and we all worked in it. Gardening was considered a duty, not a learning experience. They had lived through the Great Depression of the 1930s and had a deep fear that the economy would collapse once again. Growing vegetables was a hedge against hunger. My grandfather saved the day by making gardening fun when I visited him.
If you want to encourage children to love gardening, I’d like to suggest that you give each child a piece of earth that is theirs to use as they see fit -- to grow carrots or flowers, or even to use with toy trucks. The right size plot is probably, for smaller children, as big as they are -- their height by their arm span. For little ones, that’s three or four feet square. It could be a wood-sided bed, or just a corner of the garden marked off by string.
Help your kids pick things to grow that are easy and tasty. I think most kids will eat cherry tomatoes right off the bush. Sun Gold is the name of my favorite -- it’s delicious and highly productive. Buy a seedling and help your child plant it. These tomato plants get big and tall and will need some support. I recommend using a tomato cage made of heavy wire. Pick the biggest cage you can -- 54 inches tall and with four legs, not three.
There really is magic in starting plants from seeds. Kids are fascinated by the idea of planting a seemingly inert speck and getting fresh tomatoes or carrots some months later. But they need guidance, and a certain amount of help. Carrot seeds, for example, are tiny and hard for small fingers to plant one by one. The solution? Buy pelleted seeds if you can find them. These are seeds that are coated with a layer of clay, turning a tiny seed into something almost the size of a BB. I had pelleted seeds for my grandkids to use this year, and it made a frustrating job fun. I ordered pelleted carrot seeds from Johnny’s Selected Seeds (877-564-6697 or www.johnnyseeds.com).
Radishes, beets and beans are bigger seeds and easy to handle, but not necessarily tops on the list of favorite veggies for kids. I love green beans now, but as a kid I only ate them under duress. Corn is easy to plant, but requires more space than you might want to dedicate to it, and is a magnet for corn worms which can be off-putting.
If you are working with kids, you surely do not want to use any chemicals in their little gardens. Not chemical fertilizer, not weed killer, not bug killer. Their systems are much more sensitive to chemicals than ours. Chemical fertilizers are not poisonous, but can be harsh on young fingers and the dust should never be inhaled.
In my experience, nothing is better to plant with kids than potatoes. They are easy to handle at planting time, and the excitement when harvesting is remarkable. And I’ve never met a kid that didn’t like eating freshly cooked mashed potatoes that they grew.
If you’ve never grown potatoes before, they’re easy. Start potatoes from sprouted potatoes that are sold as seed potatoes at your local feed-and-grain store or garden center. Don’t try growing potatoes from grocery store spuds because many of those have been treated with chemicals to keep them from sprouting. You can plant whole small potatoes, or cut larger ones into two or three pieces, so long as each has two "eyes" that are starting to sprout.
For best results, each piece of potato needs to be placed in loose, rich soil that has been amended with some compost. The roots of your plants will grow down, and the new potatoes will be formed above the seed potato. Loosen the soil well and place your seed potatoes three or four inches beneath the soil surface and a foot apart in the row. Cover with a thin layer of soil -- an inch is fine. Then, after the spuds have sent up leaves, you can fill in the hold or the trench you have planted in. That’s called "hilling" the potatoes.
Potatoes are remarkably productive. Each piece you plant will produce from one to five pounds of potatoes. And they come in a variety of colors -- which kids find fascinating: get some purple ones or red-skinned ones to plant if you can. The variety called Kennebec is an all white potato that is, in my experience, the most productive of all. Yukon Gold is another good producer, as is Red Pontiac, one of my favorites for flavor.
Maybe I became a gardener because, like my parents, I feared that calamity would strike and I’d need to depend on my garden for food. It is true that I eat something that came from my garden nearly every day of the year -- garlic, for example, or veggies from my freezer. And I don’t mind weeding -- I even enjoy it in moderation. So try to get your kids gardening. It’s not too late to start, and I think you’ll all have fun.
Henry Homeyer is a grampy and former school teacher. His children’s book, Wobar and the Quest for the Magic Calumet, is a fantasy-adventure for all elementary school kids. His web site for that book is www.henryhomeyer.com.