When you’re gardening with children, its a fine line between encouraging success and dealing with the realities of life in the garden which include weeds, work and wilt. We want our kids to enjoy success in their gardening ventures without an abundance of failure (hey, it happens to everyone) and without adding too much hassle to our already busy gardening schedule. With that in mind, here are five annual vegetables for the children’s garden – my suggestions on what to grow with your children that will, most likely, ensure success without too much headache. These veggies are meant to be planted and complete their life cycles in one year – stayed tuned for five perennial vegetables for the Children’s Garden.
Gardening with Children
Some of these suggestions may seem obvious to the already seasoned vegetable grower and if that’s you, then try picking a new variety of whatever vegetable your child has become proficient in growing. If your dear daughter is a tomato Ninja but she’s never tried an heirloom, encourage her to choose one – entice her with those amazing heirloom colors (hello, orange tomatoes with stripes!) and the promise of incredible flavors. If your son totally rocks it when it comes to spinach but he’s never tried starting it indoors in August to plant out in the fall garden, maybe this is his year. Whatever choices you make, I encourage you to make them together. This is about your children’s gardening efforts, not yours. You know lots of stuff that they’re still learning so take it slow and accept that sometimes what seems obvious to us will be brand new to them – it was for us long, looooooooooooong ago.
If you don’t have children in your home, I encourage you to open up your garden to kids in your family or your neighborhood. My paternal grandmother invited me to be a part of her garden many times as I was growing up – my father’s family’s name is Gardiner! Her garden was a magical place for me and I still remember her lessons on how to plant bulbs, how to grow in a clay pot, how to support delphinium stalks and why an Australian Tea Tree is a wise choice if your zone supports it.
Gardening is in my blood and runs all up and down my family tree but I sometimes wonder if my passion would have been sparked so early or so deeply if Grandma Gardiner hadn’t taken the time to teach a kid how to transplant a Japanese Maple. Don’t let the next generation of gardeners and homesteaders enter their young adult years having to dig so deep and work so hard to learn these skills from scratch when you could teach them the basics and so much more by simply opening your garden and your heart.
Five Vegetables for the Children’s Garden
Now, I’m not going to say these vegetables are fool proof – I haven’t met one yet that is. A fool can do a great deal of damage to any plant. However, over about a decade of gardening with my own children, I can testify that these veggies can hold their own in most instances and usually perform in a way that pleases. I ALWAYS suggest planting more than one of anything you’re trying to grow in the children’s garden. Why? Because very young ones can’t differentiate between a weed and a cucumber seedling and accidents happen.
Children want to help you and please you but sometimes they get a little too exuberant – I once lost an entire bed of spring carrots to a group of excited kiddos who realized that if you pulled, out came a carrot! A carrot that was too young to harvest but a carrot nonetheless! Eh, life happens and I’d rather my children were excited gardeners than exact gardeners. For each veggie, I’ve included a link or two on how to grow that plant because they do require some skill and some work. You’ll want to know as much as possible about these veggies so that you and your children can enjoy success.
Ok, everyone’s favorite veggie. Seems like a no-brainer. Tomatoes are perennials in their native habitat which translates into the fact that their root systems mean business – which is easy to see at the end of the season when you give yourself a hernia pulling them out of the ground. This also results in them being harder to kill than, say, a cucumber. Tomatoes are also incredibly satisfying to grow – there are hundreds of different shapes, sizes and colors to choose from.
Some of our favorites: Sun Gold cherry (hybrid) is simply one of the best things you’ll ever put in your mouth; Green Zebra (heirloom) or any of the striped tomatoes are a blast to grow because they’re gorgeous; Black Prince (heirloom) or any black tomato because the color is vibrant and the taste is rich; Mortgage Lifter (heirloom) because it has a great story behind it and because it produces tasty tomatoes very reliably. I don’t grow many hybrids because we save seed but there are lots of great varieties to try and I’m sure you have your favorites. If you have a heated greenhouse, you can grow the same tomato plant indefinitely but most of us grow them as annuals due to their high sensitivity to frost.
To learn more, click on these links: Survival at Home and Schneider Peeps both tell you how to grow terrific tomatoes. Runamuck Acres has some info on how to deal with hornworms in the organic garden. FYI, organic is way easier and safer a modality to use for your garden’s health when you’re dealing with children, who put everything in their mouths. Yes, even the older ones!
“‘Green Beans never know when to stop!’, said Garnet’s mother in annoyance.” I pretty much love anything Elizabeth Enright wrote but I laughed out loud when we stumbled on that quote during our family reading time of Thimble Summer. Green beans are reliable. They’re trustworthy – you plant the seed, it grows, it produces fruit. A lot of it. And sometimes you wish they would just quit it!
Green beans can be used in so many ways and they store beautifully. I don’t actually care for fresh green beans (its a texture thing, I think), although I eat them because they’re good for me. There are lots of others things you can do with them if you don’t prefer them raw or steamed – they’re about the easiest thing on God’s green earth to can! They also freeze and dehydrate beautifully. We made some dilly beans when we did our pickles last year and they were, in a word, fabulous. My five year old gulps down those dilly beans so fast most of us risk losing a hand if we get in her way.
To learn more, click on these links: Schneider Peeps and Better Hens and Gardens can give you the lowdown on growing great beans. Homespun Seasonal Living has some info on canning beans for the time crunched.
I don’t like radishes and I can’t make myself like them no matter how many varieties I try. So why do we grow them? Because they grow so easily and quickly. And because they’re absolutely gorgeous. So many colors, kinds and shapes.
The French breakfast radishes have been the most palatable at our house but taste is such a relative thing, so you try whatever variety sticks out to you and your kids. Radishes are great crops for inter sowing – you plant a crop that takes several weeks to germinate and start taking up space but don’t want to waste the space in the meantime so you plunk in a row of radishes and by the time your larger crop is up in the radishes’ business, its time to pull them up and eat them. OR feed them to the goats and chickens. Or give them as gifts to neighbors. Or try a new dish (like roasted radishes) to see if you like to eat them that way.
To learn more, click on these links: Vegetable Freak can tell you how to grow radishes all season long, not just in spring. Here’s one from Montana Homesteader on Thyme Roasted Radishes. This isn’t a fancy blog post, its just a recipe from Paleofood.com for radish chips. Chips. Hmmm…I could eat a chip!
Oh, please grow a pumpkin in your children’s garden! They do take up space, although growing the smaller varieties on a trellis is very doable if space is an issue in your garden. (I think space is an issue in every garden, quite frankly – how much of our garden brain is tied up trying to figure out what’s best to do with the space?!) Pumpkins are simply magical vegetables to grow. The vines are impressive, the flowers are gorgeous (and edible!) and the fruit holds the promise of autumn to come. I thrill at the sight of a pumpkin patch whether its the first flowers of spring, full of fat bees taking pollen baths or the glow of orange in the yard as the vines die back and the pumpkins shine as if already carved into pumpkin moonshines.
There are so many different varieties of pumpkin to grow – teeny, tiny ones and giant ones; culinary varieties and decorative varieties. And all different colors, too – orange, red, blue, white, green! You may not decide to grow them every year but do it at least once – if you have the space, plant enough so that your children’s friends can come for a pumpkin harvest and carving party at your house, instead of going to the local Walmart and picking out a pumpkin from a cardboard bin.
Traditionally, spring peas are thought to be the best but I actually prefer planting peas in the fall garden. Why? Because, in my climate, summer can start with a vengeance and at any time, without warning. Summer heat and dry winds can wreak havoc on a pea harvest and I’d rather just not mess with it at the beginning of the year. Don’t get me wrong, I plant peas every spring but its mostly because the kids just love them and can’t garden without them. Peas are super kid friendly plants, right down to the seeds which are a medium size that kids can see and handle with relative ease – unlike carrot seeds. Hunting for pea pods becomes a morning ritual once the fruit is set. Many a time I’ve had to repeatedly call my kids in from the pea patch for the start of school because they’re so engrossed in their pea treasure hunt.
Again, lots of varieties to choose from but the big choice is: Do you want climbing vines that need to be staked or bush varieties that hit 2-3 feet and then stop growing? All peas can be eaten when they’re quite young and just really pods with itty bitty peas inside. Some varieties are meant to be harvested when the peas are a good size, shucked out of their shells and steamed to perfection with lots of butter. Peas are pleasing to the young and old alike – babies on solids can gum them and cool teenagers can eat them with ease.
To learn more, click on these links: Better Hens and Gardens and The Free Range Life can both tell you how to grow abundant pea crops. Everything Home With Carol has a great post on what you can learn from peas – life lessons in the garden, I love it!
A Bonus Vegetable for the Children’s Garden
I know – I can’t count, but I thought you’d like a bonus!! Lettuce is super easy to grow and, my favorite part, reseeds readily in my climate. That means that I allow a certain number of my lettuce plants to go to seed and then I let the seed go where it will on purpose. I get lettuce cropping up in the most random places and I love it.
Lettuce is beautiful, semi-frost hardy and tasty. I’ve gotten my kids to a point where I have them pull up a head, rinse it off, plunk it down on our table and rip off some leaves to augment their dinner. Some use dressing, some don’t. Its just their normal now. We grow loose leaf varieties like Freckles, Buttercrunch and Oakleaf. The best part about letting it reseed on its own is that its already in the garden and starts germinating at the exact right time – even if I lose one batch to severe frost in the early spring, there are other batches coming up behind. Eat all the lettuce you can before it flowers because once that happens, it turns bitter. Adding a bit of shade will stave off that process once you hit the warmer weather of summer but it wont hold it off forever. No worries, lettuce does well in the fall garden, too.
To learn more, click on these links: Schneider Peeps and Black Fox Homestead can tell you how to grow lettuce, no problem. Just for a little whimsy, here’s a post we did about our rather random gardening efforts called In the Garden of Whatever, which includes a highlight on the noble lettuce – every self sowers dream!
Space and the Five Annual Vegetables for the Children’s Garden
FYI, all these crops can be grown in pots on a sunny deck or porch – you don’t need an acre sized garden to produce food and neither do your kids! Don’t get me wrong, space is a fantastic thing to have in the children’s garden. If the only thing standing between your child and a larger garden is a pile of pallets or a broken swing set, get that stuff out of the way and expand the garden. If you’re in a small space, though, and need to know what to grow in containers, this list is still golden for you.
Tomatoes should have their own pots, in my opinion, because their root systems are such big, fat pigs BUT don’t let my opinion limit you. Green beans can be grown up a trellis against a wall and so can pumpkins. Pumpkins, however, will need to be tied to their support if you’re growing vertically so that they don’t break off their vine. Peas can be tucked in anywhere and can actually be beneficial as they fix a small amount of nitrogen into the soil in which they grow. Lettuce is little and polite in the garden and can be set in a sunny window, if you need.
Stay tuned for the next five veggies for the children’s garden – these ones are perennials, for those permanent patches where nothing much changes and you harvest for years to come.
Do you have any suggestions of things to add to our list of five annual vegetables for the children’s garden?
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