Our family loves working in the garden, but it wasn’t easy to convince our daughters that planting vegetable seeds was a great family adventure. In fact, the combination of “work” and “vegetables” seemed guaranteed to provoke horror in our children. What did the trick was a simple question: “Do you want some pizza?”
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My husband and I have gardened with our two daughters from the day they were old enough to hold their tiny trowels. Every year we plant a garden with a theme that they choose – usually a food they are eager to eat. They each get to plant, water, and weed their very own corner of the garden. And when harvest time rolls around, they pick their edible treasures and eat them with delight, often while still standing in the garden bed. My kids know that if they put in the hard work that gardening entails, they’ll get to eat a lot more of their favorite foods when summer comes.
I usually know exactly when to start our spring crops, but this year is different because we live in new and unfamiliar gardening territory. My family and I relocated from sunny Los Angeles to Virginia — a place with real winters and plenty of snow (at least this year.) Once spring finally arrived, weren’t sure how to start gardening in this new foodshed, but we had a plan.
These top 10 tips for planting a family-friendly garden have made our gardens more productive and our kids more excited about growing their own food.
1. Ask yourself, “What do my kids like to eat?” Then name your garden after your child’s favorite food.
There’s no point in having a bumper crop of squash if your kids hate squash. My daughters love pizza, so we started a pizza garden this year, but a salsa garden or a spaghetti garden will work just as well. Don’t worry if your garden’s name isn’t entirely accurate. If you start a spaghetti garden, you will think, “tomatoes, basil, onions.” Your kids will think, “SPAGHETTI!!!” It’s a win-win.
2. Do your homework.
Unless you’re already an experienced gardener, taking a family-friendly class or doing a bit of online research can make your gardening project go much more smoothly. Nothing ruins a kid’s budding enthusiasm for gardening like a patch of brown dead plants. Local plant nurseries and Master Gardeners often teach free classes on vegetable gardening. If looking online, check out University of Illinois Extension’s fun introduction to gardening with kids.
3. Find the right spot for your garden.
Choose a location that gets sunlight throughout the day. If you’re lucky enough to have a bit of land available for planting, check the location for good drainage and accessibility to water. If you’re planting a container garden, consider using a self-watering container, which you can buy or make yourself.
4. Get to know your soil.
Whether you plant your garden in a container or in the ground, good soil quality and proper drainage can make or break a garden. Adding a soil conditioner like manure, compost, or peat moss to your resident dirt can help drainage and give your vegetable plants much-needed nutrients.
5. Start now — or as soon as the last danger of frost has passed in your area.
It’s easy to put off starting a garden, but if you want the best plant selection, you need to start early in the growing season. Many nurseries and small-scale growers have a limited amount of the most popular plant varieties, especially herbs and tomatoes.
6. Pick plants thoughtfully.
Select plants best suited to your environment and garden space. Areas with hard frosts need hearty specimens that will survive lower temperatures. Choose drought-tolerant plants in Mediterranean climates. There are even vegetable varieties made specifically for container gardens. Planting the right varieties can mean the difference between a disappointing family project and a huge harvest.
7. Visit your local farmers market.
Farmers markets have already started for the season in most parts of the country and there is usually at least one vendor selling herbs and vegetable seedlings at every market. Local farmers are an underused (and often under-valued) resource for helping you choose varieties of plants that will be heartiest — and tastiest — in your climate. Farmers and growers can also help you solve problems related to pesky bugs and plant diseases prevalent in your area.
8. Keep a gardening journal.
I’ve followed my grandfather’s tradition of keeping an old yearly diary as a lifelong gardening journal (Thomas Jefferson did the same thing). I write the date I plant and harvest each crop, noting which varieties of plants did best. I look back on this journal each spring to see when it’s time to plant. My kids enjoy comparing our plant journal with this year’s crops.
9. Water your garden regularly.
Sporadic or inadequate watering stresses plants. If you want beautiful produce, you must water plants regularly, especially during hot weather. Create a watering chart to help your kids remember to water their garden. Consider hiring a garden-sitter to water your garden if you’re away from home for more than a few days in hot summer months. (We asked a friend to water our garden for a week last summer in exchange for all the produce she could eat.)
10. Get ready to work, but take time to enjoy your garden.
Raising a garden is like raising kids in many ways. It’s a lot of work, it’s more expensive than you think it will be, and it almost never turns out the way you expect. But it will be rewarding in ways you never considered. As rewarding as seeing your vegetable-hating daughter gobble handfuls of homegrown sugar snap peas.
Main photo: Planting a pizza garden in the backyard. Credit: Susan Lutz