Is it possible to start a garden with toddlers?
Help! My children think all food is fruit snacks, chicken nuggets and goldfish crackers. How do I teach them where real food comes from?
I want my children to know where food comes from, but I live in a city. What can I do in my small space?
Why should I start a garden this year?
Why we chose to garden:
Children in America face a challenge with health and their relationship with food as a society pushes us to spend less time outdoors, more time in front of screens and ultimately less connected to nature than our grandparent’s generation. After all, what is many of our toddlers favorite snacks? The coveted goldfish crackers that have replaced the Cherrios of our day. My children enjoy these snacks, too. Still, I hope to teach them early on to appreciate where their food comes from.
It’s February here, we just said “Bye-bye” to the snowman we built after an unexpected snowstorm. Already my children and I are planning our garden for this year. It’ll be our fourth year gardening as a family. We started with the suburbia lawn that I partially dug up by hand with a spade so I could remove as much Bermuda grass from my garden area (did I mention I’m a farm girl at heart?) We have expanded our space some each year until we’ve reached the maximum full-sun space that is still manageable for gardening with little helpers.
I’ve outlined how to garden in eight easy steps where your children no matter their ages can be involved in each step. Some of my favorite childhood memories are gardening, being barefoot in the soil as I dove after potatoes as my dad uncovered them in the fall. It’s okay if you don’t know how to garden yet, the steps are simple to follow throughout the year.
How to Garden in 8 Easy Steps:
Step 1: Evaluate your gardening space
How much space do you have to devote to growing vegetables, herbs, flowers and fruits? In this space, map the sun patterns. Does the space get full sun in the morning, mid-day, afternoon or evening? Record if it is full or partial sun. Keep in mind the sun’s pattern may change throughout the growing season as nearby trees will gain foliage and as the seasons change the path the sun takes over your space may shift some.
Will you be digging an in-ground garden? Are you considering doing a raised bed garden? Are you restricted to patio containers?
Step 2: Choose the plants you’d like to consider growing.
What vegetables do your family enjoy eating most? Will you be gardening with young children? If so, consider some options that are quick harvest time and plants that provide continuous harvest such as herbs, peas, tomatoes and flowers such as zinnias or marigolds. My two year old son thinks tomato plants grow little balls so I plant a cherry tomato plant basically for his enjoyment. He also loves touching the plants and smelling the different herbs.
Step 3: Plan where each plant goes in the garden.
Plan where each item can be planted. Be sure to note how much growing area the plants actually need. I’ve been guilty of thinking tomatoes surely didn’t need 2-3 feet between each plant and the result was a jungle I had to send my kids under to pick the ripe ones from underneath the center of the jungle. If you have your plants cramped it can make them more susceptible to pests and disease. Make note too if the plants are bush or vine, if they need stakes or a trellis. Also, keep in mind some like tomatoes grow taller and will provide shade at some points of the day as the sun shifts direction, so plan your short, tall and vining plants accordingly.
Step 4: How to prepare your soil.
For any new gardening space especially it is a good idea to have a soil test done so you can knowledgeably give yourself the best advantage in having a successful garden. Your local cooperative or county extension office may provide soil tests at little to no charge. They’ll provide kits you can mail your soil sample to and they’ll give you a list of suggested amendments to your soil depending on what you plan to grow. Allow for processing time and know that you generally have to submit dry soil.
If you’re a DIYer, there are home kits available at gardening stores for you to test yourself which are handy if you forget to mail out a sample soon enough. If you need help finding out the resources in your area, your local gardening centers are a great start. There is also likely a local gardening group on Facebook because each region has different soil types and planting seasons.
Once you know your soil test results you can work on any needed amendments to your garden soil. Mixing in compost, manure, lime or other fertilizers can help improve your chance of success.
Step 5: Prepare your seedlings.
Here at Days for Learning we’re a fan of the winter sowing method. We share our “How to Winter Sow a Garden in 8 Easy Steps” here. Check out our video that walks you through this method. For us it’s a fun way to involve our children in the entire gardening process to learn about plant life cycle. Planting your own is also cheaper than buying all professional nursery starts. Plus, you can have more variety if you want. There is nothing wrong with starting with starts from a nursery, farmer’s market vendor or a master gardener.
Step 6: Plant.
If you are planting multiple types of seeds or plants, then it’s helpful to have a calendar notated on when suggested planting times are for each plant. The Old Farmer’s Almanac is a trusted resource. Often times the seed packets show maps indicating suggested planting times. Some seeds require cold stratification. If you are winter sowing outside, nature will do the cold stratification. If not, putting the seeds in the refrigerator for a few days will simulate the cold prior to planting them. Some plants are easier started as seedlings then transplanted while some like sunflowers or squash are not fans of transplanting.
If your children are helping, then this is probably the step they’re most excited for, so prepare yourself for uneven rows sown with excitement! My children get so excited and beg for seeds if I take a packet out during our playtime. I’ve found random tomato plants determined to grow in the middle of the lawn and I’ve given up on the picture perfect rows. It’s worth it because they’re getting their hands in the soil. They’re learning where food comes from by growing it themselves.
Step 7: Harvest. Water. Mulch. Weed. Fertilize.
Tending daily to needs of the plants takes effort and time, but is well worth it. Sharing the excitement of your first bucketful of produce. Enjoying the fresh cut flowers from your own yard. Garnishing your plates with herbs and edible flowers grown outside your door. Your children will be so excited to help pick your produce possibly even before it’s ripe!
Make your life easier and mulch your plants well. It’ll help you not have to water as frequently and reduce the amount of weeding you have to do. If you are doing an in ground garden, putting layers of plain cardboard from recycled boxes (not ones with printed ink) around your plants in the rows this will help keep the weeds at bay. Moreover, the worms like cardboard so they’ll break it down for you as the season progresses. You can put a thin layer of mulch on top for aesthetics. If you plan to use soaker hoses for watering, make sure to lay these out and test them before you layer the mulch.
Step 8: Keep a gardening journal.
Keeping a gardening journal will be helpful so you can remember when you planted each item, when you can anticipate seedlings and when to anticipate harvest. Plus, if your kids are like mine and move the marker stakes, it’s helpful to have some notes reminding me where I’ve already planted and I’m just waiting for sprouts.
You can also keep track of when you’ve added fertilizer or if you’ve had to use any pesticides that would affect your ability to harvest for a period of time.
What have your gardening experiences been? What are you most excited to try growing this year? Comment below.