Whether your garden consists of simple pots or an entire plot for farming is not the issue. Family togetherness and enjoying the spring outdoors is! As winter gave into spring when I was growing up, my parents would spend hours planning their vegetable garden, making sketches, amending soil. My mother would determine where best to plant her tomatoes, zucchini, peppers, corn, cucumbers, beans and lettuces, and she would include me, my brothers and sisters in the process. I can still see my parents grappling with an enormous tiller, breaking up the earth and waving us down for rock removal.
Gardening makes for great family adventure and experimentation. This spring the kids and I will work on yet another garden together. We are not experts. But it’s amazing how many tricks we have learned over the course of a few seasons. March is the perfect time to begin planning your garden. Here are some family tips to help get you and yours started:
Browse through gardening books and magazines at the local library. Think about the vegetables or flowers you’d like to grow and learn about their growing habits. Visit a local nursery folks will be glad to answer your questions about proper soil, watering and growing habits. In fact, make a trip to the nursery a family field trip and introduce your children to the wide variety of available plants.
In early spring, seeds can be germinated indoors to ready them for planting. Seed starter kits are available for as little as $3, but small pots or empty egg cartons work just as well. Fill your containers with potting soil, water lightly each day and set in a southern, sunny window. The earlier you start this method, the more “sprout” you’ll have for planting. An easy way to ensure success is by purchasing small basic plants to simply pop into the ground. Available in flats, look for deep green foliage without blemishes or dried edges.
Whether vegetables or flowers, sit down with graph paper and a pencil to make a sketch of what you’re planting and where. Measure the space you have to work with and divide it up for the optimal amount of usage and variety. Use gardening books to check for companion plants (some plants will not grow well next to others). If you have the space, divvy up small 3′ by 4′ sections for different family members and let them design their own space. For instance, your 6-year-old can be in charge of green beans in her space; your 10-year-old can man the peppers. Enjoy creating your garden on paper … and then get ready to transfer your imagination to the soil!
Wear comfortable clothes just right for getting dirty. Everyone should don gardening gloves and have tools ready. Children love digging in the soil, and kid-sized tools are available in stores from hardware to mass merchandise. Start by digging up your soil, breaking up lumps of Tennessee clay and removing rocks. Even very young children can be surprisingly helpful when it comes to this part they love removing stones and can even reserve some for rock painting. Later, without the children, sprinkle a commercial fertilizer on your amended soil and then let the kids water it well. Let it sit for a day before planting. As you prepare for gardening, remember that children can dig, rake, hoe and use sticks to mark off rows with strings. They also enjoy helping you label rows with the names of different vegetables or flowers.
Refer to your sketches and show family members how far apart plants need to be spaced. Dig the first example then let the kids have a go at it. When transplanting plants from pot to earth, be especially careful with roots. You will need plenty of patience, so remember that a child’s attention span is shorter than that of an adult. If gardening becomes drudgery, it’s time for a break. Take time to enjoy the experience with your children and don’t try to get all the “chore” elements of planting done at break-neck speed. If only two plants get in the ground this time, then so be it. There will be opportunities for you to charge ahead on your own.
I’ve never met a child who didn’t like to play with a garden hose. Watering plants can be a fun activity for all ages. Be sure to teach your children the proper amounts necessary and when the best time of day for watering is. Never water a garden in full sun or risk drying out their leaves; early morning or evening is a good time. Show children how to tell whether a plant needs water or not.
By the end of March, Tennessee’s final frost of the year is usually history, but don’t attempt to plant before the ground has had a chance to warm. The type of garden you choose to grow depends on individual tastes. Some people believe that if kids help grow vegetables they may be more inclined to eat them as well. With vegetables, after everything blooms you can share in the bounty and have a garden feast. But flower gardens are a good choice, too … in time, the entire family can learn to do both!
Gardening isn’t about academics. It’s about harvests and honeybees, getting dirt under your fingernails and communing with nature. If all goes well, at the end of the season, garden-wise kids will come away with more than a fistful of beans. They’ll emerge with hands-on knowledge of how the earth works, an I-did-this-myself attitude and the awareness that gardening is not just work … it’s a family thing!
Looking for a good recipe to use with the vegetables your children help grow? Try one of these from allrecipes.com.
Want information on planting a Pizza Garden or a Salsa Garden? The University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture program (UT Extension) offers help on getting your garden started as well as what to plant for specific needs. You can download a PDF for a Pizza Garden or a Salsa Garden.