Vegetable patches for children

Written by francine kaplan
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Nothing tastes better than veggies you’ve grown

Vegetable patches for children
When you involve your kids, a garden yields much more than just fruits and veggies. (Jupiterimages/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images)

Children can thrive and come to life in a garden; it builds confidence and self-esteem.

— Lee Coykendall, children’s education specialist

On the surface, it’s a straightforward proposition with an obvious goal: Take your child outside, dig a few holes and drop in vegetable seeds. Watch them grow, then harvest and eat the results. But the positive effects of gardening will ripple through that child’s entire life. Research has revealed that children who grow what they eat are more aware of nutrition and prefer fruits and vegetables over other foods. Teenagers who garden eat more fruits and vegetables than their friends do and continue to do so over their entire lives, a practice that can prevent or delay chronic diseases. Other benefits include improved interest in the environment, better marks on science tests and better mental health.

Start them early

It's never too early or too late to get kids started in the garden. But whether your children are toddlers, tweens or teens, all experts support a few general rules.

Perhaps the most important is that the garden should be a no-stress zone. “Children can thrive and come to life in a garden; it builds confidence and self-esteem,” said Lee Coykendall, children’s education specialist. “There’s no pass/fail here and no marks.”

Adults must be ready to give up some control and allow children to make their own mistakes in the garden. That might mean that the rows of lettuce are uneven or a plant might die, but giving a child ownership is a powerful statement of trust.

“My advice is to keep it fun and keep it in perspective,” said Roger Doiron, founding director of Kitchen Gardeners International.

It might be necessary to use restraint when considering the size of your garden. First-timers tend to be overly ambitious and get swept away in the excitement of that first visit to buy seeds or seedlings.

Remember that all summer long, you must water and weed what you plant, so start small. Success in planting a half-barrel with cherry tomatoes or lettuce might be all that is needed to show younger children the way.

What to plant

Several schools of thought exist on how to decide what to plant, but give children a chance to choose some foods they like. After that, you might consider vegetables that germinate quickly, meaning they break through the ground in just a few weeks.

Quick results are especially good for young ones with short attention spans. It’s a sure bet that they will be hooked as soon as they see plants coming up where they put seeds in the ground. Favourites that pop up quickly include snap beans, radishes and lettuces.

For older children, work backward from the kitchen. What do they like to eat? In her children’s garden book “Roots, Shoots, Buckets & Boots,” author Sharon Lovejoy promotes themed gardens. For example, a Mexican garden will yield ingredients for salsa and pico de gallo.

Another option is Italian flavours. “Everybody loves pizza, so think about a pizza garden,” Lovejoy said. “Plant oregano and basil, plum and cherry tomatoes, bell peppers, onion and garlic, and have a do-it-yourself pizza party.”

Lovejoy's advice is to plant this garden in the round. Divide a circular plot into triangular “pizza” slices, growing one crop in each slice. “It’s amazing to watch children discover that tomato sauce grows in the ground and doesn’t come from a jar,” Lovejoy said. Another garden-to-table dish is pesto. Harvest basil and garlic and make a batch of pesto sauce to put on spaghetti or sandwiches.

Trying something out of the ordinary adds an element of anticipation or surprise to your garden experience. Potatoes are simple to grow, either from eyes or plants, but consider exploring interesting varieties. Different shapes, such as fingerling or marble potatoes, or unusual colours, like purple- or blue-fleshed spuds, add excitement to a dinner plate.

Garden location

Putting a garden in the right place is the key to keeping children involved. Locate it too far away, and it might be forgotten. “Make it convenient,” said Doiron. “The closer it is to your kitchen door, the better.”

Children need to easily interact with their garden, to walk by and pull a weed, discover a new shoot or notice what needs watering. Lovejoy encourages garden snacking and keeps an old colander near the garden for harvesting a handful of berries or grape tomatoes. Carrots and radishes can be pulled up, rinsed off and eaten for a healthy snack without ever opening a cupboard or refrigerator door.

“Wash fruits and vegetables off outside under the spigot, and then again when you bring them indoors,” Lovejoy advised. (Be sure to wash garden produce with water from the spigot, not a garden hose, which can harbour harmful bacteria.)

Not having enough space shouldn’t be an excuse to bypass the garden experience. You can grow fruits and vegetables in your garden, but you can also scratch the garden itch in a pot on a sunny windowsill, small balcony or in a community garden. You might even check local listings for summer gardening camps for kids.

Tools for tots

Keeping children active and interested can be as easy as providing them with the right tools. When they’re starting out in the garden, young ones can have a blast with a big spoon. As they develop the gardening bug, child-size trowels, shovels and hoes might increase kids' enthusiasm. Gardening hats and gloves also come in mini-versions, and a small watering can could become your child’s favourite plaything.

Ethan Bergman, a registered dietitian, has proof that including his young children in the planning, planting and care of the family vegetable garden had a lasting impact. “Today, two of them have their own gardens as young adults,” Bergman said with obvious pride. “The other works in large gardens that grow vegetables for the local farmer’s market.”

While they’re working in the garden, children are being physically active, learning about growth cycles, weather and seasons, avoiding televisions and computers, and forging close bonds with you. The nutritional lessons of the garden are not found in textbooks or lesson plans, but in a child’s natural delight at discovering where food comes from and how good it tastes when it’s grown by their own efforts.

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