Growing your own food

Container gardening is fun and easy for kids, it gets the family outdoors, and it's educational!


By Christine Berman, M.P.H., R.D.

Dietitian

Christine Berman is a registered dietitian and co-author of Meals Without Squeals: Child Care Feeding Guide and Cookbook and Teaching Children About Food.

The first green vegetable my daughter ever willingly ate was a sugar-snap pea she picked from our garden at the age of two. I immediately saw the potential for getting her excited about vegetables through her up-close-and-personal relationship with the plants in our garden.

A garden offers a plethora of learning opportunities for kids. The four-year-old is ready to learn about the needs of plants through observation: What happens when you don't water your tomatoes? Why are those squash plants in the shade hardly growing? And why can't I pick the tops off the carrot plants and bring them to Mommy as a bouquet? She will delight in finding worms, digging in the dirt, spraying water around, and talking to her little flower friends. The older child can chart and graph plant growth, understand nutrient needs, run experiments on plants' musical tastes, and take on responsibility for an agreed-upon area of the garden.

Container Gardening: Fun & Easy for Kids

You needn't have a couple of acres at your disposal to experience the thrill of growing your own food—many vegetables and some fruits can be grown in containers quite successfully. Container gardening allows you to control soil quality for your plants, offers you easy access for cultivation and harvesting, and since most vegetables require 6 to 8 hours of full sun, you might even be able to move them around if your yard or deck tends to be shady. Conversely, if you're growing plants that are heat-sensitive, you can move them to a cooler place when it's really hot.

Before you start gardening with your child, here's a bit of advice: Keep your plans modest at first. A wooden barrel with a tomato plant or two and some basil, and perhaps another with chard or carrots or strawberries, might be fine for your first gardening adventure. You and your child want to feel successful, not overwhelmed. Learn about the soil, climatic, watering, feeding, and harvesting needs of your vegetables before you plant, not when they start to look sickly. You may want to begin with healthy-looking nursery plants rather than seeds until you feel confident that you, too, can have a green thumb.

 

Plants to tryBeans, beets, broccoli, carrots, chard, citrus trees (dwarf varieties), cucumbers, herbs, kale (dinosaur), lettuce, peas, peppers, radishes, spinach, strawberries, tomatoes. Check with your nursery or local agricultural extension agent to determine the best varieties for your climate and container needs.
ContainersLarge wooden boxes, wooden barrels, and large clay or plastic pots. Good drainage is important. Most vegetables need at least 12 inches for their roots, and more is better. Smaller pots will dry out faster.
SoilMost plants will do fine in a mixture of 2 parts garden soil, 1 part sand, and 1 part organic matter like peat moss or well-rotted (fine) compost. Carrots prefer sandier soil—give them 1 part garden soil, 2 parts sand, and 2 parts compost. Commercial potting mixes can dry out quickly and don't offer many nutrients.
WaterWater until it drains from the holes at the bottom of the pot—and in the heat of summer you may need to water daily.
FertilizerYour container plants will need a steady supply of nutrients in order to thrive. Ask your garden center for recommendations for an organic fertilizer.
Pest and disease preventionAn ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure…
  • Keep the area around the plants clean and remove diseased plants or leaves.
  • Keep your plants appropriately fed and watered. Healthy plants are more resistant to disease.
  • Encourage birds, lizards, toads, and ladybugs to live in your garden—they eat the bad guys.
  • While doing your daily rounds, look for and pick off snails, slugs, beetles, and caterpillars like the tomato hornworm. This is a perfect job for kids—they actually like touching bugs! Blast aphids from your plants with a hose.
  • Berries may need netting overhead to keep birds from getting to the fruit before you do!

Suggested reference book: Vegetable Gardening from Sunset Books, Inc., Menlo Park, CA. This book gives thorough information on the needs of various plants, discusses fertilizers, soils, and pest control—pictures of creepy-crawlies included!