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Kiddie crops

Discover a bounty of joy when you give kids their first taste of gardening

The long days of summer are the perfect time to get your hands dirty in the garden. Kids love to be outside and planning a food garden as a family is a great way to reduce your grocery bill, get some exercise and create lasting memories.

“For kids to grow something they can eat is very rewarding and empowering. They learn the connection between plants and their own food,” says Spokane Master Gardener Sue Malm.

Don’t worry if you haven’t started your garden yet. “The way our season is going, late June is fine,” says fellow Master Gardener Phyllis Ward.

There’s still time to plant potatoes, pole or bush beans, mini-pumpkins and zucchini. You can also set out tomato, pepper and herb plants. Fall crops like lettuce, spinach and baby bok choy can be started in late summer or early fall.

Choosing a garden

“Start small and keep it simple,” Malm says.

Let young children sow a row of something sure-fire like radishes, she suggests.

“A child as young as 3 can sow seeds if they are large enough,” says Malm. Beans, peas, pumpkin, squash, cucumber, sunflower and nasturtium seeds are easy for small fingers to hold.

If space is a constraint, consider a container garden. Don’t spend a lot of money on fancy pots; many household items can be recycled into whimsical planters that will catch a child’s attention.

A worn-out rubber boot, leaky watering can, gardening shoe or even an old cardboard box are all low-cost ways to ease into gardening.

Theme gardens can be designed around a child’s interest. A tea party garden might feature a tea kettle or pot surrounded by chamomile, lavender, lemon balm, spearmint and strawberry plants. Make sure to have a table and chairs for backyard tea parties. Design a pizza-lover’s garden with tomatoes, basil and oregano for the perfect sauce.

Jefferson Montessori teacher Sharon Bowman works with fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade students in the school’s garden, located in Manito Park. Allowing students to help in deciding what to grow gives them a sense of ownership, she says.

“They use graph paper and make a scale drawing of the garden,” Bowman says. Figuring out how many plants to plant and how to space them is a way for kids to practice math skills.

Using all the senses

With appealing scents and colors, chocolate basil and cherry tomatoes are big hit with the students, says Bowman. Look for fragrant herbs like lemon thyme, chocolate mint, chives and dill that kids can touch, smell and taste. Fresh herbs can be added to salads, pasta dishes or simply eaten straight from the garden.

Potatoes are popular with the 150 students who take part in the program, Bowman says. In the fall, the students enjoy making potato salad and stuffed baked potatoes.

Digging up potatoes is like a treasure hunt for kids, she says, and colorful varieties like purple Peruvian and Red Thumb add to the visual appeal. Purple beans, white Baby Boo pumpkins and colorful rainbow chard are other fun choices.

The feel and smell of the earth are important too.

“It’s OK to get dirty,” reminds Ward. Give kids a magnifying glass and let them look for worms, centipedes and lady bugs: “They learn about living creatures and the role they play in nature.”

Here are some family-friendly gardening activities to get you started:

Brown Bag Potatoes

Courtesy of Phyllis Ward

Take a doubled brown paper grocery sack and fill it one-third full with potting soil. Plant a small seed potato in the bag. Add soil as the plant grows to keep the potato plant covered halfway up but leaving leaves exposed. Water as needed to keep moist.

(Try Northwest Seed and Pet for seed potatoes at 2422 E. Sprague Ave., 534-0694.)

Pole Bean Tepee

Courtesy of Sue Malm and Phyllis Ward

Insert a dozen 6-foot bamboo poles in a circular pattern into the soil, tying the tops together to make a tepee. Between two of the poles, leave a space large enough to crawl through. Sow pole bean seeds around the base. As the beans grow, they will climb up the poles and cover the tepee, making a great playhouse for kids.

Vegetable Necklaces

Courtesy of Sue Malm and Phyllis Ward

Take a large, plastic embroidery needle and thread it with a string or dental floss long enough for a necklace. Use raw vegetables such as sliced radishes, peppers, carrots, zucchini, cherry tomatoes and beans for “beads.” Harder vegetables might need to be pre-drilled to make it easier for younger children.

Freezer Jam

Look for Ball Instant Fruit Pectin at local grocery stores. Mix it with sugar and crushed berries (recipes on box) for a tasty, no-cook jam so simple and safe that even the youngest child can help.

Personality Pots

Courtesy of Sue Malm and Phyllis Ward

If you don’t have room outside for a garden, these little pots are the perfect solution. Have children draw a face on a Styrofoam cup using crayons. Poke three drainage holes in the bottom of the cup and fill it with potting soil. Heavily sow seeds of creeping thyme, chamomile, radish seeds and alfalfa; this will be the hair. Water the seeds and place the cup into a plastic bag and set it in a warm spot. After the seeds germinate, remove the plastic bag and keep the pot in a warm place. As the “hair” grows, kids can trim it into shape or style it with ribbons.

Garden Journals

From “Simple Gardening Fun,” by Jacqueline Clemens.

Buy a blank notebook and have kids keep a record of what they planted and when. Attach the seed packets to the journal, and track the progress of the garden with drawings or photos. Note problems, list favorites and identify insects. Use the journal to guide next year’s garden.

Salad Party

From “Simple Gardening Fun”

Plan your garden with a variety of colors and sizes of lettuce, spinach, carrots, radishes and herbs. Let the kids help harvest the vegetables and arrange the washed produce on the table, buffet-style. Provide sunflower seeds, nuts, whole-grain croutons, raisins and other healthy toppings. Put out a simple vinaigrette dressing and let each guest create his or her own salad. If you don’t have a garden, visit the farmers market for salad supplies.

Herb Dip

Courtesy of Sue Malm. Set out a few dips and dressings with a selection of raw veggies and let the kids invite some friends over for a “tasting party.”

8 ounces cream cheese

1 to 2 tablespoons freshly chopped herbs like basil, cilantro, parsley and chives

1 to 2 teaspoons milk

½ teaspoon lemon juice, optional

Salt and pepper to taste

Mix the cream cheese and herbs together. Thin with a little milk and add a few drops of lemon juice to taste. Season with salt and pepper.

Yield: About ½ cup

Veggie Bites

From the Gold Medal Flour Alpha-Bakery Children’s Cookbook.

1/3 cup margarine or butter, melted

1 egg

2 teaspoons water

½ cup all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon salt

2 cups fresh vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, ¼-inch carrot slices, ½-inch zucchini or pepper slices)

Grated Parmesan (optional)

Heat the oven to 450 degrees. Brush bottom of a 9- by 13-inch pan with about 1 tablespoon of the melted margarine.

Beat egg and water with a fork in a shallow dish. Mix flour and salt in another shallow dish.

Dip about ¼ of the vegetables into egg mixture. Remove one vegetable piece at a time with slotted spoon, fork or hands; roll in flour mixture to coat. Place in pan. Repeat with remaining vegetables. Pour remaining margarine carefully over each vegetable piece and into pan.

Bake uncovered, turning once until vegetables are crisp-tender and coating is golden brown, about 10-12 minutes. Sprinkle lightly with grated cheese if desired.

Yield: 2 cups

Sheila Pickles

Courtesy of Sheila Domon, a Spokane-area Master Canner, who says, “Making pickles is the perfect thing to do with kids.” Younger kids can add garlic and peppers to the jars; older kids can measure out mustard seeds and help cram the cucumbers. Pickles are nonfat, low in sugar and make a great, healthy snack. Also try carrots, beets and green beans.

17-18 pounds pickling cucumbers (fresh picked, small)

2 gallons 5 percent brine solution (mix 3/4 cup pickling salt per gallon of water)

6 cups white vinegar

3/4 cup pickling salt

9 cups water

2 tablespoons whole pickling spices bundled into a cloth bag or spice ball

2 or more garlic cloves per quart jar

2 teaspoons whole mustard seed per quart jar

1 dried hot pepper per quart jar (optional)

3 large heads fresh dill per quart jar

Wash cucumbers and scrub with vegetable brush.  Place in a nonreactive pot and cover with brine. Set in fridge overnight. Drain.

Combine vinegar, salt, water and spice ball. Heat to boiling.

In each quart jar, put garlic cloves, mustard seed, pepper (if using) and dill. Pack cucumbers into the jars tightly.  Cover cucumbers with the boiling liquid to within 1/4 inch of the top.

Clean the rims and place clean, new, hot lids on and close them. Process in a boiling water bath for 15 minutes. Remove from kettle and let set without disturbing until cool.  Check seals. Pickles will be ready in a few weeks.

Yield: 7 to 9 one-quart jars

Garden Coleslaw

Courtesy of Sharon Bowman, Jefferson Montessori School.

¾ cup mayonnaise

½ cup red wine vinegar

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

2 teaspoons brown sugar

½ teaspoon dill

Salt and pepper to taste

8 cups thinly sliced red and green cabbage

1 cup grated carrots

1/3 cup chopped green onions

½ cup chopped bell peppers

Combine the first six ingredients with a wire whisk to make the dressing. Combine the vegetables in a large bowl. Add the dressing and serve.

Yield: About 8 cups.

Kirsten Harrington is a Spokane freelance writer and can be reached at