The third- and fourth-graders from Longfellow Elementary School in Spokane surrounded a big tube soil. The looks on their faces were skeptical. What do you mean there are potatoes in there?
Six sets of hands hesitantly dug into the dirt. All of a sudden, a hand brought up a round, red-skinned potato. Eyes got big. There are potatoes in there! After that it might as well have been the California Gold Rush all over again as they dug for the treasure. This is the joy of gardening with children. When their skepticism is overcome by the joy of discovery, it’s magical.
To garden with children, start with a raised bed or several large pots filled with good-quality compost or potting mix. If you start with ordinary dirt, you stand a chance of failure, and the children might think it’s their fault and that will shake their confidence.
Put the garden in a sunny place they can easily access to see what’s happening.
To decide what to plant, ask them about their favorite vegetables. This always leads to some interesting answers, some of which aren’t going to be practical. If the idea is far-fetched, break it down into manageable pieces. If they want to grow a pizza, then discuss what vegetables they like on their pizza. Tomatoes, onions, green peppers and sage are all easy to grow in a garden. This can be their pizza garden. This combination can also make a salsa garden.
At this point in the spring it’s too late to start tomatoes and peppers under lights so plan on buying transplants at the garden store. Just be aware vegetable plants are in high demand this year so purchase them early and keep them watered in a frost-free place with good light.
Patience isn’t always an attribute in children, so plant fast-growing crops they can have success with.
A salad garden of several kinds of lettuce, radishes and spinach planted in a couple of weeks will be ready by early June. Plant edible pod sugar peas when you plant your salad garden, and the children can expect to be snacking on them by late June.
Bush beans planted in late May will be ready in late July. These plants only get about 2 feet tall which makes them easy to pick. Then there are the zucchini and summer squash around late July. Lay in a supply of ranch dressing for dipping the cut-up squash in.
If you have early elementary-aged children, use vegetables that have big seeds like squash, peas, beans and corn that little fingers can manage. Plan on doing some thinning as children this age don’t always understand spacing requirements. Also plan on some of the crop getting pulled up early because somebody wanted to know if their vegetable was ripe yet.
Above all else, don’t let your sense of neatness or correct planting technique get in the way. Let the kids make it theirs. You take care of the watering and fertilizing.