Chris Velden doesn’t get to cook many green beans these days. “The kids always pick them and eat them right away,” he says with a deep-throated laugh.
The Veldens’ young daughters, Lola and Adelina, are involved in every part of the family’s vegetable garden, from selecting what grows in the raised beds, to putting the seeds and seedlings in the ground and harvesting the results.
“It’s a lot of fun,” says Velden. “They like it, and it’s probably increased their vegetable consumption too.”
For many kids, gardening is becoming a regular part of growing up. As parents think more about – and move towards – local and sustainable lifestyles, they are increasingly interested in showing their children where food comes from and how it is produced.
“As a mom, I understand how important it is to try and connect your children with nature,” says Karen Achenbach, Horticultural Manager at the Historic Gardens in Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia. “My children are grown now but I found that gardening was an excellent way to have them learn and experience the interaction between many forms of life and the earth.”
Velden agrees. He’s noticed his children have a different impression of food, especially vegetables, now that they grow it themselves. For him, a critical element of keeping kids interested and engaged is making it fun.
“Don’t be overly structured. Kids want to have a free spirit, let them do their thing. They like to get dirty – so let them!” He advises parents not to be too focused on having a neat garden with straight, organized rows. “In the end it doesn’t matter if the carrots are mixed in with the beans. It should just be fun.”
Even weeding can be an adventure if you go about it the right way, says Achenbach. Give children tasks like watering and think about setting aside one area of the garden just for them. “Giving children their own little space is helpful in many ways. They can develop a sense of ownership and it helps those of us who expect a more structured garden to appreciate crooked rows.”
She recommends keeping to a time limit and not trying to accomplish too much during the hottest parts of the day. “And always be on the lookout for the creatures of the garden,” she encourages. “Bugs can be fascinating – ladybug larvae are cool!” Developing an area specifically for butterflies and pollinators is another way to keep children interested and teach them about beneficial relationships in nature.
Achenbach suggests plants that have large, easy to handle seeds, such as peas, beans and nasturtiums. “I [also] find that seeds such as radish or cress, which germinate really quickly, give a more immediate sense of accomplishment. Although it is important for children to learn patience, it’s nice to not have to wait too long,” she says.
Patience is something Miyako Ballesteros and her teenage daughter, Karen, learned in their garden in Bedford, Nova Scotia. Miyako teaches classes in the Japanese art of flower arranging at her urban store, the Ikebana Shop. Although Karen originally dreamed of planting an English garden, Miyako is more interested in growing dogwoods, rhododendrons, forsythias and other plants with branches she can use in her arrangements.
“The deer come and eat the flowers, so it’s not really going that well,” says Karen, who uses the Internet to research plants suited to the Atlantic climate. In spite of the difficulties, Karen is hoping for better results this year. She is sketching her ideas on paper and waiting to see what survived. “If they don’t come back we should start again,” she says.
Deirdre Evans, a Halifax mother of two and author of an urban gardening blog, also learned through trial and error. Six years ago, Evans and her husband moved to Halifax from Toronto, where they had a lush backyard. Like many transplants, they had to make adjustments to accommodate the cooler weather and shorter growing season of the Maritimes, but have found a formula that works.
She recommends choosing plants that kids will want to eat. Sons Oscar, 8, and Thomas, 6, help her tend to four raised vegetable beds as well as a perennial flower garden at their Halifax home. Oscar and Thomas favour peas, cucumbers, strawberries and a colourful tomato variety known as Tiny Tim, which give small, sweet fruits.
Evans says having your soil tested is very important, especially in certain areas of the city that may have previously had industrial uses. Based on the results, the soil can be amended with such things as composted manure to encourage better growth. (Contact the provincial department of agriculture for more information about its easily accessible testing program.)
“The raised beds give us most of our produce throughout the summer,” Evans says. “We’ve noticed a huge difference between what grows in the beds [where they use compost] and what grows outside. We can have strawberries that grow in the garden that are the size of a marble, but the ones that come from the raised beds are the size of a golf ball.”
Evans says her boys spend most of their time in the garden in the summer. “They go out and pick and eat everything, even raw zucchini. The first time I saw that I said, ‘Are you really eating that?’”
Gardening, cooking and shopping all become lessons for Elisabeth Bailey, who home-schools her seven-year-old son Charlie in Lunenburg. “Charlie helps to the extent that his interest allows,” she says. “I don’t push more or he’ll dislike it.”
Charlie has his own area of the garden where he plans to grow peas and other vegetables. Last year he appreciated growing his own jack-o-lantern, so this year mother and son plan to grow a variety of pumpkin known to produce huge fruit. They are planting their Dill’s Atlantic Giant in the front yard, so that the jack-o-lantern can be carved in place. “It’ll be so big that Mommy can’t lift it,” Charlie says brightly.
This story originally ran in the May 2012 issue of ‘Our Children’ magazine.
The Historic Gardens in Annapolis Royal hosts special workshops and events for kids, but young ones can get involved at home with these simple tips:
- Choose the right seeds. Select plants that have large seeds that are easy to handle for young children. Peas, beans and nasturtiums are good choices. “I find also that seeds such as radish or cress that germinate really quickly give a more immediate sense of accomplishment,” says Achenbach. Try unusual varieties of common vegetables (purple carrots, orange cauliflower), flowers with animal names (snapdragons, turtlehead), or sunflowers, which Achenbach says “grow fast and huge” to excited a child’s imagination.
- Mix in some transplants for an instant garden. “Although I think it is important for children to learn patience, it’s nice to not have to wait too long,” says Achenbach. Transplants, she says, don’t have the ‘magic’ of seeds, but they give kids another opportunity to get their hands dirty and learn about how plants grow. Kids will see a plant’s roots, giving them an opportunity to understand what happens after the seed begins to grow.
- Make gardening fun. “Even weeding can be an adventure if you go about it the right way,” Achenbach says, though she admits that her own kids might disagree. She suggests keeping to a time limit and not trying to accomplish too much when it’s very hot. “Let them water plants,” she advises. “Kids love watering cans and hoses.” Also make it fun by planting into unusual containers such as old rubber boots or blown-out soccer balls.
- Give kids a space of their own. “Giving children their own little space is helpful in many ways. They can develop a sense of ownership and it helps those of us who expect a more structured garden to appreciate crooked rows,” Achenbach says. “Always be on the lookout for the creatures of the garden.
- Bug out! Insects can be fascinating for little ones. Talk to them about the different kinds of bugs, what their roles are, and the difference between pests and beneficials, such as pollinators and butterflies. Developing a garden area specifically for butterflies and pollinators is also a way to keep children interested.