Gardening with Children: A Beginner’s Guide

Gardening in Lake County

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The end of May is a time for gardening in our family. The threat of frost is generally behind us and we are getting to work on our vegetable and flower gardens. It seems like everyone is gardening these days from city dwellers to the First Lady and everyone in between, but many people are still too intimidated to take the plunge. I’m going to give you some tips to get started and maybe even a few fun ideas for your children to participate in the process.

Gardening with Children

Vegetable Gardens

There’s nothing more satisfying than growing your own food and it’s surprisingly easier than you would think. Taking the first step can seem daunting because there are many ways to get started but here is what we did:

gardening with children
© K. Kempf | Little Lake | 2011
  • Find a sunny spot and plot out your space. Some people do 4’x4 squares whereas I have two 4’x12 rectangles. You want to be able to reach in over a small fence without face planting, so 4′ is about as wide as you want to go, but you can make it as long as you want. Or you can use containers which is a smaller commitment and easier to start.
  • Decide whether you want a raised bed or ground level. Ours is a raised bed because we wanted the area well defined. We just used some 2x4s to mark the space, and my husband built a simple box that we then placed in the aforementioned sunny spot. Many people keep it ground level with much success. Either way, you need to dig up the grass, there are lots of handy tools for this, but it will take some effort.
  • Now you need some dirt and compost to make your soil rich in nutrients which will make for a very successful garden. You can either buy in bulk from a local material supply place (we use Fairfield Material & Supply because they are very close to our house) or you can buy bags from any hardware or garden supply store but, if you have a large space or a raised bed, you may want to buy in bulk. Then rent a rototiller to mix your new dirt and compost with your current dirt in your defined space.
  • Wait a day or two for your soil to settle then start planting according to the instructions on your plants and/or seeds.
  • Put a small wire fence around your garden, also from the hardware store, if you want to keep pets and small animals away from your bounty. We didn’t do this the first few years but it has made a big difference.
gardening with kids
Last years garden about 6 weeks after planting – © K. Kempf | Little Lake | 2011

I am amazed at the variety of plants and seeds available. Herbs and tomatoes give you a huge bang for their buck because they are pricey in the stores and the flavor from your garden is far superior whereas root vegetables are usually cheap in the store yet my kids love to grow them so in they go. We buy our seeds Seeds of Change and our plants usually come from the Prairie Crossing Organic Plant Sale. Each year, I plant something a little different and this year my list is as follows:

  • Seeds
    • snap peas
    • snow peas
    • carrots
    • beets
    • potatoes
    • lettuce
    • spinach
    • onions
    • herbs
  • Plants
    • tomatoes
    • cucumbers
    • peppers
    • kale
    • chard
    • broccoli

Caring for your Garden

While planning the garden sounds like a monumental task, it’s really easy once you get past that point and kids love to help. You’ll be surprised at how well your garden grows with a little TLC and regular watering…although I have been even more surprised at how easy it has grown in years when I neglected to water. I’ll break it down into four areas: watering, weeding, plant maintenance, and harvesting.

Let’s start with watering; Plants need water of course, but you don’t need to water every day if it has rained recently or the soil looks moist. When you do water, round up the kids and several small watering cans to make the task a family affair. I love our rain barrel, which is from SWALCO (their annual rain barrel and compost bin sale is in May), mostly because it allows the kids to fill up their watering cans over and over without me worrying that we are wasting water and money. I have also been known to empty the pool with a sort of bucket brigade to the garden in the middle of the summer in my feeble attempt to conserve resources.

Weeding can be a bit trickier mostly because, if you’re anything like me, you won’t be able to tell the difference between your weeds and your plants for some time. If in doubt, leave it until you know for sure. Those carrot greens sure look like weeds but it’ll be clear to you within a few weeks. Weeding seems like a daunting chose but it’s pretty manageable although I will admit that there is a point when, once the plants are established, I tend to let the weeds (or shall I say native plants) go. Editor’s note, this is my favorite tool for weeding – especially dandelions and their impressive roots.

Plant maintenance is often overlooked, but it can make a huge difference. Make sure that you have lots of stakes and tomato cages for those tomatoes and cucumbers or anything that grows on a vine. Also, for tomatoes and other tall plants, you want a sturdy center stalk with several strong stems so be sure to prune away any shoots that split at odd places, you’ll know it when you see it. When started from seeds, you can enjoy vegetables like carrots, beets, and lettuce or spinach for the entire summer if you plant a little at a time every couple of weeks; otherwise, you may end up with a few weeks of abundance by planting everything at once. Lastly, a good rule of thumb for any plant is that it’ll continue growing as long as you pick the fruit/flowers regularly. It’s simple supply and demand so pick the veggies when they are ripe and pluck any flowers from your herbs if you want them to keep producing. And if you have a compost bin (also from SWALCO), adding compost every so often will keep your soil rich with nutrients and your plants healthy.

Now we are down to harvesting, the best part of it all. Initially, you can probably harvest once or twice a week but this becomes a daily task once September rolls around so work it into your routine. The kids get so excited when they see a new red tomato or when they watch to see how big that cucumber is today. Teaching children how to differentiate between food that is ready to pick and those which need time is always a fun task and they love to fill up that basket with food or eat it straight off the vine. You can’t get any more local than your own backyard!

gardening with children
© K. Kempf | Little Lake | 2011

Beyond the Vegetable Garden

In addition to our vegetable and herb garden, we have created a few additional spaces specifically for our children’s enjoyment. The one that has been the most fun is our sunflower garden. Watching those little seeds grow into 10′ tall stalks with large flowers on top is quite a sight. We also plant a few smaller varieties of sunflowers among the mammoths. My favorite find last year was Mexican Sunflowers which don’t look like normal sunflowers at all. They grow in bushes and have beautiful bright orange flowers that attract Monarch Butterflies by the dozens. Then, when the plants are done, you can easily collect all your sunflower seeds to eat, feed the birds, or save for next year’s garden.

gardening with children
© K. Kempf | Little Lake | 2011

You can also integrate some natural play structures into your yard. Our new sandbox has been a huge, albeit messy, hit. And it only cost $20 worth of sand and a generous friend with a plethora of wood stumps laying around. It’s great for those times when I need to tend the garden and the kids aren’t really into helping. That, along with a small patch of dirt for them to dig for worms and generally get dirty can keep the kids busy for hours on end.

My last tip is to find a friend who is willing to chat with you about gardening or even share in the process. I find it funny that many people come to me for advice yet I also have people who I turn to for help. Gardeners love to help one another since we’ve all been there. You don’t need to know everything before you start, you will gain more information and confidence every year you garden. Even if you have a decidedly black thumb, take the first step and you might just surprise yourself.

So who is gardening this year? Any tips for new gardeners?

Find more tips and events at Gardening in Lake County.

By Kristy K.
Round Lake

Kristy is the mother of two young children, who join in her quest for unique restaurants, fun places to play and a little personal sanity in the process. She does her best to teach her children healthy habits, kindness, compassion and a love of nature while also learning that sometimes we need to let go of our ideals in the name of fun.

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Gardening with Children: A Beginner’s Guide
About Melissa Haak 626 Articles
Melissa is mom to 4. She used to dream of traveling the world, now she dreams of a clean kitchen. She can be found on most social media sites as @PBinmyHair because with this much hair and four kids, you're bound to find something in it.

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