Growing edible produce with children is a fantastic way to help them learn about all sorts of things, from life cycles to how food is grown, to healthy eating.
Spring is a good time to start thinking about which things you might want to have go at growing with your children. We grow a variety of vegetables, fruits and herbs with the childminding children every year – all with varying degrees of success. (All of the things I mention here have been grown in a coastal area of northern England where it quite exposed and rains A LOT! I have chosen plants that should do well anywhere, but you may need to experiment a little to find plants that will thrive where you live.)
I never use any pesticides of any sort – I don’t want to risk such nasty chemicals around children, and they are utterly terrible for nature. Therefore all of our produce is shared with the wildlife in our garden – whether they have been invited to or not! Don’t worry too much if you only manage to grow small amounts of wonky veg. The main thing is having a go, having fun and helping the children learn a bit about growing food.
1.Potatoes. These have to be some of the easiest vegetables to grow as they are not fussy about where they grow. We have grown potatoes in special potato bags, half filled compost bags and even buckets! You can experiment with ‘rooty’ shop bought potatoes but ones that you buy from garden centres are a little better as they are treated to prevent rot, etc. You can usually buy a large bag of these for less than £5 which also makes them very economical.
2. Carrots. We have never had amazing success at growing beautiful large carrots, but we have always managed to grow something. I like to get special seed mixes of multicoloured carrots as the children are always amazed when they pull up orange, yellow, white and purple carrots! Carrots are a bit funny about being handled so I would avoid ready grown seedlings if you are planting with toddlers – they are just too easy to damage! Instead let the children sprinkle seeds on compost in a tub. You can then thin out the seedlings later if you want to. (Especially if you have children like mine that ‘sprinkle’ (aka dump!) all their seeds in one corner leaving the rest of the soil completely bare!) Tip: leave a good couple of inches between the top of the soil and the top of your container. This helps prevent your carrots getting ‘carrot fly’, a kind of pest that will only fly at certain heights meaning leaving a gap hides your carrots from them – weird but true!
3. Peas are fairly easy to grow and come in lots of different varieties. You can buy seedlings or seeds from a garden centre. You can even grow peas using whole dried peas bought from the dried food aisle of the supermarket. (Something I discovered during lockdown when you were not allowed to go out to the garden centre.) Although these do not tend to be as sweet as other varieties this is an excellent way to grow peas on a budget! If you have lots of hungry slugs and snails in your garden wait until your pea plants are a little larger before planting them outside to give them a fighting chance. Peas need plenty of watering to grow nice fat pods, but the children will love picking and eating the sweet raw peas. (Very few of ours actually make inside as they get eaten as soon as they are picked!)
4. Cabbage. If you want to explore the life cycle of the butterfly in a natural ‘free range’ way I recommend planting cabbages! We have grown endless amounts of caterpillars and butterflies this way! However if you fancy your chances at actually being able to eat some of your cabbages I recommend trying the following. These methods are not completely fool (caterpillar) proof but at least you will stand a fighting chance!
- Cover your cabbages with very fine butterfly netting (ask at your garden centre or look on-line.) Make sure the netting does not touch the cabbages as butterflies can be very sneaky about laying caterpillar eggs through the netting. Believe me I know. My husband built as a special ‘cabbage cage’ one year which mostly kept the caterpillars off, but I still found chrysalises inside it at the end of the year!
- Plant your cabbages really early in the season before butterflies are thinking about waking up.
- Employ eagle eyed children to spot the tiny eggs and/or baby caterpillars. These can then be removed and placed on a sacrificial cabbage. (This is the least effective method as you must do it every day.)
5. Tomatoes. Living in a northerly exposed sort of place without a greenhouse, tomatoes have been a bit hit or miss for us. However we have had some success by experimenting with different varieties. If like us you do not have somewhere suitable outside you ask at your garden centre, as they should be able to recommend smaller varieties, some of which can be grown on a large windowsill inside. You can also experiment with growing tomato plants by putting a slice from a shop bought tomato onto some compost, covering slightly and keeping watered. You may be surprised how many plants you can grow using this method.
6. Strawberries. These are another relatively bomb proof crop to grow with children. I have never managed to grow plants from seed and this is very fiddly with children involved. Instead buy a selection of different strawberry varieties and let the children plant them in tubs or containers. They are robust plants so will withstand a bit of rough toddler handling. Some of your plants may grow long stems with baby plants on the end. If you want the ‘mother plant’ to have more strawberries you can cut these off, but I tend to shove a couple into soil each year, (leave the stem attached until they are established,) as this is a good way of getting free plants! Talk to the children about how the flowers will turn into strawberries. You can cover your plants with mesh to help prevent birds eating them, but you may have to race other critters such as slugs and snails to your bounty. Get the children in the habit of checking under the leaves to find ripe strawberries every day.
7. Rosemary. This is a really good herb to grown with small children as they are robust and happily withstand a bit of toddler handling. They also thrive on a bit of neglect, preferring poor soil. I have a large one growing in a container made from old car tires and smaller ones which grew from cuttings off the original plant.
8. Mint. This is another herb which is usually easy to grow. It comes in lots of different varieties and I have quite a few as they smell so nice when you brush up against them. Look for varieties like peppermint, spearmint, apple-mint, chocolate mint and others. When the leaves grow you can show the children how to pick them and put them in hot water to make mint teas. DO NOT plant directly into soil in your garden unless you want it to take over, keep contained in a pot instead.
9. Cress. This is often grown with young children as it grows so quickly, meaning that impatient little ones do not have long to wait until they can see the fruits of their labours. You can plant directly onto a thick sheet of kitchen roll as long as you remember to keep it well watered or make things like decorated cress heads made out of empty eggshells.
10. Salad leaves. You can find seed mixes of salad leaves in lots of garden centres. These can be planted in trays on a sunny windowsill and should provide a good selection of leaves that children can pick to eat with their lunch. Look for cut and come again varieties which will provide a continual supply of leaves.
Whatever you decide to have a go at growing, whether it be potatoes, strawberries or just lots and lots of hungry mini-beasts, have fun!
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