Vegetable gardening for kids
When the days are dark, cold, and dreary and cabin fever is at its worst, that is the perfect time to start dreaming and planning your summer vegetable garden. Maybe you can introduce your child or grandchild to the joys of gardening this summer. Amy Barr is the Delaware County 4-H & Youth Development Program Assistant. She encourages novices to start with a small garden. She says “it’s best to have a few rows dedicated to each child, instead of a big garden. It is much easier to plant the seeds or transplants than to weed and water the garden for the entire summer.”
If your family doesn’t already have a vegetable garden, you need to pick a sunny location that preferably is near a water supply. To get the best results, it should be away from trees and shrubs that compete for moisture and nutrients, and it should get a minimum of eight hours direct sunlight. If your soil contains clay, as much of Delaware County does, you will need to mix a few inches of organic material, such as compost, manure, or peat moss into the soil.
What are the best vegetables for kids to grow? If they’re novices they should choose vegetables that are easy to grow AND they enjoy eating. Mrs. Barr suggests planting a row of potatoes. Kids enjoy digging up the potatoes at the end of the season. It’s like going on a treasure hunt. Also, potatoes have a good rate of success. Your local garden center will typically have a wide variety of seed potatoes to choose from. Other vegetables that generally have high success rates are peas, leaf lettuce, cherry tomatoes, and pumpkins. Small pumpkins are easier to grow and take less space in the garden than the large-sized varieties. If space is an issue, kids can even start by growing tomatoes in a container.
While many children and adults love to eat sweet corn, it is a poor choice for the novice gardener. It is difficult to get a good crop, since raccoons are an issue and you need to have several rows of plants for successful pollination.
Another consideration for the novice gardener is the length of time from planting until harvest. Two cool season crops with high success rates and short maturities that Mrs. Barr recommends are peas and leaf lettuce. A relatively short time between planting and harvesting a crop is encouraging, particularly for the novice gardener.
Tomatoes are a popular vegetable. Cherry tomatoes are the easiest to grow, and fun for kids to eat. They are typically grown from transplants that can be purchased at your local garden center. Beefsteak and heirloom tomatoes are varieties that require more skill and patience. Hence, they are more suitable for an experienced gardener. A key goal in gardening with young kids should be to promote success by making sure it is not overwhelming.
The Delaware County Fair is held each year in September. For each of the last several years, about 100 4-H members have shown their vegetables at the fair. Vegetable gardening is only one of the many projects that 4-H offers its members. Each exhibitor can show as many as 9 different vegetable varieties or as few as one variety, such as a plate of five cherry tomatoes. The 4-H program encourages exhibitors of all levels to participate in the fair.
To start a project, you can join a local 4-H club. Delaware County Extension supports about 75 4-H clubs involving more than 1,000 youth. For information about clubs near you, call the Extension office at 740–833-2030. Each club has an advisor assigned to it, and clinics and field trips are offered through the club to help members learn about their projects. Clubs generally start in February or March. Members generally choose their projects around March and complete them by Delaware Fair time. A Prepare for the Fair Clinic, which gives youngsters pointers on what the judges look for and how to best exhibit their produce, will be offered early in the season. This year’s date has not yet been announced. Once a child reaches third grade, they may participate in gardening projects. 4-H offers a vegetable project suitable for novice growers as well as intermediate vegetable and flower gardening projects that help more experienced youth identify pests and diseases.
Since the Delaware Fair is held late in the season, it is important to grow warm weather vegetables, for example tomatoes and pumpkins, that typically are still in prime condition in September. However, if gardeners have finished harvesting their vegetables before the fair date, there are a few categories, such as decorated pumpkin and seed picture that give them the option of preparing an exhibit without growing the crop.
Now’s the time to start. Encourage a youngster to grow a vegetable garden as a member of 4-H and exhibit at the fair. We’ll look for you there!
Nancy F. Traub is an OSU Extension Master Gardener volunteer.