Gardening with Kids

Turn digging in the dirt into a lifetime of love and respect for nature with your children.

By Marti Ross Bjornson

Photography by Eric Hurlock

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Lettuce. Loose-leaf varieties mature in about three to four weeks. Many varieties are sold in mixed packages called salad blends or mesclun mixes. They are perfect for kids' gardens, including containers. Also look for 'New Red Fire' or 'Little Gem'.

Onions, bunching varieties or scallions. Sown as sets (tiny onions) or seeds, these bursts of flavor are easy for children to recognize, and even the tops, chopped into salads, are a taste treat.

Peas. Snap and snow peas are fast-growing cool-season plants that are sweet treats right from the vine, and although they require about two months, they are interesting to watch grow.

Peppers. Sweet or hot, peppers, like beans, are staples in most diets, grown for pizza or salsa gardens. Little gardeners enjoy watching the fruits develop and change color. 'Banana' and 'Jingle Bell' (a miniature) mature earlier than traditional bell varieties. Hot peppers are delicious, but children need to learn how to handle them, because of the capsicum tendency to "burn." Jalapeños are most familiar and fastest-ripening of most hot peppers.

Pumpkins (both tiny and large). Tiny pumpkins are a treat for kids of all ages. And they are not only cute but edible. Try 'Baby Boo' or 'Jack Be Little' varieties. When it comes to growing a jack-'o'-lantern-to-be, the "giant" varieties, if space allows, are terrific. Any size pumpkin, however, whether destined to become a pie or a magic lantern, is a great addition to a child's garden.

Radishes. These tiny cool-weather jewels are best grown in early spring or late summer. They are sweetest when harvested young. Their fast-maturing habit makes them perfect for children who delight in pulling the perfect fruit from the earth. Try 'Cherry Belle', 'Easter Egg', or short icicle varieties.

Spinach. Another cool-weather plant, grown early, it ripens shortly after leaf lettuce. Try the bolt-resistant varieties and enjoy fresh in salads or sauté with breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Swiss chard. Actually a member of the beet family, Swiss chard provides dark green veggies between spinach harvests. Try the multicolored 'Bright Lights', which is beautiful to grow and delicious to eat, making it a favorite of kids. It's also good in containers.

Tomatoes. Nothing beats the taste of the first ripe tomato grown in your own garden! For kids, the tine cherry, grape, and plum tomatoes are the most fun to grow, to eat, and to share. 'Early Cherry', 'Sweetie', and 'Golden Nugget' (all cherry); 'Yellow Pear', 'Jolly Elf', and 'Morning Light' (both grape) are terrific choices.

Tomatillos. Salsa isn't salsa without tomatillos. These plants are delightful to grow and interesting to children as well as adults. They resemble tomatoes when growing.

Zucchini. Zucchini and other summer squash are fun to grow, if your garden has space, because they grow so quickly. Squash is susceptible to numerous viruses and blights, however, and may not be ideal in some climates.

Fruits

Strawberries (June-bearing and everbearing varieties). If your child can grow only one fruit in your garden, make it strawberries. June bearers produce one large crop over two to three weeks early in summer. Everbearers produce smaller amounts throughout summer and fall. They're a great treat for children grown in containers or in the ground. Plants produce runners, which can be used to grow even more plants.

Herbs

Chives. This herb has a mild onion flavor and is easy to grow, indoors and outdoors. Kids like the tiny leaves and pretty blossoms.

Cilantro. Cilantro and coriander are the same plant: Cilantro is the leaf form; coriander is the seed. Cilantro is a staple for salsa. It's quick-growing, but be careful to cut it quickly, or it will bolt. Repeated plantings work well.

Epazote. This traditional Mexican herb is added to bean dishes to prevent gas.

Oregano. A perennial, oregano makes a great addition to a pizza garden.

Spearmint. This hardy and prolific mint is great for teas, salads, and baking. A perennial, it grows well in containers.

Sweet basil. Even the very first leaves of this fast-growing herb contain flavor and fragrance. These simple and fun-to-grow seed selections are favorites of young gardeners. Smaller varieties of all these seeds are terrific in containers as well as in the ground.

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