HOW DOES YOUR GARDEN GROW?
One of the best ways for children to learn about where the good food on your family table originates–and one of the best ways for them to learn to love it–is to grow it themselves.
Think about it: How much more likely is your daughter to eat a salad she makes herself–from ingredients she grew herself–than a salad plopped down in front of her at the table with the words, “Eat it. It’s good for you”? (“I don’t eat anything green,” I once heard a child pronounce.)
If you’re a gardener yourself and have raised beds installed in your yard or a plot of ground you plant and tend every growing season, set aside a small section for your kids to plant whatever they want. (One of my favorite memories from childhood is growing pumpkins from seeds and watching with amazement as my plant eventually took over an entire corner of my dad’s garden.) Many neighborhoods also have community gardens; take your kids and make a family affair of planting, weeding and harvesting fresh produce.
A garden can also be a couple of pots on a window sill in the house, or a pot or two on the backyard deck. Helping kids learn how to grow their own vegetables doesn’t have to be a time-sucking chore for parents. Including shopping (for seeds or young plants, containers, potting soil, fertilizer) and planting, with a few instructions for ongoing care, you and your child can create a mini garden in several hours over a weekend.
WINDOW SILL GARDENING
The best plants to grow on a window sill are compact, miniature or dwarf varieties of plants and crops that mature fairly quickly. Leafy greens and herbs; miniature tomato, eggplant and pepper varieties; round varieties of carrots and radishes and dwarf varieties of peas and bush beans all work well. Tall and vining crops like corn, pole beans, squash, melon and pumpkins won’t work in the house; save those for an outdoor garden.
A window sill garden grows best with an eastern or southern exposure for optimal sunlight, so what you are able to grow indoors will also be limited by the depth of the window sills in the best locations. Many herbs can grow happily in six-inch pots, but a single head of lettuce needs a one-gallon pot and a small tomato plant needs a three-to-five-gallon container. Do a little research online or consult the expert at your local garden store to find out how much growing room your selections require. Let your child look through a seed catalog in which you’ve circled appropriate plants, and have him choose from your pre-selected items the ones he would like to grow.
BACKYARD CONTAINER GARDENING
If you have the room, planting vegetables in pots on your deck allows for a larger variety of crops in your child’s produce garden. Like a window sill garden, a patio garden is easy to start and maintain. The containers rarely get weeds, they can be easily moved if you find they need more light or shelter, water is readily available and harvesting is quick and close to the kitchen.
Steve Albert, on his wonderful website Harvest to Table, has a comprehensive list of vegetables on his website that is suitable for container gardening, along with information about minimum container sizes. Again, circle appropriate vegetables in a seed catalog and allow your child to choose from those.
It’s very satisfying (and a good science lesson!) for a child to see a plant germinate from seed to full maturity, but there’s nothing wrong with buying veggies in four-inch pots from your local garden store and transplanting them to larger pots. The key is to let your kids get their hands in the dirt–and learn that doing so provides food for the table. They will be so proud of themselves the first time they make a salad, or perhaps a salsa fresca, from crops they planted and nurtured–and you can be proud of yourself for showing them where real food comes from.
PLANT A SALSA GARDEN
Salsa is one of the healthiest condiments available to add a bit of zest to a variety of foods, and it’s easy for a child to grow all the ingredients necessary to make it–either in pots on a deep window sill inside the house or in containers on the patio. A typical salsa garden produces tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic and cilantro.
The best tomatoes for salsa are Romas or another meaty, firm-fleshed variety. For a salsa mild enough for children’s hyper-sensitive taste buds, I recommend poblano or Bermuda peppers and red onion, or a sweet white onion like Vidalia or Walla Walla. Not everyone likes the taste of cilantro (it’s a genetic thing); Italian parsley, basil, or a combination of parsley and mint can be substituted for cilantro in salsa recipes, although the flavor won’t be exactly the same.
Easy-Peasy One-Two-Three-sy One-Pot planting instructions:
–Choose a five gallon container with a drainage hole in the bottom
–Place several inches of rocks in the bottom of the pot to facilitate drainage
–Fill the container with vegetable potting soil
–Add organic vegetable fertilizer to the top five inches
–Plant one tomato plant, one pepper plant, two or three onion and garlic sets or seedlings and your herb(s) of choice, spacing evenly; loosen soil around roots; press soil in pot firmly around plant
–Soak thoroughly with water
Older children might want to have a separate pot for each ingredient and grow enough produce to be able to freeze or can extra salsa to last through the winter. (Another fun family activity we’ll come back to later.) Your one-pot source for a tasty salsa fresca should be ready to harvest in about three months. In the meantime, here’s a wonderful, easy-peasy one-two-three-sy salsa fresca recipe to file away for harvest time:
SAVORY SALSA FRESCA
2 cups diced vine-ripe Roma tomatoes
1 cup chopped cilantro, Italian parsley or mixed parsley and mint
1-2 cloves minced garlic
2 tablespoons diced red onion
1 tablespoon diced sweet white onion
Juice of 1 lime
¼ teaspoon salt
Pinch of pepper
Mix all ingredients in a bowl, adding extra lime, salt and pepper to taste. Serve with your favorite tortilla chips. Leftovers (if there are any!) may be stored in an airtight container in the fridge for up to three days.
Happy Gardening–and Happy Eating!
Barbara Jean the Story Queen
First, a disclaimer: I’m not a doctor. I’m not a nutritionist. I’m not a chef. I’m not even a mom. What I know about healthy food and healthy eating I’ve learned by reading and doing, just like you.
What I am is a children’s book author. A Story Queen! My area of expertise is FUN. In the last dozen years, I’ve written a number of entertaining, award-winning picture books–about monsters, cats, Disney princesses–and veggies, of all things.
I’m big on imagination. Monsters Don’t Eat Broccoli encourages kids (the way my dad encouraged my siblings and me) to think of broccoli as crunchy, munchy, fun-to-eat trees. Once Upon a Parsnip is a fairytale rematch between Little Red Riding Hood (a vegetarian) and the Big Bad Wolf (NOT a vegetarian). Scary fun!
On the surface, neither of my veggie books is really about healthy eating–they’re just plain fun. But the fun is subversive: both books introduce and normalize the idea of eating healthy, fresh-from-the-garden vegetables. (Never underestimate the power of fun to get your kids to try something new!)
My goal in these pages is to find and share fun ways to introduce fresh fruits and vegetables to children and to normalize healthy foods and healthy eating in their experience. My means is to expose them–through you, their parents and caregivers–to food-friendly books, videos, downloadable and printable posters and coloring pages, hands-on activities and kid-friendly recipes. Anything that equates healthy food and FUN!
I’m here for you–to help you make healthy eating feel as natural to your children as breathing.
Because healthy food and healthy fun make healthy kids. And that’s something all of us can get behind.
Barbara Jean Hicks, a.k.a. “The Story Queen”
To purchase signed, personalized copies of my picture books, visit the “Books” page on my website. To contact me about my well regarded young author presentations for schools, or for other enquiries, send an email from the “Contact” page at barbarajeanhicks.com. I look forward to hearing from you!