To all you parents and grandparents, it’s time to garden with your beloved little ones. That’s right, start them young, make it fun, and they will garden forever. The key part is fun. Never make a child pull weeds. Digging in the dirt is fun. Playing with a hose or a watering can is fun. Picking flowers and eating cherry tomatoes warm from the sun are lots of fun.
When my grandchildren were small, I created little gardens at my house for them. I used boards to create distinct little beds, one for each. What size? I made them their height by their wingspan — the span of their arms — about 3½ feet square. I actually had them lie on the lawn with their arms out to set the dimensions. That’s good for a giggle.
The boards were just 6 inches wide and were made of ordinary lumber — definitely not of pressure-treated boards — which now are full of chemicals, albeit not as toxic as those produced when pressure-treated lumber first came out. But remember, the children will not be that size for long, so you don’t need the beds to last forever.
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The simplest way to build a sturdy bed is to cut pieces of 2-by-4 as long as your boards are wide. Put one in each corner and use a cordless drill to screw the boards onto them in the corners. Screws that are 2 inches long are fine and much easier to work with than nails if you are not accustomed to building things. Two screws are needed on each end of the boards to make it sturdy. Work on a flat surface, such as your driveway or inside the garage, to make work easier. Metal brackets are also available to help make the garden boxes sturdy.
Pick a spot for the garden in full sun. That means six hours of sunshine at a minimum, but preferably all-day sun — from morning to late afternoon. Choose a site that is flat, or nearly so. If you are giving the kids beds in your garden, be prepared for it to be weedy and messy at times — unless you intend to weed it yourself. Some kids will want to weed, but most won’t. So you may want to place the little gardens somewhere on the back lawn.
If you choose to place the garden box on the lawn, you don’t need to remove the sod. Just cut the grass as short as you can, then cover it with six pages of newspaper and fill it up. The newspaper will kill the lawn. The first year, carrots may stop or bend when they hit the bottom of the bed. After that, the soil will loosen up with the action of the microorganisms, and you can grow deep-rooted things without a problem.
What should you use for soil? I like to mix plenty of compost with ordinary garden soil, roughly a 50-50 mix. You can buy bags of compost and topsoil, or raid your compost pile and your garden for soil — you don’t need but a couple of wheelbarrows of soil.
When the bed is first built, your kids may want to just play in the fresh earth. Soil smells good, is pleasant to touch, and is ideal for making little roads for trucks or mounds for castles, just as it’s fun to make sand castles at the beach. Don’t be too goal-oriented, telling the kids they need to stop now and plant their carrot seeds. Let them see you planting things — both seeds and plants — and they will want to do the same.
Ask your children about their favorite vegetables. Have they ever seen a purple or red carrot? Would they like to try growing some? Where do French fries come from? In my experience, planting potatoes is great for all kids — the seed potatoes are a size even the littlest ones can handle. Later on, the harvesting is like going fishing and knowing they’ll catch fish. Very exciting.
Maybe take them with you to a garden center. Look at the marigolds, which are already blooming. Encourage them to smell flowers. If they find something they like, buy it. I like the idea of kids growing flowers with their veggies. My grandkids did, too.
Remember, success is important. That means you will have to be attentive to their gardens. Weeding and watering will be your responsibility unless they live nearby and want to do these tasks.
By the way, it’s important to have a few child-size tools and especially watering cans. Our watering cans are too heavy for them, and a hose can easily blast away a tomato seedling.
What if your grandchildren want to grow pumpkins or watermelons? Those vines will quickly exit the mini-garden you have lovingly prepared. Are you willing to let the vines run, making it impossible to mow the lawn there? Perhaps you can convince them to grow something else, and together plant the pumpkins in your vegetable garden.
My maternal grandmother died when I was 7, and my parents sent me to stay with my grandfather that summer to keep him company. I took the train by myself from New Haven to Worcester, Massachusetts — complete with a change of trains in Springfield. It was a bit scary the first time, but I refused to let my mother put a name tag on me! Grampy and I had a lot of fun, so I went every summer until he died when I was 21. I learned to garden by observing. He never lectured. That’s probably a good recipe for success.
Henry Homeyer’s blog appears twice a week at gardening-guy.com. Write to him at P.O. Box 364, Cornish Flat, N.H. 03746. Please include a self-addressed, stamped envelope if you wish a mailed response. Or email [email protected].