Gardening is one of the best life lessons you can give your kids. There’s no better way to teach them where their food comes from than growing it on your own. It’s also a hands-on way to encourage positive, healthy eating. But if you think you’re lacking a green thumb, never fear. Gardening is really pretty simple if you stick to a few tricks. (It also helps if you remember to water!)
I’ve been gardening with my own two kids since they were old enough to walk in dirt. I even wrote a book on kids how-to book on gardening called Project Garden. My son, now 14, is definitely into gardening, and it’s something we’ve bonded over. My daughter, 12, isn’t so much into it, but she’ll still pick out a plant or two during growing season — and I’m glad she’s learned the skills to grow her own in the future.
Here are some of my best ideas for making veggie gardening fun and easy for any family looking to have a successful garden. Many of my friends have received these tips over the years when they’ve asked me for advice, and I hope they help you as well. Happy growing!
1. No backyard? Try a community garden plot.
If you don’t have a backyard, don’t worry. Community gardening is so popular these days, so just do a quick google search to see what’s available in your area. Typically, these plots are 4x8 raised beds, filled with good, quality soil. Best of all, these community gardens take away a lot of prep and work on your end — you just show up with your plants and grow!
2. Kids should have a voice in what you plant.
The single biggest way you can get your kids to have a vested interest in the garden is to have them help decide what goes into it. Sometimes you really want to take control, because you have your own ideas — but let it go! I like to give my kids each a section for which that they are 100 percent responsible. One year, my daughter picked all strawberries, and I tried to talk her out of it, but she had her mind made up. I know it made her much more interested because she had designed it.
3. Plant something your family with actually eat.
Now, it’s good to let your kids help put together a planting plan, and part of that should include things they actually like or will try. Carrots or sugar snap peas are both good options because they’re sweet, tender, and fun to eat right from the vine. Choose what works for you, though.
4. Make a plan before you go to the garden center.
It’s so easy to get overwhelmed at the garden center. Before you know it, you can easily spend $100 or more on plants for kids. To avoid this (or to avoid simply getting overwhelmed), go in with a plan. Then try to stick to it as much as possible, only veering from it for one or two impulse purchases max. Make a game out of it!
5. Pick a good location for your garden.
Whether or not you have a successful garden will depend a lot on your location. For instance, if you’re growing veggies but don’t get a lot of sunlight during the day, you’re probably going to struggle, which can be extremely frustrating for young gardeners. So pick a good, sunny spot — and if you don’t have one, go the community garden route instead.
6. Stick to a raised bed or containers.
For people just starting out, I really recommend raised beds or containers. These allow you to have a lot of control over you garden. Plus, they're easy to install, just right over the lawn or on a patio. It also helps give kids a designated space, which will encourage them to help care for the area.
7. Use good soil.
If you don’t know if you have good soil, ask a neighbor in your area who has a great garden. (Believe me, gardeners love to offer advice and help, especially when you’re admiring theirs.) If you're using a raised bed or containers, spend the extra money for good soil. It’ll serve you well for many years to come.
8. Don’t just grow from seed.
There’s something magical about watching something grow from a tiny seed. But it can also be slow and a bit of a gamble. I buy almost all my veggies as plants instead of starting from seed. I love it because it gives me a head start. (We also have a shorter growing season in Wisconsin.) Above all, it’ll give your young gardener quicker results, which is really important when trying a hobby for the first time. Gardening takes some patience, and that’s a challenge for little ones.
9. Throw some microgreens and herbs in the mix.
While you’re waiting for the garden to grow and turn into something, plant some herb plants or microgreen seeds. With herb plants, you can pretty much harvest them right away and throughout the season. And microgreen seeds (small, nutritious seedlings that are good on top of salads, burgers, or even tacos) are ready to harvest in just two weeks! By growing both, you’ll always have something to harvest when you tend to the garden throughout the season.
10. Seriously, don’t forget to water.
This is the top reason that most gardens don’t make it. Life gets busy, and you forget to water. Sure you can skip a day or two sometimes, but you can’t go days without watering your plants and expect them to thrive. You don’t need fancy fertilizers or watering tricks. You just need good ol' water on a regular basis. By the way, water in the morning or evening and not in the hottest part of the day to make the most out of your efforts.
11. Track your progress.
If you want to print out a calendar with chores like “water plants” or “weed plants” so you remember (and to get the kids to stay involved), then definitely do it! As you go, it’s also a good idea to take weekly photos of the progress. Sometimes with gardening it feels like you’re just waiting around a lot. But if you can compare growth from one week to the next, it’ll help you all feel a bit more accomplished.
12. If you don’t have luck right away, buy more plants!
What if you forget to water right away? Or what if your dog digs out your plants? Don’t give in right away. Just plant more! I actually love hitting up the garden stores in late June because you can get such good deals on plants. You don’t have to plant a garden in April or May. June, July, and event August can work, too. You just need to adjust what you plant and pick things that need a shorter time to harvest.
Stacy Tornio is the author of The Kids’ Outdoor Adventure Book and the mom of two adventurous kids. Together, they like planning vacations centered around the national parks.