Get growing with kids

I have to admit, we’ve not done much of the school work that was sent home with my daughter. What with the glorious spring weather and the trepidation that I see on her face when it’s mentioned, I’ve decided to take a more ‘on the job’, relaxed sort of approach, combining education with pleasure – I think the term is unschooling. Anyway, we get on much better that way so we’ve spent the last few weeks out on the vegetable plot, preparing the soil and planting seeds.

People often ask me, how do you manage to grow vegetables with little ones – don’t they just pull everything up and destroy all your hard work? Well, yes, sometimes they do feel tempted to yank up something that I’ve nurtured from seed and planted so preciously into the earth, but mostly, not really. Mostly they love and respect it as much as I do. Our space is one of mutual satisfaction, a space where I can feel fulfilled and they can too.

We made a mudpie kitchen from some pallets and a few old kitchen utensils, and a sandpit from some old tyres. I’ve given each of them their own little patch of earth to grow whatever they wish, along with their own gardening tools, and mostly they’re happy just being there, playing, digging or helping.

We don’t have many rules, I have no desire to control them on their journey to self-fulfilment so I mostly just leave them to it. Things can sometimes end up a little messy so I make sure I always have plenty of drinks and snacks to hand, and some dry clothes for when things get a little too wet and muddy.

It really doesn’t take much to get started, you can easily  grow in pots or just turn over a little bit of your garden and add some compost. You don’t even need to bother digging it over – just cover the ground with a thin layer of cardboard (this biodegrades and surpresses enough light to kill the weeds before rotting down into the soil). Add a generous mulch of compost or well-rotted manure straight on top and you’re ready to go.

If you’re interested in the no-dig approach you should check out Charles Dowding’s book – Organic Gardening: The Natural No-Dig Way, his fascinating, natural approach to vegetable growing is definitely worth considering. Another great book I used a lot when I first started growing is Veg Patch by Marc Diacono – this small, handy little a-to-z reference book is perfect for the novice veg grower.

If you don’t have a lot of space then I would stick to small crops, like lettuce, radish, carrots, beetroot, pole beans and peas. You can grow a large amount of these in a small space and be munching on them all summer. At the other end of the scale, things like brassicas, potatoes and sweetcorn take up loads of space for a small (but very rewarding) return.

Even if you don’t intend to start a dedicated vegetable plot then I urge you to just try planting some peas in your flower borders – dwarf varieties such as Kelvin Wonder and Petit Pois grow to a perfect height for kids to pick. You’ll need to make a frame for them to grow up, but this can be as simple as twigs pushed into the soil with some lateral support like string, netting or chicken wire as peas don’t wind around sticks like beans do.

Large seeds like beans and peas are perfect for little ones to plant, but the smaller brassica and salad seeds I leave to my eldest as they require more dexterity. Asking your kids what they want to plant will give them a real feeling of growing their own, which in turn will maintain their interest and keep them engaged as the season progresses.

If you’re looking to purchase some garden tools for your little ones then I’d recommend Burgon & Ball or Spear & Jackson’s range of children’s tools – these are beautifully made, strong tools that will last years. We’ve had so many of the cheap colourful kids’ tool sets and they’re so poorly made that the metal just bends when they’re trying to dig – this is frustrating for them and doesn’t save money in the long run as you’ll be replacing them frequently.

So far we have been busy adding our homemade compost to the soil and planning where we’ll plant everything. Kids love this time of year, making plans and sketches of the plot, making fences and planting lots of seeds. A few weeks ago we planted some seeds in pots in the polytunnel, giving them a head start and now that the soil has had time to warm up and dry out a little we’ve started transplanting them into the soil. We’ll continue to plant seeds throughout the season but now that the threat of a frost is less likely, they’ll just go straight into the soil.

Growing food with children is immensely rewarding and quite often gives them exposure to vegetables that they would normally shy away from. Watching something that they’ve planted from a tiny seed grow into an enormous plant that they can eat will quite often make them willing to try something new and hopefully instill in them a desire to grow more each year.