Guest post by Annie Novak*
Kids are great gardeners: curious naturalists, investigatory by nature, and generally unfazed by getting dirty. In nearly ten years of gardening, I’ve worked with thousands of school-aged children at both the New York Botanical Garden and through my own non-profit cooking and gardening program, Growing Chefs. Here are a few tips I’ve developed along the way:
The only child-sized tools you need to buy are watering cans, shovels and rakes. These tools are too heavy and cumbersome (or dangerous) otherwise. Hand tools like trowels, buckets and cultivators I recommend buying in “grown-up” size. I also recommend the expensive, built-to-last tools, which makes sense for the wear and tear they get from kids, as well as keeping your repeated annual gardening costs low. Another trick we employ at the New York Botanical Garden’s Edible Academy (a two acre veggie gardening site) is to reserve one bed for digging only: children can do this for hours, and our instructors use that space to talk about soil, worms, planting techniques, and tool use while the kids happily dig away.
For as long as history there has been a divide between kids that relish getting dirty and children that scorn soiling their clothes, hands, knees and feet. As a mostly-urban gardener, my role is to teach the difference between “dirty,” which is usually not a positive state of being, and using, touching, handling and enjoying soil. Dirt is the stuff we try to clean up; we grow good, healthy plants in soil. Vocabulary matters in the garden because it changes the way things are contextualized. Context matters because it shapes ideas and opinions, and the entire narrative of an experience. And nothing is more important to children than narrative: they’re figuring everything out for the first time! Which is why...
Calling something (an insect, a bug, a piece of lettuce) “disgusting” or “gross” is limiting and unimaginative. Why is it disgusting or gross? That’s the interesting part: is it disgusting because you’ve never tasted it before? Is it gross because it’s smaller, slimier and unfamiliar to you? I’ve tried this simple vocabulary switch with all my students, and it’s game-changing. The mile between “I hate dirt, it’s disgusting” to “I love to garden” finds a wormhole shortcut (in the galactic, not puny, sense) when you ask kids to say “Soil is so...interesting.” It encourages an explanation, which can (like so many experiences for children) be redirected towards enthusiasm with a touch of positive peer pressure.
Janine, Julia and Everett on site at the Eagle Street Rooftop Farm.
The key here is “and” not “either/or.” Many kids’ gardening advice columns will recommend specific crops, but it is hard to find a universal list for everyone’s student groups, children and growing site. The easiest rule of thumb is to grow things you and your children like to eat, and after you’ve experimented with a season of success and failure, select your successes to continue to grow. When pressed, I’ll admit that for color, flavor, yield and ease of growing I do have a few favorites (and I’ll list them below), but take them with a grain of salt that I grow in rich-soil, full-sun environments. The annual forgiveness of agriculture will let you trial and error all your favorites, until at last you’ve hit your own sweet spot list of crops to try.
“Sungold F1 Hybrid” Cherry tomatoes. Prolific, sweet and quick to bear fruit, Sungolds are the cherry tomato that bring most children (and grownups) around to loving tomato fruits. Transplant more than one plant, and time the transplants a week or two apart: the yield is quick and prolific, and if you stagger the transplants, one will cease bearing while the other continues to drop a few fruit.
“Cherry Belle,” “Rover” and “French Breakfast” radishes. Sweeter in the springtime, these are high yield per square foot and take little time (especially “Rover,” a 21-days to harvest crop). We even use the radish greens in pesto, or thinly julienned with a little balsamic vinegar and honey.
“Nebechan” and “Deep Purple” scallions. Scallions are a great “seed” (bulb, really) to plant with children. As a bulb, scallions can be encouraged to grow leaves with little more than moisture and warm temperatures—I’ve grown scallions in windowless classrooms dozens of times over. The tangy onion flavor is a hit with kids, and easy to chop with child-friendly scissors onto air popped popcorn for a savory treat.
“Genovese” Basil. Basil’s leaves, stem, flowers and seeds are all edible. Basil can be eaten as a sprout, kept and dried, or harvested continually throughout the season. Honeybees and other pollinators love to visit its flowers, and for children, it can be featured in dozens of recipes, from familiar pasta and pizza to less known recipes like basil-chocolate-cheesecake. It’s on everyone’s kid-gardening list but I love it, and I would encourage those sick of Genovese to explore Holy Basil, Cinnamon Basil, Thai Basil, Lemon Basil and Italian varieties like “Mostroso” and “Finissimo” as new tricks for an old dog.
“Blue Lake” bush beans and “Scarlet Runner” pole beans. Beans are magical: large, beautiful seeds and overnight, it seems, you can watch a bean seed push its plumule out of the ground to raise gorgeous, butterfly-wing-sized leaves to the sky. Blue Lake is a prolific bush bean variety with tasty, snappy beans. Scarlet Runner is extremely magical. Open a pod with children to see their eyes light up: its immature seeds in the pod are a lipstick hot pink that mature to have spots of rich purple.