DIY Food: Why Every Kid Should Learn to Garden

When my two sisters and I were in first, second, and third grade respectively, my dad had a great idea. One warm May day, as the three of us stood in the grass of our big backyard watching and wondering what he was up to, he cut 15 six-foot lengths of leftover molding from our recent basement remodel, stuck them into the warming dirt of our backyard garden in three circles, and lashed the tops of each together with twine to make three “teepee” forms. Next, he tore open a packet of pole bean seeds and gave us each a small handful. He showed us how to plant them around each wooden stake, and then he watered the garden with the green garden hose, while we ran through the spray.

Every day, we went out to the backyard with my dad to check on our seeds. When the sprouts emerged, we cheered. He showed us how to pluck out the weeds and keep the soil moist. As the beans began to grow, in the impressively speedy way they tend to in the rich Iowa soil, something amazing happened. Without any prompting or guidance from us, vines sprouting leaves and bean pods began to wind around the wooden strips of molding until they reached the top. The leaves and tendrils grew thicker and denser, until one day, each of us could crawl inside our little green houses and be completely alone. I remember sitting in the cool dirt, quietly marveling at the way the vines filtered and freckled the bright July sun. With a family of five in a small house, we didn’t get much privacy, and I was in love with my green cone of solitude. It is one of my fondest childhood memories.

But those green teepees did more for us than give us moments of alone-time. They also gave us beans. Sometimes I would pluck a tender raw bean and eat it. It tasted like spring to me—fresh and grassy. Or, I would collect them in a bowl and bring them into the kitchen, so my mother could make them for dinner. I didn’t even mind eating them too much—with a little butter. They tasted completely different than those mushy beans from the can we had to eat in the winter, and something about those fresh beans prompted me to try the garden carrots, lettuces, and tomatoes, too. (I always called dibs on the tomato bottom—the best part!)

Something about growing things appeals to kids, and several casual studies suggest that when kids grow their own vegetables, they are more likely to eat vegetables. It was certainly true in my case. Decades later, my own son, who at 14 remains suspicious of most green things, finally became more open minded when his summer camp grew a vegetable garden. He tried bell peppers for the first time, picked and eaten within a moment. Out of our family garden, he’s sampled the peas, the peppers, the melons, and even an edible flower or two (although I still can’t get him excited about the tomatoes).

If gardening is the way to get kids to eat more vegetables (not to mention spend more time with you), then why aren’t we all doing it? Even if you only have a small backyard plot, or room for a few containers on your deck or porch, you can garden with your kids.

Here are some fun gardening projects to try

Tube garden

Start your seeds and recycle at the same time. Toilet paper tubes are small and easy for small hands to manipulate. Plant tomato, pepper, pea, or bean plants in toilet paper tubes filled with potting soil, in early spring. Prop them upright in a tray or flower pot. When the seeds sprout, pop the whole toilet paper tube into the garden after the soil is warm.

Salad in a box

Any window box, bucket, basket, or other container with drainage at the bottom will do. Fill your container with potting soil and plant a variety of lettuces and spinach in rows, circles, or just scattered over the top. Press into place and water lightly. Keep the soil moist. When the greens sprout, trim off a few leaves each day of different plants, to include in a salad. For kids who don’t like bitter tastes, butter lettuces are a good choice.

Salsa garden, pizza garden, or spaghetti garden

Devote your garden plot to a food theme your kids can relate to. For a salsa garden, plant tomatoes, tomatillos, bell peppers, jalapeno peppers, onions, and cilantro. For a pizza garden, plant Roma tomatoes, onions, garlic, basil, spinach, eggplant, or whatever else you like on your pizza. For a spaghetti garden, try Roma tomatoes, onions, garlic, basil, oregano, and thyme. Just add meatballs.

Mushroom garden

If your child has a daring palate, try growing mushrooms. Many companies sell mushroom growing kits that make it easy to spawn this fascinating fungus in a box in your home.

Herb circles

A round container or a small circle dug out of your sod can be an herb circle.  Plant basil, lavender, tarragon, thyme, and edible nasturtium flowers in concentric circles. Your child can sample the different smells and tastes, and help you decide which herbs to add to which foods.

Flowers and fruit garden

For some kids, fruit is an easier sell than vegetables. If you have the space, plant watermelons, cantaloupe, or honeydew melons, interspersed with native wildflowers, for a pretty but gastronomically satisfying garden experience.

Pumpkin garden

Two or three pumpkin plants will sprawl and spawn just what you need for Halloween crafts as well as pumpkin pie, pumpkin butter, pumpkin bread, and pumpkin puree you can add to applesauce, smoothies, or even chili. Marigolds nestled between the vine make a prettier plot.

Bean teepee

If you have the space, give your child the gift of this magical-seeming, ephemeral playhouse. You don’t have to use leftover molding like my dad did, any thin wooden pole or bamboo rod will work. For each teepee, put five or six poles, about 5 to 6 feet long, in the ground in a circle, approximately 3 feet in diameter. Prop or tie the tops together. Plant pole beans around each stake. Water and mulch, then watch as each teepee leafs out, creating a private space just for small people.

Gardening with your kids gives them many gifts. They learn where food really comes from.  They learn how to work together with others towards a common goal. They learn a practical skill. They learn how fresh food tastes. They learn the feel and smell of wet dirt and mulch. And they learn that they have the power to take something as small and full of potential as a seed, and nurture it until it becomes everything it was meant to be. Just like you are doing with them.