Plant the seed and it will grow… Becky Dickinson is getting out and about this spring and exploring the easiest and best vegetables to grow with children. Time to dig out the welly boots and embrace the great outdoors.
So, you’ve decided to grow your own. Maybe you’re on the waiting list for an allotment, or are lucky enough to have one already. Whether you have a whole plot, a veg patch in the garden, or a few containers, you really don’t need green fingers to grow your own veg. In fact, it’s child’s play. First thing’s first: deciding what to plant.
For guaranteed plot-to-plate results, there are three things to remember: which crops are easy and fun to grow, which vegetables are expensive to buy in shops and which vegetables your family are likely to eat. So, while broad beans may be low-maintenance, if they’re going to end up in the dog’s bowl, it’s probably not worth it. And while potatoes may be popular, they’re relatively cheap to buy, widely available, and take up a lot of space on a veg patch. With these points in mind, here is a specially picked guide to growing veg with children.
So easy to grow, you’ll be amazed at how many courgettes you get from just one or two plants. By mid-summer you’ll be pleading with your neighbours to take them off your hands. What’s more, slugs and bugs tend to leave them alone.
Sow a few seeds indoors, or in a greenhouse, in early spring. When all risk of frost has passed, plant outside in a spacious, sunny spot, or even a grow-bag. All you have to do is remember to water them.
Courgettes have an unfair reputation for being bland and watery, but you don’t have to boil them. Try them frittered, fried, roasted or made into ratatouille. You can even make courgette cake.
Most kids like carrots and even the fussiest of eaters can often be persuaded to try a one, especially if they’ve pulled it from the ground themselves. For extra excitement, why not try multi-coloured varieties?
First, rake the soil, removing any stones, then scatter the seeds thinly in rows. If possible, cover with netting to ward off carrot fly.
For fun and wow factor, you can’t beat pumpkins. Sow a few seeds in pots in early spring then plant outdoors when the seedlings are big enough to handle. By Halloween they’ll be ready for carving and your children will be amazed at how large they’ve become. What’s more, nothing goes to waste, you can use the flesh to make soups, curries, pies and cakes.
Packed with goodness, tomatoes make ideal snacks for little fingers. Try sweet cherry varieties, such as Tumbler. They can be grown in containers and hanging baskets, so don’t take up space, and require less maintenance than other varieties. Sow seeds from March to May in pots of compost. When the risk of frost has passed, plant the seedlings in your hanging basket or container. Tomatoes need regular watering and feeding. For extra sweet results, feed your tomatoes with nettle tea. Gather a bag full of nettle leaves (wear gloves!) Soak in water for a couple of weeks, then pour over your tomatoes. Beetroot Forget those vinegary things that come out of jars and think roasted with goat’s cheese, or even beetroot chocolate brownies. Packed with antioxidants and nutrients, beetroot are virtually fail proof and are ideal for beginners. They take up very little space and can even be grown in containers. Plant directly into the soil and harvest when golf ball size.
Lettuce, rocket, spinach, or cut-and-come-again leaves. Salad grows so fast, it will be on your plate just weeks after sowing. It also tends to be expensive to buy in shops, so growing your own can save you a packet. Unfortunately, slugs like it too, but you can protect your crops by growing in raised beds or containers, and covering young seedlings.
Not those stringy, hairy things that old people swear by, but lovely, tender, French beans. These make delicious finger foods and come in two types – climbing and dwarf. The climbing varieties, such as Cobra, are the most prolific. Sow in pots indoors and keep in a warm place. When the beans are about 8cm tall in May or June, plant outside using bamboo canes for support. Or you can plant them in large tubs, making a bamboo cane ‘teepee’ for support.
Freshly picked peas taste unrecognisable from the things you buy in shops. My children eat them like sweets, straight from the plant. The only problem is trying to bring some home!
The easiest types to grow are mange tout and sugar snap varieties. Dig a trench, 5cm deep, then sow the seeds about 7.5cm apart. Cover with soil and press down gently. The plants will need some support to scramble up, such as trellis, bamboo canes, netting, or some twiggy branches (pea sticks).
An ideal weaning food, squash can be grown in the same way as courgettes and pumpkins. Children love the natural sweetness, and for grown-ups, try roasted with chilli and garlic.
No vegetable plot would be complete without some fruit, and raspberries are perfect for little fingers to pick. Raspberry canes can be planted any time from November to March, providing the soil is not frozen or waterlogged. Plant in rows, or even containers. You can even go glam with ‘golden’ varieties.
A few little extras…
Gardening with children is a healthy, cheap and hugely enjoyable activity. But for best results, you’ll need more than just some packets of seeds and a trowel. These handy essentials will help ensure you don’t lose the plot.
1. Snacks, snacks and more snacks. It’s hard work, gardening, so take a supply of energy rich foods like bananas, flapjacks and dried apricots. Always take more than you think you need – it’s amazing how a couple of hours can turn into half a day. And don’t forget lots of water. You won’t want to drink from the water butt.
2. A Potty. Five minutes after putting on my gardening gloves, I can guarantee someone will say, ‘Mummy, I need a poo.’ After a few failed attempts with a flower pot and a plastic bag, a potty is now a permanent fixture at my allotment. Even if your veg patch is in the garden, a potty is easier than trailing mud into the loo every 10 minutes.
3. Their own tools. Adult tools are heavy and potentially dangerous. Invest in some good quality, colourful children’s tools, and they’ll love getting stuck in. What’s more, they’ll leave yours alone so you can get on with
4. A magnifying glass. When they get bored of weeding, a magnifying glass for looking at bugs will keep children entertained until the next snack or toilet break.
5. A sense of humour. Gardening with kids rarely produces perfect results. They’ll spill seeds, trample on seedlings, pick the wrong things and at times create extra work. You just have to laugh and remember that stuff usually grows anyway. Oh, and don’t forget the baby wipes.
For more gardening advice and seasonal recipes, visit Becky’s blog at www.allotmentmum.co.uk