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Grow a Family Garden
It’s often said that you can teach your child to eat vegetables by letting them grow their own. Well, this is the year to do it! Freshly picked vegetables usually taste sweeter, have more vitamins and minerals per piece and are so easy to grow.

To start your garden, here’s what you’ll need:
  • A hose and/or watering can
  • An old spoon and fork
  • A digging stick and sticks to label plants
If you prefer to plant a container garden, you’ll need:
  • Milk cartons, empty cans, a dishpan or bucket. Poke small drainage holes in the bottoms before planting.
  • A bag of potting soil blended for vegetable container gardens.
Start by deciding which vegetables your child would like to plant. If this is your first attempt, plan on familiar foods like green beans, lettuce, collards, cherry tomatoes or green peppers. Spinach grows well but contains a natural chemical that can bother a toddler’s mouth if eaten raw.

Next, find an area in your yard that gets full sun during the day. For garden planting, keep it small. Preparing the soil can be hard for little ones, so you’ll have to get in there, too, probably with a hoe and a cultivator. Once you have loosened and prepared the soil, your child can work the patch with a rake or hand cultivator.

As you’re working together, find out what your child knows about gardens. Does she know that this is where food comes from all over the world? I once accompanied some 10- and 11-year-olds to a dairy farm only to find they were shocked that milk came from cows. They thought it came from a market!

It’s important that children understand the sources of the food they eat. You can talk about different foods and where they come from: fruit from trees, potatoes and carrots from underground, tomatoes, beans, peas and pumpkins from vines and so on.

Does your child know that both plants and people need fresh air, sunshine and water to grow strong? That’s something else you can talk about while you’re digging.

Planning your garden

In the garden, taller plants should go in the back so as not to shade the short growers.

If planting by seed, wait until the ground is warm and read the package instructions about how deep to plant and when to thin. If you have birds, you might wish to cover the seeds with some burlap or cheesecloth until they start to grow.

Planting with seedlings gives faster results, but also required more digging. A mix of seeds and seedlings shortens the waiting and also extends the growing season for your young one. He can use his planting stick to make the holes for the seeds, and to make this really his, let him do most of the planting. Water well when finished and have your child label his “crops” with craft sticks.

Container gardens are very successful and can be placed on a patio, porch or fire escape—just make sure there is plenty of sun. Pot gardens also eliminate crossbreeding of plants, such as cucumbers and zucchini, and collards and spinach.

Gardening teaches so much to little kids, including responsibility. Forgetting to water on a hot day can be a disaster, but a lesson well learned. Instruct your little gardener to water the soil instead of the leaves so that the thirsty roots get what they need and the leaves don’t get burned by the sun. The confidence they develop is amazing as their garden start to grow and change. Teach them how to weed and keep the soil loose using a fork.

When it’s time to start harvesting these wonderful vegetables, encourage your child to eat them right off the plant, after washing. Then suggest a way to include them in a family meal. Imagine the delight and pride of presenting something for dinner that they grew themselves. For most children, growing their own vegetables will become a yearly event.

Here’s a fun garden project: a pizza pot!

You’ll need:
  • A large clay pot with soil
  • A cherry tomato plant
  • Herbs: one sweet basil and one oregano
The herbs will grow quickly, so cut them, tie the stems with a twist tie and hang them upside down to dry (I usually clip them with a clothespin and hang them from a hook).

When the tomatoes are ripened, using a pre-made pizza crust, a small can of pizza sauce and shredded mozzarella cheese, let your child make a pizza by covering the crust with sauce and sprinkling the cheese. Slice the tomatoes and have your child place then on top of the cheese. Strip the dried herbs from their stems and crush in your hands as you sprinkle them over the pizza. Bake at 425 degrees Fahrenheit, until the cheese is melted and the crust is crispy.

Susan M. Leisner RD, IBCLC, RLC Nutritionist & Lactation Consultant