Friday, June 5, 2009

Family Gardening: What to Plant?

There are so many plants to choose from these days, it can be hard to know where to start. For those of you planning and planting a family garden with your kids (or with a group of kids such as a summer day camp, scout group or church group), here are a few ideas to help frame some interesting options that kids will enjoy:

  • Giants, Minis, and Oddballs. When planting vegetables, think about oddities or extremes. They can be used to create a vegetable garden that is fun and interesting for kids. Also, most kids are more willing to try eating something that they have grown themselves, especially if it’s something different from the norm. Try planting giant varieties planted next to miniature ones to create a contrast, or strange-looking varieties. For a nice miniature tomato, try growing cherry tomatoes (my personal favorite is Sungold) right next to a giant variety like Park’s Whopper. Yard-long beans—an Asian type of string bean that truly does grow very long—are a fun bean to plant on a trellis or bamboo teepee. A nice colorful vegetable is the beautiful Swiss Chard called Bright Lights—the multi-hued stems look like old-fashioned ribbon candy, and create a lovely little rainbow right in your garden! You’ll be looking for recipes to try with your new-found crop. Don’t forget squash—it’s a great plant that is extremely easy to grow, so you can almost guarantee success. A few squash will produce enough to feed your entire family and all your friends, and there are some fun ‘different’ varieties, too, such as a small round squash called Eight Ball.
  • Floral Bounty. There are endless flowers that would be ideal for a children’s garden area. Zinnias would top my list (any kind), along with Sunflowers (Helianthus) and Tithonias, also called Mexican Sunflowers—they have bright orange daisy-like flowers, and the leaves are fuzzy and shaped like a dinosaur’s foot/paw. (No, I’ve never seen a dinosaur’s foot/paw-- which is it, anyway? However, this is what the kids I’ve worked with say, and it really does look like a three-toed foot. They make great dinosaur leaf prints…) There are so many options it’s hard to limit—it really just depends on the space you have available and the amount of sun or shade you have. Take your child and let them pick out a few flowers to try. It's a great outing. Plus, experimenting with something new fosters a wonderful aptitude for exploration and discovery—key components to critical thinking that are essential for developing young scientists as well as creative artists!
  • Herbal Delights. Create a fragrant sensory experience by making sure to plant a few herbs in your garden. Many have fragrant foliage, and it is simply delightful to brush against them and release their scent as you are working in the garden or just strolling through. Plus, you have the added benefit of having fresh herbs just outside your door that you can add to your meals. Basil is extremely easy to grow, as is mint, rosemary, and lemon balm. All of these—and many more—are very kid-friendly, and very commonly available at your local nursery. I especially like lemon balm and mint, as you can steep them and make your own herbal tea, or use them to flavor your iced tea. Some folks say that they will ‘invade,’ but I have never found them to be truly invasive—they just like to spread out. Makes me feel like a really successful gardener! They are easy to keep in check—you just pull up the surface runners, and then you have some to share with a friend.
  • Heirloom Heritage. Try planting some heirloom varieties. These are plants that have been grown for generations, with seed collected and passed down from one person to another. With heirloom plants you can collect and save your own seed to plant again next year, which is a fun and interesting activity in and of itself at the end of the season—a wonderful scavenger hunt in your own backyard! Heirloom vegetables, in particular, are some of the best-tasting varieties of vegetables you can grow. Many companies carry heirloom varieties along with hybridized ones—heirloom tomatoes like Brandywine and Mortgage Lifter are popular, and there are many more available. Plant several different types and conduct your own taste test—they will be the best-tasting tomatoes you ever put in your mouth!
  • Gourd-geous. Last but not least, grow some gourds. These are just plain fun—they grow very rapidly, and it’s amazing to see just how fast the gourds grow and take shape. Harvest some for bird houses or other crafts. You and your kids will all be enchanted to have a bird house you grew yourself! There are an endless variety of vegetables, herbs, and flowers to plant—I could go on and on. The point is to have fun experimenting and try some new things.

Obviously, this list of plants could go on and on. I would love to hear what the favorite plants are in your family garden. What do your kids enjoy? What do you have the most success with? How do you use the harvest from your garden? Please write and let me know!

Happy Gardening!

Dr. Cindy

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