In vegetable gardening, along with valuable lessons of patience as they wait for vegetables to grow, responsibility as they care for plants, and even death as they feel a loss for a flower at the end of the season, children will also develop a greater connection to food and where it comes from. Vegetable gardening introduces children to all kinds of plants. Some of them are good to smell, some good to touch, and some are good to eat. Learning the names of plants is a great way to also teach children respect for nature.
Ok, so “How does your garden grow” as the title of my column asks. Or, the question on my mind each morning when I head out to the garden is what’s for dinner depending on what gets picked?
Harvesting is what gets kids most excited in the garden. Seeing that little seed magically develop into a juicy red tomato or a big green squash is an exciting learning opportunity. Make it a morning ritual with your kids. Carrying a basket full of produce you have grown or filling your t-shirt with your garden treasures because you forgot to bring your basket creates such a feeling of accomplishment and success.
So what do you pick and when? Most vegetables taste best when they are small. Zucchini and cucumbers for example are best picked when they are no more than 6-7 inches long. Be careful, because they are green they hide among the leaves and can quickly grow to be huge and not editable. They will taste tough and woody if you wait too long to pick.
Make sure you know the characteristics of the vegetables you are going to pick by looking at your seed packet for the description. For example, there is a big difference as to when to pick a cherry or grape tomato or a full size beefsteak tomato, so make sure you know what you planted. Peppers can be picked when full size and if left on the bush can turn colors or become hotter depending on the variety. Leafy vegetables such as lettuce should be picked before the plant develops a flower stalk (called bolting) which makes the leaves taste bitter. Many types of greens can be cut with a scissors and will grow again for a second or third crop before it goes to seed in the summer heat.
Many vegetables such as green beans or peas will get tough or go to seed if left on the vine too long. Young and tender is the best. Keep picking to get subsequent crops. Melons are difficult to know when they are ripe. Color and smell help farmers to know when to pick.
Root crops such potatoes or carrots are tastier and more tender if dug when they are younger and smaller.
Herbs can be harvested all summer by making successive cuttings. Generally cut no more than 1/3 of the stems length. Nasturtiums can also be harvested throughout the growing season for salads. Include petals of the flowers as well as the leaves for crisp, colorful peppery salads. As a side note I planted these all along the fence line of the garden this year and the peppery smell has kept the rabbits and squirrels away.
Create a harvesting culture with your children with harvest walks and baskets and then get your children involved in the preparation and planning of meals with the vegetables you picked from the garden.
Children learn best when they are a part of the activity. Growing and harvesting a vegetable garden presents many learning opportunities and time well spent together as a family. It’s a magical time. Being an advocate of magic and fairies and a Master Gardener and Teacher combining the two for me is the best of both worlds. My picture book Emberlina Sprite-a-Light is an excellent way to introduce your little one to gardening. (www.spritealights.com)
“I don’t think we will ever know all there is to know about
gardening and I’m just as glad there will always be some
magic about it.” Barbara Damrosch