Featured post by Charity Hawkins of The Homeschool Experiment
Planting a garden is a great way to teach kids about healthy food, how plants grow, and the spiritual lessons of God bringing a harvest. March is just the time to begin!
It’s okay if you don’t know anything. Go to the nearest farm store (preferably one where they actually know something, not a big home improvement store), find a man in overalls, and he’ll help you. The people at farm stores or nurseries are usually very knowledgeable. If you don’t have a farm store or nursery, you can try a university extension office for seed planting charts and people who know something.
Just start; you’ll figure it out as you go. It will be a fun adventure and you’ll know more at the end of the summer than the beginning! Think of the fun you and your children will have learning all this together!
1. Get the garden bed ready (before the kids start helping).
If this is your first garden ever, start small. You can use an old plastic wading pool—hack some holes in the bottom of it with your garden spade, fill it up with a few bags of dirt, and you’re good to go. We did this a few years back and it worked great. You’d think the roots would have to go down deeper than the depth of the pool, but somehow our pepper plants figured it out and did really well.
If your husband values landscaping tidiness and (understandably) does not want an old wading pool cluttering up the backyard, you could use pots. I have mostly done basil and tomatoes in pots, but I’m sure lots of things would work well.
If you have a husband who is not an accountant and is not working every Saturday in February and March, maybe he could build you a raised garden bed. Or if you have a wonderful, wonderful father-in-law, he might come over and help you out. A raised bed is good because it gets filled with nice healthy soil instead of grass, and it has good drainage.
If you already have a garden from last year, you’ll need to weed it and get the soil ready. I pay some neighborhood boys to come over and till the dirt with their gas-powered tillers. In an hour they have the garden ready to plant, and it’s worth the thirty dollars for me not to have to spend two days weeding and tilling by hand. You can also ask the people at your farm store what you should add to your soil to make it rich for the plants to grow. It will depend on your area and soil, but they’ll sell you a big bag of something. (If you feel up to it, you can read online about how to make a simple compost heap, and then next year you’ll have your own great compost to add to your the garden.)
2. Go to the farm store or nursery (with the kids).
Since it’s March, you’ll be looking for “cool weather” crops, like spinach, radishes, most kinds of lettuces, peas, and possibly beans. What you plant and the exact dates will depend what the temperature is like where you live. The nursery or farm store should have a handout of dates for your area, but I’d call first to make sure, because if not you’ll need to look this up online and see what you should be planting now.
Our spring garden always does vastly better than our summer one. I forget to water a lot, and Oklahoma is crazy hot in the summer, so our summer garden (peppers, tomatoes, squash) wilts and limps along. But spring gardens are great because a) you probably want to be outside in the sunshine anyway b) you can count this as science and c) the weather is more conducive to not killing things—usually there is rain and reasonable temperatures.
Get your packets of seeds (we typically do spinach, lettuces, arugula, peas, radishes and beans), and then get all your shovels and spades and head to the garden. You can learn how to save seeds and plant them the next year, but I’m not sure if this always works. (I think it has to do with if it’s a hybrid or how it pollinates or some other words I don’t really understand.) I keep meaning to check into it, because that would be much more economical. If you’re new to gardening, just buy the seeds. If you’re interested later, you can try to figure out how to preserve seeds for next year’s garden.
3. Plant the seeds.
My kids love digging in the dirt, so here they are breaking up the soil after the neighborhood guys tilled it. This breaks up the big chunks so the roots can grow better. (We were ignoring those monstrous weeds in the background.)
Last year I sat my toddler down at one end so he could continue his merry digging, and my daughter and son (ages seven and five) made rows and dropped in the seeds. Basically, you make a long indentation in the dirt, then sprinkle the seeds in. You’ll thin them out later, plus the kids will not be too exact about all this. The basic idea is to just get them in the ground roughly in a line.
4. Mark your rows.
I give the older kids popsicle sticks and we write the names of each seed on them with Sharpies. These are our row markers. (This counts as handwriting and spelling. If you wanted, you could talk about the inches between rows and work some math in there too.)
5. Water the garden. Pray for it. Talk about God.
I usually tell my kids the verse about “I planted, Apollos watered, but God makes it grow” I Corinthians 3:6. We talk about how we plant the seeds, but God gives sunshine and rain, and he makes the plants grow.
There are so many spiritual applications with seeds. As you read the Bible with your children, you can look for more. A simple one is how the seeds are like when we hide God’s word in our heart, but we have to pull out the weeds (distractions, sin) that would eventually kill out our plants. When we weed, we talk about the weeds being like sin that would eventually choke out our good plants.
6. Care for your garden (let the kids help weed and water).
Whenever you’re out in the backyard, preferably at least weekly, pull out the weeds. When the sprouts start to come up (shown below), you’ll want to thin out the plants, to give them enough room to grow. My kids love this. Look at those babies (these pictures are from several years ago), happily thinning out the garden!
7. Observe it (integrate science).
If you have the time and inclination, this would make a great observation for a science or nature journal. Charlotte Mason, an eighteenth century educator, advocated learning science through lots of hands-on observation. You could have your kids draw a picture of the seed, then the sprout, then the full-grown plant and make as many observations as they can. Try to stick with the same plant from start to finish. So, draw the radish seed, then the plant, then when you pull it, before you deliver it to Grandma’s house (or eat it), draw the radish. That would be a gorgeous one to do a watercolor of, because of that vibrant red color.
If you have a preschooler, you could have her tell you a few sentences about her seed or her gardening, then you write it down and she could draw a picture. An elementary school student might draw a picture, look up the names of the parts of the seed in a book and label it, and write a few observations. I would think even a high school or junior high student could do this, just with beautiful illustrations and observations. See Edith Holden’s exquisite The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady for nature journal inspiration.
8. Pick it and eat it (May/June).
The first year I planted a garden, I totally forgot about picking and eating the food! I had no idea when I was supposed to do that! If you planted those cool-weather seeds, they will be ready for harvest around May/June, depending on your location and weather. Basically, when the heat comes, your lettuce will start to wilt. I usually head out to the garden with scissors in May (or send my son out with safety scissors) and start snipping off the baby leaves directly into my salad spinner where I will wash them.
You want to wash your greens very, very well, so maybe fill your salad spinner up three or four times with water and drain it out. Because that lovely salad won’t taste nearly as good if you find a dead caterpillar in it, trust me.
If you do happen to find live caterpillars on your greens though, or tiny jewel-like green eggs, this is GREAT! Do not throw them back. Put them in a big Glad plastic container, poke some holes in the lid, and now you have caterpillars to raise. They are probably cabbage moths (white with a black dot on the wing). For food, you want to give them whatever leaf you found them on. Butterflies and moths are very picky about what they eat, so give them the kind of food they like. You can identify what type of butterfly it is by what the caterpillar looks like. Basically, you keep giving it the food it likes, and put some sticks in the container, and give it a wet paper towel in there so it has some water. Then, when it’s eaten a lot and gotten very big and fat, it will make a cocoon and you and your children get to watch it hatch out as a butterfly! I will try to do a whole separate post about that sometime, but you can read about it online or get a book from your library about it.
I love having fresh arugula because it’s so expensive in the store, and it’s nice to have greens readily available for salads and spring rolls. My kids get so excited to dig for radishes, and though they don’t like the taste because they’re so spicy, they love to collect them and take them to their radish-loving grandma. Their garden favorites are spinach leaves dipped in raspberry vinaigrette and the yummy, yummy peas.
If you still have energy after the spring garden, you can plant tomatoes, peppers, squash, and basil (lots and lots of basil) when it gets warmer. Those are a lot of fun to eat, but you do have to actually remember to water and weed them, which I can’t seem to do. My herbs (basil, cilantro, dill and fennel for butterflies) do the best.
Our beans usually don’t make it, I think because it gets so hot and we forget to water them enough. If you can, put your hose on a timer. I finally got my outside faucet repaired, so I’m going to try to do a timer. Maybe this is the year our summer crops will thrive!
Moms, have fun with your gardens, enjoy your kiddos, and simply see what God makes grow!