Leave it to children to help us rediscover the wonder in our gardens — the heady height and weight of a mammoth sunflower, the excitement of tiny radishes pushing through the soil, the intoxicating mystery of watching kitchen scraps and yard trimmings cook into compost.
The joy of watching that joy is a bonus for adults, but what are the best ways to involve our children so their first experiences with plants are filled with discovery and wonder?
Preparation is key, said professional garden maker Lauri Kranz, owner of Edible Gardens LA and co-author of “A Garden Can Be Anywhere.” Her first gardening gig was as a volunteer tending the gardens at her sons’ schools, an interest that soon became an obsession and then a profession, after parents impressed with her handiwork at school asked her to help them create gardens at their homes.
First, find the best place to start a garden, Kranz said. You want to choose the sunniest part of your yard, one that gets at least five hours of sun in winter and six to eight when the sun is higher in summer.
“It’s really simple,” she said. “Just take a photograph of your yard every two hours between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. It can be over the course of a week — you don’t have to sit at home all day — but it’s important to make sure there aren’t any clouds in the sky. Just take a picture and email it to yourself with the time in the subject line, and once you have every two hours you can line them up and see how many hours of sun you have.”
Once you determine your sunny spot, decide whether you will grow your garden in the ground, by digging up the soil and amending it with organic compost, by building raised beds or by planting in large containers. Kranz prefers raised beds, with sides 18 to 24 inches high, because they’re a great height for kids and an easy place to perch as you work. Assemble-at-home kits are reasonably priced, she said; use kits with untreated cedar or redwood. Sunset Boulevard Nursery, 4368 Sunset Blvd. in Silver Lake, Kranz’s favorite nursery, sells 2-by-4-foot redwood kits 18 inches tall, for $118. Home Depot sells 4-by-8-foot kits with 17½-inch walls for about $206.
If you’re filling a raised bed, Kranz recommends using bags of organic potting soil, which will include all the nutrients and airiness you need for the first year’s crop. It’s a bit of an investment that first year (figure eight to 10 bags for a 2-by-4-foot bed that’s 18 inches high). Kranz uses E.B. Stone Organic’s Edna’s Best Potting Soil which is about $11 a bag. (Look for buy-two-get-one-free deals). You won’t have to buy more soil in the future. Instead, you’ll fork in some good organic compost to enrich the soil after the first crop.
Beyond that, Kranz recommends buying a big stainless steel wash tub and a bottle of seaweed extract. She chooses a tub large enough to hold two or three child-size watering cans so children can dip their cans into a tub of water enriched with a cup or so of seaweed extract, then water their plants. As long as you have good soil, she said, the plants don’t need more. (Be sure you have a reliable watering source for your garden as well, such as a drip system on a timer; vegetable gardens need consistent watering in Southern California to flourish.)
Kranz also recommends getting children involved in creating a compost pile. The easiest are the barrel or tumbler type you can turn, but both city and county water and sanitation departments offer free composting classes and discounted compost bins for $20 to $40 to city or county residents. The Los Angeles Department of Public Works has a comprehensive, easy-to-follow online composting guide that even includes instructions for worm bins.
Once you’ve done the prep, gather your children and start choosing your plants. Your child’s interest in the garden is bound to wax and wane, Kranz said, but they’re more likely to stay involved and try out new flavors and foods if they can choose at least one of the garden plants.
A good thing to remember, she said, is that the larger the seed, the easier it is for small hands to plant. If you want quick turnaround, however, radishes, which have tiny seeds, are an excellent choice, said Yvonne Savio, retired director of the Los Angeles County Master Gardener program and creator of the comprehensive Gardening in LA blog.
“They come up almost immediately, which is great for kids,” Savio said. “Lettuce is a good choice for the same reason” as long as it’s planted during the cool season (October-March).
During the warm spring and summer months, Kranz recommends using seeds to plant cucumbers, sunflowers, squash and melons (as long as you have the space and at least eight hours of sun; melons need lots of sun and room to sprawl). Tomatoes, eggplant and peppers are best planted from seedlings.
Pumpkins have similar space demands, but if you have the room, watching the vines and pumpkins expand is almost hypnotic because they grow so fast. And with pumpkins, Savio said, children can carve their names or designs on the unripe fruit and watch it expand as the pumpkins grow.
Kranz likes pumpkins for one of her favorite garden tricks, an old-fashioned “Three Sisters Garden” of beans, corn and pumpkins (or other gourd-type squash). Plant all three from seeds, with the idea that the pumpkin plants curl around the ground, keeping the roots shaded; the corn grows tall providing a place for the beans to climb and the roots of the beans put nitrogen into the soil, feeding all the plants,
You can plant them in organized hills, Kranz said, but she usually lets the children make their own pattern. “I love the wildness of everything growing together,” she said. " I don’t want to have a strict planting guide for children; I just want them to experience the joy of putting their finger into the soil, pushing in a seed and watching it grow.”