Organic gardening is a great way to get kids excited about healthy lifestyle choices. "Fun is just the beginning when it comes to kids in the garden. Good food choices, healthier kids, saving a few pennies, self-esteem and confidence are added bonuses," says organic gardener and children's gardening educator Laura Taylor, of Tomato Matters. These tips will help make the experience rewarding for the whole family.
Garden From the Ground Up
Visions of vigorous green leaves and irresistible edibles can only become a reality if you have healthy soil. For small-scale organic gardening, a professional soil test isn't necessary unless you've had past problems. Instead, grab a shovel and enlist a pair of little hands to conduct your own soil test. Turn up a small patch of earth in your garden (or its future site) and let your little helper poke around in what you've unearthed. The soil should appear dark brown or black, evenly moist and full of critters like earwigs and earthworms. If your soil is not chocolaty brown, amend it with compost or fill a raised bed with high-quality organic garden soil.
Get the Most From Compost
Not only does compost stand as the gold standard for healthy soil, but it also serves as a fun and valuable lesson for children. "Kids love to compost and turn the soil to see what they find: veggie scraps, egg shells, worms and more" explains Stacey Antine, a registered dietitian and founder of the highly- acclaimed children's nutrition program HealthBarnUSA. She teaches the children she works with that heavily-processed food is not suitable for composting. "I always ask, 'If you can’t feed the compost this food, why do you eat it?' They immediately start thinking in a new way that decreases the amount of processed foods they eat. Making this connection is invaluable."
Seeds Versus Plants
Growing your own organic garden plants from seed gives children the experience of witnessing the entire life cycle. However, it often requires considerably more planning, as many garden favorites must be started indoors weeks before you plant them. If you get a late start, go with carrot, radish and bean seeds, which can be sown directly in the ground. For other vegetables, such as tomatoes and peppers, you might want to simplify things by purchasing garden-ready plants. Check with smaller independent garden centers and greenhouses, which often stock plants sourced from nearby growers. Additionally, local farmers and organic gardeners frequently sell surplus garden plants at farmers markets or through classified ads.
Be Kind to Bugs
"Almost all insects in your garden are beneficial," says Phil Nauta, an organic land-care professional and author of "Building Soils Naturally." He discourages the use of pesticides, even organic ones, because they affect the garden's entire insect community, including pollinators and pest-eating predators. Instead, he suggests attracting beneficial insects by including a variety of flowering non-vegetable plants, providing a good supply of water and mulching with leaves or straw. "Don't worry about this attracting insect pests, as they only come calling when your plants are unhealthy," advises Nauta. Gardeners with thriving plants and a robust population of beneficial insects often only need to remove the odd pest by hand.
Embrace Small Spaces
You don't need a sizable yard for your family to reap the benefits of an organic garden. A sunny spot and the right container filled with good organic soil will do. Perhaps most important is the depth and size of the container you choose. "Some window boxes are quite shallow, and without space for the roots, the plants will be stunted," cautions Claire Vannette of Hooks & Lattice, a garden market based in Carlsbad, CA. She recommends using a container that's at least 10 inches deep and suggests planters made of cedar or redwood for organic gardening, because they're naturally rot-resistant and chemical-free. Adding a trellis to a container can maximize a small space, enabling vine crops to grow up instead of out.
Jennifer King has written and edited since 1994 and now works as a business technical writer. Her articles appear on GardenGuides, eHow and LIVESTRONG.COM. King has a Bachelor of Arts in English, a minor in Latin American and Caribbean studies, coursework in yoga and certifications in nutrition and childhood development.