The year of the family garden: kid-friendly tips and ideas

Staff Writer
Baystateparent Magazine
Baystateparent Magazine

If you’re looking to get your child to eat more fruits and vegetables, look no further than your own backyard. 

Years of research confirms this: if they grow it, they will eat it. 

A study by Saint Louis University found that young children who were served homegrown produce were more than twice as likely to eat the recommended daily serving amount of fruits and vegetables than kids who rarely or never ate homegrown produce. 

In addition, children who grow up eating fresh-from-the-garden produce prefer the taste of fruits and vegetables to other foods. 

"Whether a food is homegrown makes a difference,” said the study. “Garden produce creates what we call a 'positive food environment.'"

If you are thinking of starting a garden this summer, or expanding your annual plantings, you’re not alone. Fruit and vegetable seed sales have jumped worldwide and an interest in gardening is booming this season. 

With families hunkered down in their homes and shortages in grocery stores, many are turning to their backyards for a family friendly hobby and access to fresh food. 

Across the country, home garden installers told USA Today that they have seen a rise in demand for their services. And at nurseries, planting supplies have flown off the shelves, the newspaper reports.

For Paula Bernier, of Webster, it was all about timing. After recently taking down an above-ground pool, she was left with a giant patch of yard to fill. 

"I couldn't think of a better time to bring in fresh vegetables in the middle of this pandemic we are in,” she said. She and her husband built an eight-by-ten foot raised garden bed to plant tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce and string beans this summer. “It will be a bonus for when our grandson visits; spending quality time picking veggies.” 

For others, it’s not so much about the harvest as it is the hobby. 

“We’ve done gardens in the past and they always seem like way more work than they are worth,” said Worcester mom of two Joyana Farnsworth. “That said, my kids really enjoy doing it so we’ll do it again this year, more for the experience than the actual crop.”

Aside from expanding their palette, gardening has some immense benefits for kids. It combines the general perks of being outside with the opportunity to tackle a project, which can improve children’s mental and physical health. 

Plus, getting dirty can be a good thing. Research has found that playing in the dirt can actually boost the body’s immune system, that digging in the dirt (and even ingesting a little bit of it) actually can help decrease a child’s risk of allergies and asthma.

But perhaps the greatest benefit to tending a garden with your child is the opportunity to instill some real-world life lessons. A garden requires responsibility and patience, but also comes with the gamble of disappointment if things don’t go as expected. What better place to offer these lessons than right in your own backyard? 

Piquing their interest

If your children prefer playing video games or scrolling their phones over getting dirty, make sure you present gardening as fun, not a chore. You can make it into a game, such as who can grow the tallest sunflower or the heaviest zucchini. 

According to nonprofit group KidsGardening, to achieve maximum buy-in you need to involve kids in all steps of the process: planning, installation and maintenance. To get started, you can find a great kid-friendly guide here

Let your child help decide which plants to grow, based on his or her interests. A cherry tomato will reward them with a sweet, bite-sized snack, or a pumpkin plant will offer something to look forward to come fall. 

KidsGardening recommends planting some veggies that kids are familiar with like green beans or carrots, along with some more unusual choices like leeks or okra. Children may discover a new favorite they wouldn’t have otherwise tried. 

Other ideas to get children into the idea is to offer them their own “plot” to take care of. Depending on the age of the child they may simply be playing in the garden or maintaining their plot pretty much on their own.

“The sense of responsibility and pride that comes with the investment of ownership leads to dedicated, enthusiastic youth gardeners,” note the experts at KidsGardening. 

Older children might like the idea of gardening as an entrepreneurial project. They can sell fresh fruits and vegetables at a sidewalk stand, canned items from their harvest, or herb crafts like potpourri or scented pillows. 

Go with a theme 

A theme garden is another way to get children excited about gardening. The inspiration for a theme garden can come from anywhere -- a story, a favorite food, a favorite color, and so on. Here are some ideas: 

Pizza Garden: Grow all the ingredients to top a homemade pizza -- tomatoes, peppers, basil, and oregano. You can even design the garden to be round like a pizza. 

Salsa Garden: Grow everything you need to make a batch of fresh salsa -- tomatoes, jalapenos, onions and cilantro. 

Herb Garden: Perfect for container or indoor gardening, you can grow an array of herbs for cooking or crafting. 

Pickle Garden: Plant cucumbers, dill and garlic to make a jar of homemade pickles. 

Book Garden: Pick out a book with a garden theme and then try to recreate it. Try a Peter Rabbit Garden and grow the veggies in Mr. McGregor’s garden -- carrots, radishes, lettuce and cabbage. 

Giant or Mini Garden: Plant varieties that will grow super big like giant sunflowers or pumpkins. Or, plant varieties that will stay really small like baby carrots and tiny pumpkins.

Rainbow Garden: Pick one color and plant a variety of fruits and vegetables in that hue. For example, a Red Garden could include strawberries, bell peppers, rhubarb and tomatoes. Or, try to grow plants with as many colors as you can, and arrange your garden by shade.