BY OLYA FESSARD
Ever since First Lady Michelle Obama planted the first garden on The White House grounds since Eleanor Roosevelt’s Victory Garden, families around the country have been trying to figure out ways to get their kids involved. Gardening benefits kids’ health and well-being, their attitudes towards learning and the environment, their connections to community, their attitudes towards nutrition, and so much more. There are lots of ways to get kids away from the TV and into the garden.
Plan your garden
Spend time planning how your vegetable garden will look. It’s also a good idea to plan exactly where the various heights will go in order to make sure that the tall plans are not shading the lower ones. If your garden will be in your front yard, color, patterns, and heights are important. Strawberries are a low-maintenance and attractive ground cover. Blueberries can make striking shrubs. It doesn’t take a lot of extra effort to work these plants into your yard.” Now is the time for Middle Georgians to begin to order and plant their seeds indoors as Spring is around the corner. Pay attention to their sunlight needs.
Get ready, set, grow
To provide the optimum growing conditions, and to avoid disease and insect problems, seeds should be started in a soilless growing mix, not in garden soil. A good soilless mix is a moist and spongy blend of sphagnum moss, vermiculite, and perlite. The finer the texture the better. When starting seeds indoors, in the garden, or planting nursery plants, it’s a good idea to stagger your planting dates so as to extend your harvest time. Grow-lights are great for starting seeds, but not essential if you have a south-facing window. Seeds don’t need light to germinate, but seedlings need 14 to 16 hours of natural or manufactured light. The University of Georgia also suggests you plant vegetables continuously by setting a new crop in the ground as soon as you finish harvesting another. Your cooperative extension office has a list of ideal planting dates for each crop. The planting area should get at least six hours of sun.
Be realistic about your time investment
Don’t plan for a larger garden than you can manage. Weeding, watering, and fertilizing will all be necessary. Kids will love to help with most of these chores. Aw, well, maybe not weeding!
Consider how much you spend on fruits and vegetables
The U. S. Department of Agriculture recommends that we eat five or more cups of fruits and vegetables per day. A packet of seeds is equivalent to three tomatoes. A tomato plant is about double that cost, but the resulting harvest will recover the price many times over. Growing our own fruits and vegetables gives you the opportunity to stretch your food dollar. More importantly, it can help you to eat safer and healthier. Summers are especially harsh in Georgia. However, tomatoes, squash, melons, carrots radishes, peppers, bell, serano, jalapeño, cayenne and sweet peppers. Lettuce and turnips do well here in cool weather. While fruit trees are a high expenditure, within two or three years, you will harvest enough fruit to make them well worth the price and effort. Peach, kiwi, pear, pomegranate, and apple do well in Middle Georgia if you choose the variety with care. Be sure to note before purchasing if the variety is self-pollinating or if you need to purchase both female and male varieties.
Go vertical with materials such as Wooly Pockets. Create an outdoor sanctuary by turning any wall or fence into a living jungle with lush tropical plants, succulents or even natives. Easily attached to wood, concrete, masonry and chain link, the wooly pockets create the perfect nest for a happy family of plants. Herbs love this type of gardening. Drive stakes at each end of your tomato row. Then string a twine from stakes in the ground up to the topmost “clothes line” to give a higher yield in the same amount of space. Fruit trees are beautiful espaliered against a wall and it economizes space at the same time.
Traditionally, raised beds have been built with lumber, railroad ties, or concrete blocks. If you use railroad ties for a vegetable garden, be sure to line the bed or the ties will leach chemicals into your vegetables. Use untreated lumber, salvaged boards are great. If your garden is in an out-of-the-way area, a couple of stacked tires make individual raised beds. If you cut the upper sidewall, you’ll gain more planting space. This type of gardening is especially great if your yard has soil that is not very suitable for gardening. You can easily custom-design your soil if need be. Plan your raised bed with accessibility in mind. You should be able to reach your harvest. For peppers and tomatoes, stake early or create a framework that can accommodate a five-foot tall bush. When they go upward, you can plant them closer together. Raised beds built at an appropriate level can also help reduce the aches and pains produced by kneeling or bending over a garden plot. This advantage makes raised beds perfect for gardeners with arthritis, or disabled and elderly gardeners.
If your space doesn’t allow for a straight border, you might consider burying quart jars about three inches into the ground and fill the exposed space with good gardening soil. If aesthetics are important, be sure to use jars of a consistent diameter, though varying the colors of blue, brown, clear, and aqua can make for a gorgeous design, even for your front landscaping. Appropriate lengths of small posts can create the same appeal and convenience. Of course, a retaining wall of bricks is a classic.
Even if you don’t have room for a regular garden, your kids can still enjoy growing and harvesting fresh vegetables. Container gardens helps you control where your little one works and allows him or her to experiment with different plants and environmental conditions. Plastic containers or terracotta are ideal for this type of gardening—they are easier to move than their heavier ceramic and wood counterparts, easier to create drainage holes in, and are an excellent choice for those little gardeners who water too much or not enough.
Does your kid love wildlife? Be sure to plant enough for the birds. While they won’t pollinate your crop as the butterflies and bees do, they will bring joy and music to your garden. March is a good time to help your kids construct a birdhouse, too. It’s particularly exciting if you can build the birdhouse or a feeder with salvaged materials.
Freshness you can taste
Your child can grow his or her own herbs year round with a plastic Eco Garden Herb Kit. This versatile kit is useable either inside or outside with pots, trays, and germination lids all made of recycled plastics. He can also devise his own mini-greenhouse with plastic vegetable containers such as those spinach come in from the grocery store to get an early start, and then transplant to a larger pot. Be sure to plan the use of both your child’s harvest and your own. Learning how to dry and store herbs can make a great rainy day project. Plan in advance how you will give away or put away by freezing, drying, or canning your fresh bounty. By planting some of your tomatoes as late as May, you can still enjoy green fried tomatoes in autumn.