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I’ve spent my career gardening at pace. I’ve grown produce in market gardens, on farms and historic vegetable gardens and every time the team has needed to work quickly to achieve the daily tasks. This month is notoriously busy to juggle. The May-hem that ensues when everything you have raised in the greenhouse needs to be planted in one hit as the frosts subside.
With this is mind, having my daughter whilst setting up a large garden project of my own has been a substantial lesson in patience. Nothing moves fast with a toddler in tow, and nothing could have prepared me for the havoc they can wreak in a greenhouse. Tools are swung perilously close to the glass, plant labels are removed and put back in the wrong trays and seedlings are stamped on. They are essentially another pest to worry about!
However, if your nerves can stand it, a greenhouse provides a warm, sheltered environment for children to explore gardening. And I do take immeasurable pleasure from watching my daughter grow (in more ways than one). Seeing her take pride in her own little strawberry patch, wanting to show her pals when they visit - watching her dig for worms and pick her own pea shoots – all this is wonderful to observe. She has taught me to slow down and see the beauty in gardening again.
It’s a mixed bag gardening with kids – frustrating if you want to achieve much, but joyous to see the benefits they glean from getting stuck in. So here’s some tips on how to engage children with growing their own in your greenhouse, whilst still cracking on yourself.
First off don’t assume your child is going to stay engaged with gardening sessions for very long! Mine has a fairly short attention span, so I always create an area in the greenhouse with books and toys where she can hang out while I work.
She loves digging for worms in our raised beds, so I have left a small section of raised bed clear for her to do this, without worrying about damage to crops. She was scared of worms at first, but overtime she has warmed to them (as I tell her they’re our best friends in the garden) and now she can’t get enough!
I don’t dress her in anything special when we’re outside, which means I don’t worry if she gets dirty. She gets her hands in the soil just like me. It’s healthy organic soil so I’m not concerned about her wearing gloves. I just make sure she wears a plaster if she has any grazes.
If you have space, give your child their own little plot and a set of kid’s tools. Mine has half a raised bed in the greenhouse where she is currently growing strawberries, violas and pea shoots. She has planted them, waters them with her little watering can and snacks on the flowers and shoots. She checks the strawberries daily to watch them grow. I can see she has a real sense of pride in HER tiny patch which keeps her interested.
Popular Crops to grow with your kids
Strawberries and Alpine Strawberries
Universally loved, strawberries are an easy win with children (as long as you can stop them plucking off the unripe ones)! You should get early crops in your greenhouse and why not try a really fragrant variety like Gariguette. Alpine strawberries are a real treat to snack on too and look like little jewels. Try edging raised beds with variety ‘White Soul’ for a pineapple flavour hit and ‘Alexandria’ and ‘Mignonette’ for red types.
We are growing some in our greenhouse raised bed for early crops, but potatoes are versatile and as well as in the ground, they can be grown in pots, 40L compost sacks or specific potato planter bags. They are easy for kids to handle and plant, and even as an adult there’s something magical about rummaging beneath the soil and discovering your yield. Aim for first and second early varieties that can be followed by other crops. Tell your child to keep monitoring for flowers as that is when they are ready to harvest.
Nothing beats the sweet flavour pop of a home-grown cherry tomato. Children can be involved in all stages of nurture, from seed sowing to planting to pinching out side-shoots. There is a lot of tending before fruits appear, which teaches kids the care that goes into growing food and may subliminally give them a greater appreciation! Add ‘Brad’s Atomic Grape’ with its crazy colours and delicate sweetness to your sowing list for next year.
Pea shoots and Radish
Pea shoots were an unexpected hit with my daughter. We multi-sowed 3 seeds per module and planted out as one. The seeds are easy for little hands to handle and peas are quick to grow satisfying any impatience. Once the shoots have reached 20cm tall we started to pinch out the shoots and they bushed out, producing more. They taste intensely of peas and she loves them! Radishes are another quick crop which have been a hit (as long as they are harvested young and not too peppery!). A nice one to grow when you’re reading Peter Rabbit. Try ‘Cherry Belle’ or ‘French Breakfast’ for early greenhouse crops.
Beans, Corn and Squash
We built a raised bed in the centre of our greenhouse, which means growing taller crops like beans and corn is possible. Beans romp away creating a jack-in-the-bean stalk tepee with edible flowers and pods. Colourful varieties of French bean that can be left to dry on the plant and shelled are magical for kids. Borlotto beans with their pretty red streaks are beautiful. And why not try Popcorn – ‘Glass Gem’ Popcorn from Real Seeds is the prettiest corn around with an incredible mix of multicoloured seeds. Any sort of winter squash or pumpkin is otherworldly – the stuff of fairy tales. Indoors, aim for small fruiting varieties like ‘Jack-be-little’ pumpkins or ‘Delicata’ and ‘Hokkaido’ winter squashes that you can train upwards.
Herbs and edible flowers
Anything sensory goes down a treat with children, so good smells and bright colours are a must. Interspersing lots of flowering herbs and edible flowers amid your veg is a win for kids but also for the pollinators that you want to lure inside. This will give you the additional fun of spotting ladybirds, bees, butterflies and other insects with your child. Try calendula, tagetes and violas and allow them to snack on the petals. Sunflowers are an obvious hit too – Sunzilla is a variety with huge heads and seeds. Dried sunflower seed heads can then be hung outside as winter food for the birds.
Growing Lemon Verbena is essential with its lemon sherbet scent, along with mint (try peppermint, apple mint, chocolate mint and strawberry mint for something different) and scented pelargoniums are lovely too – ‘Attar of Roses’ has an intense Turkish Delight scent and leaves can be infused into stewed fruit and ice creams. All these perform well in pots.
Soil and compost
Teaching your child the importance of healthy soil is so important, but hard to translate to a toddler! I involve my daughter in the compost process – she helps carry the food scraps to the compost heap and we dig around for worms. We also have a wormery – a great piece of kit especially if you have a smaller space and fascinating for children. You buy specific composting worms to add to your worm bin (wormery) that break down your food waste and turn it into lovely compost.
I hope some of these tips will help growing and gardening with your children lots of fun for them, and help you to retain your sanity!