Growing food for and with your family is a very satisfying hobby and an important teaching tool for kids. When children and teens tend to living plants and participate in growing food, they will eat better, waste less and understand the value of contributing to a healthier planet.
Amidst Covid-19 and summer camps being closed, we thought it would be the perfect time to speak with Liz Rueven and get the basics down pat.
What are the most important supplies for beginning gardeners?
High-quality soil and pots or raised beds with good drainage are the first elements of successful gardening. Organic soil that includes compost is the best way to start.
Have a hose with a spritz nozzle set up near your planting area. Keep a full-size watering can for you and a smaller one for the kids near your hose.
You will also need, waterproof gardening gloves, a trowel, and hand rake.
Once you have chosen your plants and see that they have taken root, ask your garden center which all-purpose organic fertilizer is best for the plants you have.
How do I choose the best spot to start a garden? Am I looking for more sun/less sun?
In general, almost all veggies, fruit, and flowers like a lot of sun. The exceptions are lettuces, kale and spinach, which are planted in early spring and benefit from shade in the summer. They are “cool weather” crops which will eventually die in the summer heat but can be planted for a second round once the evenings cool again in late September.
How do I come up with a good design for my garden?
Watch the sun rotate around your home and notice where the sunniest spots are. If you have partial sun, observe approximately how many hours of sun your chosen spot receives. Beginner gardeners may want to consider planting in containers and putting only one to three plants in each pot. This keeps things manageable and portable if you’ve miscalculated the conditions.
If you’d like to plant in the ground, raised beds are great for keeping the soil and water run-off contained. These are easy to build or are readily available at your garden center. Be sure the wood is untreated so you are not contaminating your organic plants.
What kind of soil should I use in containers?
Buy organic soil with compost already included. Organic soil is very important, as are organically grown plant seedlings. This way, you will feel safe eating the bounty of your garden.
When should I start my garden?
Ideally, you start thinking about your garden plan by March so you can plant cold weather greens (lettuces, kale, spinach) by the end of April. Herbs, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, snap peas, carrots and whatever else you like generally goes into the ground (or pots) after the danger of frost has passed.
Still, there have been summers when I begin to plant in June and there’s still plenty of time for plants to mature and yield delicious veggies.
The farmers’ almanac is an essential website that sends planting reminders to subscribers based on their location. It is also a great source for simple answers to basic questions. It’s all here: https://www.farmersalmanac.com/
How often should I water?
This is one of the most confusing questions for new gardeners. Stick your finger into the soil by the roots of your plants. If it’s moist, wait a day or two to water. Don’t be tempted to overwater, as it causes roots to rot. Once the days get really hot, or when in a heatwave, you may have to water every day for a period of time.
Water in the morning, if possible, so plant leaves have time to dry off before the evening dew. Watering in the evening may seem logical but will cause plants to get moldy.
Do you recommend using plant food? If so, which one?
Different plants require different food. It’s important to read the plant food package carefully and feed plants only as recommended. For examples, tomatoes require a certain balance of nutrients so that they can create ample fruit.
Mark your calendar for next feeding date so you don’t overfeed. More is NOT better; in fact, too much feeding can burn roots and destroy plants.
Be sure to buy organic plants and follow through with organic plant food.
How do you know when it’s time to harvest?
Save the tags that came with plants when you bought them. Poke them into your pots or beds when you plant. You may not remember that your tomatoes are meant to be bite–size, so don’t wait for big fruit if that’s not the variety you planted. The tags will tell you how big the fruit should be and will often describe the color of ripe fruit.
You can also go with your instinct and simply taste those snap peas when they look full and juicy.
Any ideas for spending less money on plants?
If you’re ambitious, start growing from seeds, indoors, under growing lights in February. Seeds are a fraction of the cost of plants that have been started in a garden center.
If that’s too ambitious, and it is for me, the best way to save money is to not over-buy. Make a list of what your family really wants to eat and then buy just a few plants. It’s most important to follow the instructions on the plant tags for guidance about distance between plants. For example, tomato plants grow quite tall AND wide and need a lot of air circulation. So if you’re planting in a raised bed that’s five feet long, it will only hold two tomato plants. You can then fill the bed with other veggies that don’t grow as tall. If you’re planting tomatoes in a pot, one plant per pot is the best choice.
What are the easiest vegetables and fruit to grow?
It’s easy and satisfying for kids to root their own scallions in a shallow glass of water on a sunny windowsill. Simply trim the scallion to about two inches above the root and submerge root in a glass of cool water. Change the water each day and within three days they will be ready to plant. Kids will love snipping these green onions and can begin doing so within a week of planting.
Tomatoes are easy and extremely rewarding to pluck from the vine. All salad greens, spinach and kale can be planted early (before the last frost) and will keep yielding if you cut their leaves regularly. It’s an exciting way to get a jump start on growing something edible in April.
We love to plant “lunchbox” peppers. Their bright oranges and reds attract fussy young eaters, are sweet, and are small enough to pick and nibble in the garden.
Radish seeds can be sprinkled and lightly covered with soil, yielding at least three to four months of crisp veggies. Snap peas are beautiful to grow and very alluring as we observe the way their delicate tendrils wrap around garden stakes.
One of the greatest surprises in my garden was discovering that strawberry plants are perennial, which means that they return each summer. They don’t yield enough for more than nibbles, but it’s fun to pick them with the kids.
How do I ensure there are no bugs, slugs, and other creepy crawlies?
Any experienced vegetable gardener will rave about the benefits of planting marigolds around the perimeter of their garden. There are lots of colors to choose from, and their scent (not noticeable to humans) discourages critters from munching.
There are lots of organic oils and sprays that your garden nursery can recommend if you develop a problem with bugs. Again, ONLY use organic methods on your plants so you can eat what you’ve worked so hard to grow.
Lastly, remember that buying plants from a local garden center means that you’ll have access to their expertise. People who work there have deep knowledge and often years of experience and can answer your questions. If you’re having a problem in your garden, snap a photo on your phone and bring it to the nursery where you shopped. They will appreciate your return visit and will likely be able to help you with your questions.
For more talk on seasonal produce, watch this episode of Sunny Side Up where Naomi and Liz make a refreshing, cooling summer gazpacho with a twist!