How to Plant an Edible Garden with Kids

Spend time with your kids outside and show them where their food really comes from (not Trader Joe's). And once they grow those leafy greens, they might actually eat them too.

child helping a woman holding a bowl garden
Author Lauri Kranz designed this Los Angeles garden and tends it with young plant enthusiast Poppy, 9. . Photo: Erin Kunkel

When my eldest son turned 5, I was asked to volunteer at his school in Los Angeles. I saw gardening on the list of options, and it brought back memories of being with my father in our Connecticut backyard, where sunflowers towered over my head. I decided to sign up.

Truth be told, I didn't really know that much about gardening. So I camped out in the public library, devouring every book I could get my hands on, and bombarded the growers at the weekly farmers' market with questions. That school garden came alive through sheer trial and error.

The kids loved eating the food they grew, and from then on, I was hooked. I launched a gardening program at my younger son's school too. When parents started asking me if I'd come plant at their home, my company, Edible Gardens LA, was born.

Now my son is in college, and I've built hundreds of gardens. I still work in schools every week, and I live for the moments when I see kids make the connection: This is where our food comes from. You can do this, too, either at school or at home.

These photos were taken in two gardens that Kranz planted. Sam, 5, and his brother, Milo, 3, are in their yard, created by Kranz. "The garden teaches them about seasons, life cycles, and patience," says the boys' mom, Amy. Posy, 7, and her sister, Poppy, 9, have gardened with Kranz since preschool.

Step 1: Find the Right Spot

Do a sun check. In order to find the best spot for your garden, follow the sun. Most homegrown produce needs to be in areas that get at least five hours of direct sunlight a day. Have your kids home in on the right spot by giving them this mission on a weekend: Take a photo of the space you're thinking of using once every two hours in one day, between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. Then look at the photos together. Are there five hours of sun? If yes, you're good to go.

Assess your options. If you've got more than one good spot, think about how you want to use the garden. If it's close to the kitchen, your kids can collect basil or oregano while you cook. If it's near the hose, they can easily help water the plants. Ask, too, if the spot will be right in the path of, say, soccer balls or running dogs. Can you keep wildlife out?

Watch for trees overhead. Plants struggle to grow under pines and eucalyptus, for example, so garden out from under them.

two small children carrying red buckets in garden
Erin Kunkel
various types of tomatoes in wooden bowl
Erin Kunkel

Step 2: Set the Stage

You've got choices! You can plant right in the ground, grow in containers (perfect for a patio), or, my preference, build a raised bed. A raised bed lets you control what's in the soil, makes a garden possible even on a hardscape, and looks great. It's basically an oblong box that is 18 to 24 inches high and as long as you want, but don't go more than 4 feet wide—otherwise you and the kids won't be able to reach into the middle.

Use only untreated lumber. Skip wood that has been pressure treated, stained, painted, or sealed. Anything that goes into that wood will go into the soil and then into your food. For the same reason, avoid plastic, fiberglass, composite, and metal. Many lumberyards sell raised-bed kits, but I build my own. (The plans are in my book, A Garden Can Be Anywhere: Creating Bountiful and Beautiful Edible Gardens.) Side note: If you've got gophers, line the bottom of each bed with gopher wire.

Let the kids help. Children can play in the dirt, literally, helping you fill the bed with soil. Leave some space to add 2 inches of compost on top. The layer of compost makes starting from seed easier, and it feeds the soil every time you water. For a 4x8-foot bed, you'll need three 1-cubic-foot bags of compost in addition to the organic soil. Locally sourced organic soil and compost are most likely to contain nutrients and microbes that match the soil in your area.

Or plant in Pots!

If you're short on space, using a patio, or otherwise want to start small, you can grow surprising amounts of food in terra-cotta, ceramic, or untreated-wood containers. To grow herbs, greens, peas, cucumbers, and beans, you'll need containers that are at least 12 inches deep. Plants with deeper roots—like tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, and eggplant—need 18 inches.

children helping woman fill containers with soil
Erin Kunkel

Step 3: Pick Your Plants

Figure out your growing zone. Search online for the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map and plug in your zip code to see which zone you live in. Look up the last frost date for your zone in 2019. After that date, it will be warm enough to plant safely.

Ask around. Gardeners love to pass on information. We can talk about plants all day! If you know someone who gardens in your area, ask what thrives, because it'll probably grow for you too.

Plant what your kids like—and one thing they don't. Chances are, no kindergartners are going to ask for kohlrabi, but they might be open to it if they watch it sprout from seed. I used to dislike cabbage until I grew it and sautéed it, and now I eat it all the time. From what I can tell, families are more likely to eat new foods and try new recipes if they grow new-to-them veggies.

Invite the bees. Plant African basil to attract bees to your garden—they will pollinate your plants so they can produce vegetables and fruits. Kids (and grown-ups) are often taught to be frightened of bees, but our world's food supply would be in trouble without them. In the school gardens, I teach kids that bees are so hard at work that they're not really interested in us at all.

two children helping a woman in the garden
Erin Kunkel

Step 4: Get Planting

Suss out seeds versus seedlings. Some plants, like cucumbers, carrots, and corn, are easy to grow from seed. Others do much better if started as young plants purchased from your local nursery, such as tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers. Try a collection of plants that come via mail and get you and your kids started quickly. We like the Beginner's Veggie Garden (nine kinds of vegetables) and the Beginner's Herb Garden (six kinds of herbs).

Start at least one thing from seed. This way, you'll show your kids the full cycle of a vegetable's life. Putting a seed in the soil, watering it, letting the sun shine—there's magic in that whether you're 2 years old or 100. Beans and peas are both easily handled by small hands and are quick to sprout and grow. I teach children of any age to use their pointer finger to make a hole in the soil an inch deep (up to what I refer to as the "bendy part of your finger"). Remember that the larger the seed, the deeper it needs to go into the soil. The smallest seeds, like carrot, are planted close to the surface with only a light covering of soil; the largest, like pumpkin, get planted 1 inch deep.

Teach your kids the basics. When shopping for young plants from the farmers' market or nursery, help your kids spot hardy specimens by checking which ones have the most leaves and look like they've been well watered. Once home, show kids how to tap the pot to loosen the dirt, then turn the pot over and use one hand to gently catch the seedling as it falls from the pot. Explain that they should never pull the seedling out because the stem can break and then the plant won't grow. Have your children dig a hole deep enough so that the plant's roots are all placed beneath the surface of the soil. I like to give plants liquid seaweed (GS Plant Foods Organic Liquid Kelp concentrate) and water to help them thrive.

two children sitting in garden eating fresh produce
Erin Kunkel

Step 5: Water and Pick!

Teach the touch test. Ask your kid to put her finger in the soil an inch or two below the surface. If the soil is dry or there are spots of dry and wet, then it's time to water, but if it's muddy, wait another day.

Water right. Kids love watering. It's helpful to demonstrate good technique, showing kids how to spread the water around rather than dumping it all over a favorite (or the nearest) plant. I tell my gardening students, "We don't make puddles, we make rain." Tell them they are watering the soil, not the plants.

To make it easy for them, I use a hose to fill a galvanized steel tub with water so the children can fill their watering cans from the tub. Be sure an adult is always present when there's water around.

Harvest time. Pick lettuce, Swiss chard, and spinach by taking the outermost leaves as they mature and keeping three to four leaves in the center of each plant so they continue to grow and produce food throughout the season. Take beans, peas, and cucumbers off the plant when they're the size you like to eat, but don't leave them on too long (they won't taste good). For root vegetables such as carrots or beets, when you see the greens above the soil getting quite large, put a finger into the soil around the vegetable to feel how wide the top of it is. Don't know for sure if something's ready? Pick one, give it a rinse, and try it!

Save some seeds. In the school gardens, I teach a "seed to seed" curriculum. We plant seeds, watch them sprout, grow them and harvest, and then collect the seeds to do it all over again for the full cycle.

This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's May 2020 issue as "Grow Your Groceries!" Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here

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