At North Leeds Garden Design we’re frequently asked to include some space for edibles within the borders we design. ‘Growing your own’ is especially popular with families, keen to introduce the kids to the enjoyment of digging and planting – and the excitement of picking and eating!
There are educational benefits for the children too – learning effortlessly about the cycle of growth and decay, and the way sunshine and rain are both needed to get a good crop.
Hearing kids excitedly trying to count the number of legs on a centipede, or watching a bee gathering nectar from a flower, makes you realise they can absorb a lot just by being out amongst growing things.
I run a gardening club for kids and I can promise they really are happy to put the gadgets aside and get mucky in the garden!
I’d always advise people who want to start growing some of their own fruit or vegetables to keep it very simple and not to buy expensive equipment. Here’s some more tips to help you get started:
1) Don’t grow anything you don’t enjoy eating! Radishes are certainly easy to grow but if the family don’t like them then don’t bother growing them.
2) Help your child follow the instructions. I’d suggest helping them read the seed packet while still indoors, and then explain why its important to follow them. It’s very easy just to let them scatter seeds around a bit and then rake in - and some plants such as lettuce will probably be fine by this method – but for many others it won’t suit at all and the end result will be disappointing.
3) Grow a few at a time. Carrots are delicious but you don’t want to have to eat them every day for weeks! So plant a row every 3 weeks or so. Follow the same rule for anything which only makes a small plant or root, for example salad onions, beetroot, chard.
4) Grow things that are difficult to buy ripe or expensive to buy fresh. Growing your own plums means you can pick them when they’re juicy, rather than hard. Salad leaves are simple to grow and much cheaper than those supermarket bags.
5) Only grow plants that will suit your conditions. Most fruit and veg need a sunny plot (at least 6 hours sun a day). Not got full sun? Then try leafy veg such as salad leaves, spinach or kale, or plants such as runner beans that will climb up and find the sun,for themselves. Raspberries may be worth a try too.
6) Only plant in pots, troughs or hanging baskets if you are prepared to water every day! Edibles in containers are definitely worthwhile – you can grow anything from carrots to tomatoes in them – but they are totally reliant on you for water and nutrients. Trudging about with heavy watering cans quickly puts children off so locate pots near the kitchen door, or use a hose connected to a water butt or outdoor tap.
Where to grow
Edibles do not have to have a separate space in the garden. Some plants are quite ornamental – I love runner bean flowers for instance – and will happily grow in an ordinary border. But you do need to make sure they’ve got plenty of space to grow, and have their needs for sun, water and nutrients met. And do make sure the kids can easily reach them from the lawn - so they can weed or pick produce without trampling on the other plants!
Some children enjoy the independence of having their own area where they can choose what to grow. I have fond memories of growing nasturtiums, cornflowers and marigolds from seeds in ‘my’ plot. Unknown to me, my dad had steered me towards some of the most easily grown flowers – but they’re none the worse for that! I got a lot of enjoyment from picking them and putting them in a vase for our dining table.
If you have only a little space, try growing cordon apples at an angle on your fence, or a small plum in a planter on the patio. There’s only a little pruning to do (don’t let the kids try this!) and they will look great with spring blossom, then the children can pick and eat the fruit in the summer. Advice is readily available on the RHS website and on YouTube.
Fruit trees for small spaces are grown onto special rootstocks so they can’t get too big. When selecting, for apples I’d go for an M9 rootstock, for plums ‘Pixy’. If you live in the northern part of England or Scotland, check that the variety is suitable for your colder conditions.
With a little imagination, other plants such as cherry tomatoes, salads or herbs, can be grown on a wall or fence, especially now its possible to buy plastic planters which are fixed to a vertical. I’ve even seen strawberries grown in a half drain-pipe wired to a fence. If you try this, it’s great to make sure one of the planters is at the height your child can reach for himself….but maybe put the others out of reach or you won’t have any fruit left for the table!
I hope I’ve convinced you that you don’t have to be a knowledgeable gardener yourself to enjoy raising a few edibles with your children. It doesn’t cost a lot, it’s a fun thing to do together, and best of all is the look of pride on your child’s face when something they have raised from a seed is set out on the table for everyone to enjoy.