Enjoy Organic Gardening With Kids
Organic gardening offers more than fresh, pesticide-free fruits and veggies. It's also a great way to spend time as a family. Summer is just around the corner, so why not plant an organic garden this spring to enjoy with your kids?
Why grow organically?
An organic garden contains no synthetic fertilizers or chemical pesticides, according to Ana Duncan Pardo, communication coordinator for Toxic Free North Carolina, a nonprofit that opposes pesticide pollution in North Carolina by proposing pesticide-free alternatives. She says chemicals can have harmful effects in gardens, destroying pollinators like bees and butterflies.
The risks of human exposure to pesticides are still unknown, especially regarding children, whose bodies are smaller and still developing. "Many people think of pesticides as cleaning products, but they aren't," Pardo says. "They are poisons made to poison living things."
Nicole Stewart, a mom of two in Raleigh, is growing an organic garden mainly because she doesn't want to use chemicals that may or may not be safe for her kids. Her kids can also eat those yummy blueberries and peas fresh from the garden without having to wash them — a fun way to enjoy an afternoon snack!
Gardening is a bonding time and learning experience for Stewart and her kids. When it's time to plant something new, she'll get books about the crops for the kids to read to get them excited about it. "I'll let my son look through the seed catalog and take him to the nursery to pick out plants and seeds," she says.
Watching plants grow from a little seed to a tomato or pepper is fascinating for kids. Stewart says it opened her son's mind — and mouth — to trying new foods. He now eats okra and tomatillos right from the garden.
If you and your little ones are ready to roll up your sleeves, put on your gardening gloves, and start planting your favorite foods, here are some tips to get you started.
Start digging or make a raised bed
When deciding where to plant your garden, find a location that gets at least six hours of sun a day and has access to a water source, says Jeana Myers, a horticulture agent with Wake County N.C. Cooperative Extension Service. Start small to maintain a few plants with a plot no bigger than 250 square feet.
If you don't have space in your backyard, consider a raised bed garden or use pots. Hilary Nichols, a garden manager with SEEDS, an educational garden in Durham, says these types of gardens will dry out faster than plants in the ground and require constant maintenance. So if your little ones enjoy watering, this is a good option.
If you plant a raised bed, Nichols recommends that it be at least 4 square feet and at least 1 foot high. If you are planting root crops, such as carrots, build your garden high enough for the vegetables to have room to grow without running into the bottom. Cedar is the best wood to use because it's sturdy and won't rot as quickly as other woods. Don't use treated wood because chemicals can leach into your plants.
If you opt for a container garden, use at least a 5-gallon pot and leave room for the plants to grow. Add stakes so kids can enjoy watching beans climb the stalk. Plants such as blueberries, strawberries and tomatoes are ideal, while bigger vegetables like zucchini will not thrive in pots.
Nourish your soil
If you plant a plot, Myers suggests testing the acidity and fertility levels in your soil, which can be done for free by the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. If you plan to mix compost into the dirt, do so before testing the soil. For raised beds or pots, purchase bags of soil instead of using soil from your backyard.
The test results will determine whether you need to add any nutrients. The nutrients below are organic or natural products and are available at most garden centers.
• If soil lacks nitrogen add bloodmeal, fishmeal or feathermeal.
• If soil lacks phosphate add bonemeal or rock phosphate.
• If soil lacks potassium add potash or greensand.
Create a compost
Compost is a natural fertilizer that should be mixed into the soil. It provides plants with the nutrients and foods they need to thrive. Compost is available at garden centers, or you can make your own in a heap or container. Learn more about creating your own compost here.
Plant and water
Kids may enjoy planting small fruits or vegetables that can be pulled right off the vine, such as cherry tomatoes, peas or sugar snaps, or foods with leaves that tear easily, like basil or Swiss chard. Depending on what you're planting — and how much you want — you can buy seeds, which produce bigger quantities, or plants that you can transfer into your garden.
Not watering plants enough is one of the biggest mistakes rookie gardeners make, especially during the hot North Carolina summer. Check the soil daily and water it as needed. Pour water directly into the soil and keep water off the plant leaves.
Remove pesky pests
North Carolina summers attract lots of pesky bugs, which can devastate growing plants and be challenging to tackle, especially in organic gardens. When starting your garden, Myers suggests planting host plants such as Queen Anne's lace, salvias, yarrow and fennel. These attract beneficial insects that create a balanced garden and help reduce pests. Adding compost to your soil also helps.
Pardo suggests getting to know the bugs in your yard so you can distinguish good bugs from pests. Squish problem-causing pests as early as possible.
If a plant is not doing well, trim the diseased leaves, put them in a trash bag and recycle them with other yard waste. (Don't put them in your compost.) If the plant continues to do poorly, pull out the entire plant so it doesn't harbor diseases for other plants.
Growing an organic garden will not only produce yummy, fresh foods, but create a fun learning experience for you and your kids. See these delicious recipes from local chefs to use garden-fresh produce.
Michele Jonczak is a mother of two boys and a freelance writer in Raleigh.
* Toxic Free North Carolina offers organic gardening workshops for groups and schools. To schedule one, call 877-667-7729.
* N.C. Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners can answer gardening questions. Call 919-250-1084 Monday through Friday, 9 a.m.-noon and 1-4 p.m.
* For the ideal time to plant specific fruits, vegetables and flowers, visit ces.ncsu.edu.
* For information about tackling specific pests, visit toxicfreenc.org.