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Plant a Starter Garden With Your Kids

It’s not too late! Early summer is the perfect time to plant a variety of fruits and veggies.

Growing your own veggies might seem like a daunting task, but from the first sprout all the way to harvest, cultivating a garden can teach kids the importance of patience and hard work. It’s also a great way for them to learn more about where their food comes from in a world that’s longing for more sustainability.

Since Colorado’s final spring frost isn’t usually until mid-May, it’s not too late to plant small amounts of produce in June. “People rush to put warm season crops out because they want to have the first ripe tomato, but because overnight temperatures are too cool, it stunts the growth of plants,” says Linda Langelo, a horticulture agent at Colorado State University Extension.

Plants that don’t mind a June seed start include spinach, cilantro, parsley, seed potatoes, leaf lettuce, radishes, peas, green onions, carrots, summer squash, pumpkin, cucumber, and basil. You can also plant tomato, eggplant, and pepper transplants or starts in June.

Before you dig in, follow along with these steps to make the most of your crop.

Plan Your Plot

Where you locate your garden matters. Find a sunny spot in the yard, someplace that ideally gets a maximum of eight hours of direct sunlight each day. Since you don’t want feet or paws stepping on and compacting your soil, it’s best to designate specific areas where it’s OK to walk and work. Whether you make a raised garden bed or in-ground rows, make a path of bricks or line a walking area with mulch. This will help kids see where their feet can and cannot be.

Prepare Your Soil

Once you have your area chosen, prepare your soil. Colorado is known to have clay-like soil that can be difficult to work with, so Judy Elliott, senior education specialist at Denver Urban Gardens, encourages gardeners to enlist the help of their kids to check the soil moisture. Start by digging about four inches into your soil with a shovel, grab a little handful of dirt, and mold it into a ball. Next, ask your child to hold the ball of soil about one foot above the ground and drop it. If the ball shatters and breaks apart, that’s a sign that you’re ready to dig and plant, but if it stays in a ball, then wait until the soil dries out a bit and add compost.

“Avoid using manure-based compost in your garden because those contain a lot of salt, which our Colorado soil is already high in,” says Elliott. It’s best to use a landscape-based compost that’s made of remains of shrubs, vegetables, and other garden remnants instead. Elliott recommends EcoGro Compost, which is made from the food scraps and yard debris that’s collected in Denver Composts’ green compost collection carts. Add an inch and a half of compost to your soil, digging down about six inches. When you’re finished, you’ll be ready to plant.

Plant The Seeds

Planting seeds and anticipating the appearance of little green sprouts is exciting—especially for kids. Before you start planting, read the back of your seed packets to learn how deep and how far apart the seeds need to be planted. “If you don’t give your plants enough room underneath the soil, they won’t grow,” says Elliott.

Tiny seeds can easily spill out of the packet and be hard to handle. Here’s a tip for little gardeners: Prep the area where you want to plant, then fold an index card in half the long way and place a small handful of seeds inside. Children can use a toothpick or a pencil tip to push two seeds at a time off of the card and into the planting area. Cover the seeds with soil, and then water. If you’re planting a few different crops, label the seeded areas with the name of each plant. Kids can make simple labels at home using popsicle sticks, painted rocks, or brick.

A common mistake many beginning gardeners make is planting too much. “One package of lettuce seeds can have enough in it to yield 500 plants, so you certainly don’t want to just dump the package into your soil,” Elliott explains. Plant a few seeds to avoid waste and hone your gardening skills. With a good gardening season under your belt, you can plant more next year.

To jumpstart the garden, mix in a few plant starts from the garden center. These small plants have a healthy head start on the growing season. Starts are more expensive than seeds, but kids will enjoy the process of shopping for little plants and get inspired by the many different veggies they can see and grow. You will also see results sooner.

Stay on Top of Care

To grow strong plants in your garden, you need the right amount of water and healthy, loose soil. Colorado’s arid summer heat means gardens can dry out quickly. Give your child a daily task of checking to see if any plants need to be watered. Carefully place a wooden skewer or gardening stick into the soil, and slowly pull it out. If there’s moist soil stuck to the stick, then you don’t need to add any water, but if it’s dry, then it’s time to give your plants a refresh. Because diseases can be spread on some plants with overhead watering, and you want to soak the soil rather than just the leaves, it’s best to water at ground level.

As watering becomes a part of your routine, your soil can also become hard, making it difficult for roots to penetrate. To keep this from happening, ask your child to lightly cultivate the garden once a week before watering. They can do this by using a stick or branch to carefully scratch around the plants, which keeps the soil loose.

“Cultivating will also help them develop a relationship with the plants because they’ll be more likely to pay attention to what else is going on in the garden,” says Elliott. “When they spend time outside by the garden, they might turn over a leaf and discover insect eggs, or find a new type of bug they want to learn more about.”

To protect your garden as the weather gets warmer, add mulch. This will keep the weeds down and help reduce moisture loss and drastic temperature fluctuations in the soil. Straw, dry grass clippings with no pesticides, and leaves are good choices for fruit and vegetable gardens.

Keep Your Kids Interested

There are countless ways to involve your kids in the process. “Gardening teaches a lot of life lessons. It’s a really good way to connect with your kids and get them outside,” says Langelo.

Start incorporating little lessons from the beginning by using seed packets to teach your child about different fruits and veggies. Make it fun by creating a chart to track which plant sprouts, blossoms, and harvests first. You can also help kids learn more about each plant by researching their different nutritional benefits and finding healthy recipes to prepare from your garden.

If you involve your kids in the process from the start, they’ll be excited to watch each plant grow, and they’ll beam when it’s time to harvest.

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