Plant, Pick, Eat: A Child's Garden

Girl with tomatoes

You don't have to dig up half the lawn -- or even have a lawn -- to introduce your kids to vegetable gardening (and eating). All you need is a sunny spot, some deep pots, and a few bags of soil. Get our easy garden vegetable chart and some terrific recipes, then read on below for great tips on growing fresh vegetables at home.

Printable Vegetable Chart

Great Fresh-from-the-Garden Recipes

The summer the tomatoes grew lush and tall as though they were magical beanstalks climbing to the sky, I carried my young son on my back and we went picking. And eating. "One for you, and one for me," I said, popping a cherry tomato in his mouth and another in mine, savoring its sun-warmth and sweetness. One led to two and then three, and soon we stopped counting. As tomato juice streamed down our chins, we giggled wildly and gorged on tomato candy until we couldn't eat any more.

Many tomato seasons later, my son told me that was his earliest childhood memory, and one of his fondest. At least I got one thing right, I thought. From the time he could toddle, Eliot loved to be in a garden grubbing around in dirt, playing with pill bugs and planting his own sunflower or a bush of peas. Our little cultivated patch of yard taught him lessons in how to live and how to eat -- not that he could easily escape them. My work as a food writer exposed him to farmers' markets at a very early age. He understood that vegetables didn't spring from the supermarket, shrink-wrapped in plastic. A real person had grown them. And so could he.

We gave Eliot his own plot, and in the process learned the wisdom of starting small. The pride he felt after planting a row of summer squash gave way to sobs when cutworms sheared it clean in the night. My fault: I'd forgotten all about protecting the seedlings with tinfoil collars. But I'd rushed things -- he wasn't ready for a garden that size. Growing some crops in pots, however, would be nearly pestproof and risk-free. He warmed to the idea, especially when he heard that it meant a trip to the nursery.

"You can choose the vegetables and containers," I said, explaining that because soil dries out quickly in southern California, he would have to look for pots of glazed clay and plastic, or wooden tubs and half wine barrels (with drainage holes). But first we had to decide how many we could handle and where they would go. Except for lettuces, which welcome partial shade, vegetables typically require at least six hours of full sun a day. We staked out the yard's sunniest corners and narrowed the choices to "the fabulous five" (fabulously easy to grow, and versatile to prepare): tomatoes (cherry-sized and larger, with a basil plant alongside), green beans, summer squash, cucumbers, and lettuces. (In hindsight, this was ambitious -- one or two of thefive would have been just fine.) The shopping list also included bags of organic potting soil (lots of it), a controlled-release fertilizer to mix in at planting time, and liquid fish emulsion to be applied once a month. These vegetables wouldn't be cheap to grow, but I was determined to give them every advantage.

Picking out plants and containers, wire tomato cages, a cucumber trellis, and a bamboo tepee to train the beans thrilled Eliot as much as planting, weeding, and watching everything grow (watering fell to me when the plants appeared in imminent danger of drowning). Setbacks were minor. When the lettuces showed heat stress, we moved the pot to a shadier place. I expected to harvest hungry hordes of beetles, but they passed us by for greener gardens. A trio of ravenous tomato hornworms was tenderly transferred to glass-jar homes, where they munched on fresh-picked tomato leaves every morning.

The long journey from dirt to dinner table paid off when the green beans kept producing and the cut-and-come-again lettuces yielded a second crop for the salad bowl. Despite vine-snitching and snacking, we still picked plenty of tomatoes for our favorite pasta sauce. My son not only cared for and harvested the vegetables but also helped cook them. That was an important life lesson too. As parents, we never know which of the ideas we throw out to our children they will catch and keep. I hoped that wherever he lived my son would find a way to grow something to eat -- and he did, even managing the small miracle of planting rainbow chard in raised beds outside a student flat in Berkeley. It pleased me that he grew up to be an adventurous eater.

What surprised me was how sophisticated a cook he became, exploring Indian vegetarian dishes and, in turn, teaching his mother the techniques he mastered. Now a musician and ethnomusicologist conducting fieldwork in Istanbul, he sends me mouthwatering pictures of figs, eggplants, and olives from the teeming Kadikoy market and writes of honey farms he's discovered in the countryside. I know that Turkish cooking lessons are in my future when he returns home. And that somewhere, as soon as he can, he will plant a garden.

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