Channel your child's natural love of plants into a productive garden.
Spring is the best time of year to spark your children's interest in gardening. It's warm outside, the blossoms are inspiring, and this is the time to plant the kinds of fruit and veges most kids like - strawberries, tomatoes, corn, peas, along with lots of other good food.
Through gardening with your children you also benefit from the nutritional and cost advantages of growing your own food, and the feel-good factor of being able to cut down your family's chemical intake. But how do you ensure you will have more than just muddy footprints and grass-stained trousers to show for your kids' gardening efforts?
Dee Pigneguy, award-winning gardener and author of books on children's gardening, says the biggest problem is not getting kids interested, but finding enough space for everyone who wants to be involved. "Once they get started, the enthusiasm is hard to keep up with."
It is not expensive to start a vegetable garden. Dee says that in most cases you can create a plot from materials you already have, and by recycling scraps and household leftovers.
The first thing people should do, she says, is get a worm farm going to ensure the garden has quality soil. Dee says kids are fascinated by the process of feeding their worm farm kitchen leftovers. A good worm farm will provide quality peat to form the basis of the vegetable garden. "You have to have good soil. [Of the gardens I see] most are failing because of a lack of soil nutrients."
Gardener and author Ginny Clayton agrees that getting the foundations right is most important: "If you're going to get your children enthusiastic, you need to make sure that the garden will actually grow for them."
Raised beds enable gardeners to have more control over the quality of their soil - she suggests starting a compost bin to create fertiliser, too.
Children should start with seedlings and then graduate to sowing seeds as they get more confident. Dee says: "Look for warm-season crops such as beans, zucchini and tomatoes. Plant big seeds that come up easily."
She recommends people start their garden by growing strawberries. "They are one of the most sprayed fruits you can buy." Planting strawberry seedlings in pots enable children to move them around the deck or garden, or make a pot wall to hang them on.
Ginny says vegetables that grow into interesting colours helps capture kids' interest.
"Look for quick-growing plants so that children can see them in action. Radishes are one of the quickest but they are not always what children will choose to eat. Golden beetroot fascinates kids because they are not used to yellow. Or plant rainbow beet rather than plain silverbeet."
Ginny says beans are often a hit because children can watch the plants pop up, see them produce the pods and then eat the beans.
She says parents should get their children to help in the garden. "Get them to help you put seed potatoes in the ground ... children are often fascinated by the seed tapes you can get for certain vegetables. You lie the tape out in the garden, then the tape disintegrates and you are left with nicely spaced vegetables."
Growing your own is a great way to get kids eating vegetables. "Once you show kids you can make a salad out of this, or grate that, they will actually try it." Dee says lots of the children she has worked with in schools are now regularly eating raw turnips and beetroot from their gardens.
She tried to show children that vegetables could be sweet. "Kids need snacks that give them energy and that is usually sugar but you can teach them how to make muffins with pumpkin or bananas, and not use sugar. Parsnips, carrots and beetroot are very sweet ... Whatever you are growing in the garden, show the kids how to use that. You just have to give kids the idea." Her own daughter used to complain as a teenager that there was nothing to eat in the house. "I'd say, 'that's because it's all in the garden'."
Ginny says kids' gardens are best made of vegetables that can be eaten raw. "Miner's lettuce is a good heirloom vegetable that they like picking the leaves off as they walk past."
Parents without much gardening knowledge should not be put off. Ginny points out that gardening seems to have skipped a generation. "There's a generation now whose parents did not do any gardening, but now people are coming back to it."
Dee recommends joining a local gardening club or soil and health group, to ask for advice. She says there are lots of gardening courses and clubs available. "Older, more experienced gardeners always offer to help when someone has not got a garden and would like to set one up."
So how young is too young to be getting into the garden? Dee says she regularly works with kindergarten kids. "The first thing I say is 'let's have a look at your worm farm' and I am absolutely surrounded by kids."
She says the key is to have an adult overseeing the garden, to organise everyone before they went out, so they would know what they should be doing, and to keep eye on the children and help them with weeding and watering. Dee says: "Not everyone has to dig and plant, someone could be responsible for looking after the tools. Give kids a task."
As well as providing cheap, healthy vegetables, gardens help children learn about sustainability, Dee says. "[From school gardens] children go home and say to their parents 'oh we can't throw that out, it'll turn into soil' ... or they point out bricks that could be used to make a raised bed."
Most vegetables will grow in containers, even on an apartment balcony. Ginny says she often tells children about square-foot gardening, where a garden was worked out per square foot, with a certain number of vegetables in each. "It makes a change from the long lines we are used to, especially in New Zealand, and can be a good way to make use of a smaller garden." One square foot of garden could produce quite a few rows of spring onions, a broccoli plant, and about five lettuces.
Most importantly, parents should relax about their kids' horticultural efforts. Dee says: "Let children explore and try not to say 'don't touch that'. If they break a plant or dig over something, it's not a big deal."
There don't have to be many strawberries or cherry tomatoes, but every one will be picked and eaten with pride.
Finding a tempting recipe in which to use your homegrown produce is a good incentive for children to take care of their plants. Here's one from Living's Savour columnist Grant Allen:
1 Cut up strawberries, sprinkle with icing sugar and squeeze the juice of an orange over them. Allow to sit for an hour or so to develop a syrup.
2 In a tall glass, layer scoops of vanilla ice cream and the juicy strawberries.
3 Finish with a pink wafer biscuit.
Don't forget flowers
You can transfer children's love of flowers to the vege garden by planting those which will help deter pests from your vege plants and invite in good bugs and bees. Marigolds and nasturtiums are favourite "companion" flowers for vege gardens, but any bright annual will help. Mixing herbs among your veges will also help both to thrive.
The Tui NZ Kids' Garden, by Diana Noonan and Keith Olsen
The Yates Young Gardener - Growing Things to Eat, by Janice Marriott
Gardening For Planet Earth, by Dee Pigneguy
* bunnings.co.nz for a DIY vege planting video, and kids' activities
Dine out for a cause
The Garden to Table Trust runs primary school programmes to teach children aged 7-10 how to grow, harvest, prepare and share food through gardening and cooking. On November 12 it is holding a fundraising Feast for the Future, when you can dine at any of more than 25 participating restaurants and a portion of your bill will be donated to the trust. Check out the website for a list of participating restaurants.