It’s that time of year when our minds are turning to all the great things we can grow in our gardens (or on our patios, or in containers) with our kids. But while we love growing our own our enthusiasm outstrips our knowledge, which is why we turned to Shauna MacKinnon to answer our questions around what, when and why to grow with kids in the Lower Mainland. Shauna is a local food sustainability expert and mama, and she’s all about engaging kids, community groups and companies in her quest to make the world a healthier place through our food choices. She blogs about connecting kids with nature through gardening at Little Bean Farms. We’ve gone a little long today because she had so many great, green, growing ideas!

Q. Why is it important to grow food with your kids? What are the benefits?
A. Growing food is a great opportunity for kids to make connections between themselves, healthy food and the natural world. Experiencing the process of a seed becoming a plant and then bearing fruit holds a special kind of magic; kids get to connect with the wonder of the world around us and through that process gain a deeper appreciation for nature. Gardening is also a great way to tap into the de-stressing benefits of nature and increase kids enthusiasm for eating fresh fruit and vegetables. If you’ve grown it, you’re going to want to try it. And fresh-picked produce is simply the best!

Q. How has the early spring we’ve had affected the local growing season? What should we be planting now?
A. The warm weather has been great to get people thinking about gardening earlier than usual, but it’s best to look at the calendar when deciding what to plant when, cool weather is always a possibility until early summer. On the west coast, you can start planting a whole range of veggies now—lettuce, leafy greens, carrots, beets—as well as many herbs and flowers. Wait till May to plant heat-lovers like beans, squash, cucumbers, basil and tomatoes. The West Coast Seeds planting charts are my go-to guide for timing.

Q. What are your top picks for veggies to grow with kids and why?
A. There are so many great veggies to grow with kids! I recommend choosing crowd-pleasers like cherry tomatoes, carrots and cucumbers, but seeking out unusual colours and shapes—yellow, pink and striped cherry tomatoes, purple carrots, and cucumbers that are round and pale like apples. This is one of the big benefits of growing your own, you can bring more colour and diversity to your garden and dinner plates. This helps encourage less adventurous eaters to try new things and gives your kids something to be doubly proud of—I grew tomatoes and they had zebra stripes! Things that grow tall or plentiful are good choices too—snap peas, pole beans (we like purple) and nasturtium flowers. One thing to look for when choosing varieties is the days to maturity listed on the package, this is the amount of time it takes from planted seed to edible vegetable. Shorter days to maturity work better for more impatient (aka little) gardeners. And don’t forget about fruit. Strawberries, blueberries and some raspberry varieties do well in containers and are firm favourites among eaters young and old.

Q. What tips and tricks can you suggest for growing with kids to help them understand the growing cycle?
A. Starting seeds inside in small containers is the best way to get up close and personal with the growing process as you can easily watch the daily transformations that lead from seed to sprout to tiny plant. But don’t feel you need to plant everything in your garden this way. Some plants will do better if they are direct sown (seeds planted right into the garden bed) or if you buy small plants (starts). A mix of approaches will also allow for some instant gratification and increase your chances of success. There are some great kids books that explore and explain the growing cycle, but when you’re in the garden it’s better to focus on having fun and learning through doing. You can explain the basics and answer questions, but experience is the true teacher. No mini-lectures required (thank goodness).

Q. Any suggestions for families without a garden who still want to grow their own?
A. As urban gardening becomes more and more popular there are more options for growing great gardens in small spaces – patios, balconies or even inside. Like any garden understanding your light exposure is crucial. If you have a south facing balcony (the strongest sunlight) gardening is going to be easy. Choose compact plants and use trellises to maximize space. If you have poor light or need to garden indoors you can purchase or make a garden space using full spectrum light – compact shelving plus grow lights equals your personal salad bar. There are also opportunities to find garden space outside of your home. Community gardens are very popular, and many have wait lists, but there are also yard sharing programs, and boulevard greening programs that can help you access under-used garden space. If you see a space in your neighbourhood calling out for some gardening love don’t be shy to ask.

Shauna’s blog is packed with all sorts of food sustainability info and more tips and tricks on growing with your kids. Now if you’ll excuse us, we’re off to stock up on seeds and starts!

Yo mamas and papas! Looking to make your thumbs even greener? Then dig in (literally) to the following:

By: Annemarie Tempelman-Kluit

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