IF YOU’RE LOOKING for fun projects to do at home with your kids, there’s no better place than the vegetable garden. It might feel a little late to get a garden going, but there is still plenty of time to plant and harvest homegrown veggies this season. Many summer crops are kid favorites and easy for them to work with. Get their hands dirty now, preparing the garden and planting crops. Then you’ll have built-in projects the rest of the summer and fall as you watch things grow.
The vegetable garden can create opportunities for endless kid-friendly activities. I’ve got a few simple ideas to start with here, but consider this just a creative primer. Once you are out in the garden, you’re sure to find all sorts of fun projects (anybody want to inventory the ladybugs?).
Project 1: Check your soil pH
The pH of your garden soil is critical to the health of your crops. It is also an opportunity to do a simple science experiment with your kids. Testing kits come in all shapes and sizes, but when working with kids, it’s best to use a simple litmus paper test. You’ll put some garden soil and water in a tiny vial, shake it up, and dunk litmus paper to check the pH. It’s inexpensive, easy and intuitive. The color of the paper changes as the test reveals its results.
Many gardeners will find that their pH is too acidic and needs adjustment (most vegetable crops like a pH between 6.3-6.9). If you have a pH lower than 6.3, you can add lime to the soil and mix it in. This gives you a great opportunity for a follow-up test later in the summer. Use your testing kit again in the fall to see whether your application was effective.
Project 2: Build a bean trellis
Many kid-friendly vegetable plants benefit from trellising, including tomatoes, peas and cucumbers. A perfect project for June is to set up a tepee trellis, and plant pole beans. Bean tepees can be made from bamboo, wooden stakes, plastic stakes or just tree branches. Simply procure your tepee poles, stick them in the ground deep enough to feel stable and lash the tops together with twine. A tepee can be made from as few as three poles or as many as you see fit.
Once the stakes are in the ground, plant three pole bean seeds 1 inch deep around the base of each pole. The large size of bean seeds is perfect for kids because it makes it very easy for them to plant. If possible, coat the seeds with Rhizobium inoculant before planting. Inoculating the seeds creates another great opportunity for a science lesson. Rhizobium fungi have a symbiotic relationship with the bean plant: The fungi help the bean absorb nitrogen from the soil, and the beans feed the fungi carbohydrates as they photosynthesize.
As your beans grow, they’ll wrap themselves around the poles (read up on Thigmotropism). By late July, the tepee can serve as a new shady hiding spot or just a living sculpture to eat from.
Project 3: Plant pumpkins
It’s not too late to plant pumpkins from seed, and what kid wouldn’t want to grow his or her own jack-o’-lantern? Pumpkins are traditionally planted in “hills.” This doesn’t mean that you actually need to create a hill, just that it is best to plant several seeds in the same spot to ensure you end up with a healthy vine. Like beans, pumpkins have large, easy-to-handle seeds. Plant three seeds 1 inch deep in each “hill.” Most gardens will have space for only one hill. Once seedlings have emerged, snip off all but the healthiest-looking plant.
Over the course of the summer, a pumpkin plant can grow 10 feet long or more. Because of their vigorous nature, make sure you plant a pumpkin in a spot where you have plenty of room. I recommend planting them at the edge of a garden bed and training them to grow out into a pathway, away from other crops.
What’s best about pumpkins is that there is no guessing when they are ready to harvest. In the fall, the fruits will turn orange, and the vine will turn yellow and then brown as it dies back. Pick your pumpkins in October, and you’ll be queued up for another round of kid-friendly activities.
I hope you enjoy your garden time with kids this summer. Remember that the garden also creates endless opportunities to simply research and learn about nature. Explore concepts like these with your kids as you plant and grow crops: What is a vegetable, and what is a fruit? Which part of each plant do you eat? Why do plants produce flowers? Once you start investigating, you’ll find endless things to learn.