Use Harvest Time to Grab Kids’ Interest in Gardening – and Eating Right

One of my favorite memories with my husband and daughter was a trip to Salman Raspberry Ranch near Mora, N.M. , to pick our own raspberries. Despite the heat and bees, we all had a great time! And she enjoyed helping me preserve the fruit and find recipes for enjoying our bushels of fresh raspberries, which were so much fresher than any we could ever purchase in the store.

u-pick raspberries
Bucket of fresh raspberries picked at Salman Ranch near Mora. N.M. How could a kid resist?

Kids enjoy independence and being a part of “grown-up” activities, at age-appropriate levels, of course. If I love hunting for green beans and the thrill of finding one I passed over five minutes earlier, imagine how much fun it is for kids. I think the best way to get them interested in growing, and especially eating, fresh fruits and vegetables is to get them involved in harvesting first.

For one, any child who picks a fresh tomato and gets to eat it on a turkey BLT a few hours later will probably like tomatoes better. A child who pulls a carrot from the ground to find out that not only is it way bigger than watery baby carrots in a plastic bag, but tastes 10 times better, might want to add carrots to your garden plan and grocery list.

farm fresh produce
Kids are sure to find a few farm-fresh vegetables they like if given the chance, and especially if they help grow them in their back yard.

The National Gardening Association is trying to get more kids interested in growing food and in gardening in general. To that end, they’re supporting youth grant programs and have set up a website and online shop to support youth gardening for schools and families at KidsGardening.org. The NGA has research showing how school gardens improve kids’ knowledge about nutrition and help them know what vegetables they like. Participating in gardens helps change their attitudes toward eating fresh fruit and vegetable snacks. School gardens also support kids’ science scores and instill a better appreciation for nature and the environment.

kids in vegetable garden
Gardening at school and at home promotes an appreciation for eating better, for gardening and for the environment. Image courtesy of the National Gardening Bureau, Inc.

Yet more research reports that time is second only to “insect and disease control” as challenges to edible gardening cited by a 2014 survey of households from the Garden Writers Association Foundation. Busy parents can incorporate at least a small edible garden into next year’s plan by starting now. By selecting a site for a family garden and beginning preparation, you and your kids have all fall and winter to research, plot and plan your garden. And if weather allows, you can even prep it with activities such as building raised beds or weeding and adding organic matter. When spring comes and with it sports and other activities, you’ll need less time – and your kids are less likely to get bored with the details. You can jump right into final preparation and planting!

If you have edibles in your garden, even a few herbs, try to get your kids interested now, because picking the finished product is the fun part; the waiting is hardest! If you don’t have edibles, see if a neighbor wants some help harvesting, or look for a nearby U-Pick farm. And check out KidsGardening.org for more ways to involve your kids in family gardening activities.

Grow Edibles as Ornamentals

We finally got a combination of heat and moisture in New Mexico with the monsoons, though the pattern this year is wacky. I’ll take it, though, because the vegetables are growing, and most importantly, ripening. And the healthier, fruit-bearing plants are enriching our diet, but also bringing me so much joy.

edible-ornamental-tomato
Ripening tomatoes! These cocktail tomatoes are gorgeous to look at and fun to squeeze (or harvest) as I walk inside each evening.

In April, I wrote about how growing edible plants is a smart xeric strategy. If you have lawn, garden or container space to fill and want attractive plants to look at, why not make some of those edibles? It’s true that most edibles require more water than native plantings, but they produce food in return. And since they grow here when most of our annual rain falls, we use little well water, especially by harvesting rain water.

But back to how pretty they look! Sure, maybe seedlings are a little sad at first, and until flowers set on tomatoes or cucumbers, they’re not much to look at. Once vegetables flower, however, they have pretty blooms and you want to check on them every day (at least once) to see how they’re progressing. Mix in one or two favorite flowering perennial or annual plants and you’ve got a small arrangement of colors and textures.

edibles as ornamentals
Maybe I’m weird, but I think even the wild grape tomato plants in the large container to the left are beautiful. And don’t forget bountiful! I also love how the melon drapes over the geranium. Other edibles in this photo: rosemary and a tiny pepper.

Here are a few tips to remember when growing edibles as ornamentals:

  • Make sure you amend the dirt so it’s plenty rich and full of organic matter. If you pop some carrots or tomatoes down where you formerly grew cacti, your plants won’t get the nutrients they need and the dirt might not drain or hold water as it should, depending on its makeup. The longer you can take to prep the soil, the better.
edibles in rock garden
Here’s the same area I showed in the April post I mentioned above, slightly more than three months later. But the soil needed more amendment than we gave it. The zucchini didn’t care at all, and is eating the garden. But the other plants needed more organic matter. The empty spot once hosted a tomato.
  • Check with local master gardeners or reputable sites for container sizes for various herbs and vegetables. For example, most tomatoes need  at least a 24-inch diameter pot for good root and plant growth; larger is better if in doubt. And terracotta plants are a beautiful Southwestern staple, but they dry out more quickly than plastic or glazed pots. But if you want to grow the edible more for looks than production, as long as you make sure the container drains, the sky’s the limit. Have fun with it.
  • Of course, if critters are a problem, you might have more limitations. I’ve had some tomato munching, but no action on my patio yet. We’ll see what happens when the melons begin to ripen.
  • Using a variety of colors and textures goes for gardening with edibles, just like when planning a xeric garden landscape. Many flowering vegetables, such as tomatoes, melons and squashes, have yellow flowers. Add more color with an eggplant in a container (most varieties self-pollinate) for its purple, star-shaped flowers. Or grow an okra, which has a beautiful white flower with a purple center. Beans, and especially peas, can be attractive if grown on a trellis. Just be sure to give them plenty of space!
green beans
I think these green beans are lush and gorgeous. If growing on a pretty painted trellis instead of wire fencing, the foliage and round, white flowers would add interest to any garden.

Easy Gardening Project: Carrot Trough

carrot harvest
Fresh carrots from your garden taste much sweeter than any from a store. We grew these in a galvanized livestock trough.

I love gardening with raised beds, and when we closed our garden last year, Tim and I discussed the idea of slowly adding some raised beds to our vegetable garden. We’ve got some really good reasons:

  • Warmer soil temperatures for our short season.
  • Flexibility in design and crop rotation.
  • Ability to control and amend soil for better weed management.
  • Shorter distance to bend over for our aging backs.
  • And tops on the list, as always – critters, especially gophers.

Ultimately, improved soil management and weed control can lead to water conservation, though sometimes containers dry out more quickly. We’ve seen livestock troughs used as beds before, and decided to start with a 2 x 4 trough from Tractor Supply Co. for our first attempt this year. We wanted more carrots and for a longer season. Considering that carrots are root vegetables, with the “fruit” growing down into the ground rather than above, this seemed like the perfect choice for a container with a metal barrier between the crop and the critter with the giant fangs.

Prepping the Trough

Carrots also prefer stone-free soil. That pretty much rules out any area of our property, so filling a trough with compost and soil mix made much more sense. But first, we had to prep the trough. It really was so much easier than building a raised bed – and I doubt the cost was much more, especially for the 2-foot height the troughs give you. Drainage is essential, so I drilled about a dozen holes in the bottom using a one-half inch metal drill bit. Yes, without harming myself. That was an easy step!

holes drilled in bottom of livestock trough
Every container needs a method for drainage, even a large one. It was easy to drill holes in the trough, but leave it mostly intact.

It takes a lot more soil than you would think to fill a container that large, and I didn’t want to use stone-filled soil near the crop. So we started with recycled plastic bottles on the bottom. They’ll allow water to drain down. We also laid some gravel under the trough to promote drainage and help level it before filling. Next, we used some of the soil from our place. But in the top one-third to one-half, we added organic potting soil and compost to create a really rich and well-draining environment for the carrots. It took at least six big bags.

gravel under raised bed trough
We had some extra driveway gravel to throw under the trough for drainage and leveling.
carrot trough soil organic
I used a rich organic soil mix for the carrots.

Big Enough for Succession Planting

To have carrots throughout the season, I started rows in succession. I didn’t have a very high germination rate at first, but I believe that was low temperatures. Plus, carrots notoriously germinate inconsistently, not necessarily in neat rows (we found one from last year outside our garden fence this spring). Still, I covered the trough with a layer of white row cloth and a few clamps, just to make sure the birds were not to blame (I didn’t count on flying critters).

We now have several rows of carrots growing at various stages, and they are delicious! Carrots can take light frost, so I plan to add more seeds before the soil cools and get them going, then cover the trough with a warmer fabric.

carrots growing in trough
The center row is ready to harvest and we have carrots in varying degrees of growth.

We’re happy with the trough. The only potential advantage we might be wrong about is mobility. Even with plastic filling the bottom, it’s pretty darn heavy. But we’ll see what happens during fall clean-up. I don’t mind the look at all for our place, which has an agricultural feel; the garden backs up to a neighbor’s horse pen. But I’ve seen the troughs painted and placed in front yards as raised flower beds.

When I was giving zucchini and carrots to our neighbor the other day, she said not to buy more, because they have several old troughs we can clean up and use. That would be perfect; then we can place them throughout the garden and rotate crops between them each year.

Easy Pesto From Garden Basil

My basil isn’t perfect; I think I can blame mostly grasshoppers. But with all of the bugs around here and the cloudy, damp weather of late, it’s really a toss-up. I’ll stick with grasshoppers and snails for now, because I dislike them the most. Next year, I will definitely cover the basil plants with white row fabric.

basil plant for pesto
Basil is pretty even when it’s not perfect. And the scent! These are the leaves left after I cut off sets for pesto.

Still, the plants grew, and some of the stalks were about to flower. Time to harvest! A neighbor, who shares a portion of her land to host a wonderful community garden, pointed us to some information on harvesting basil. I realized I have always been too shy about harvesting, taking too few leaves. Instead, it’s best to take the top few sets of leaves, above the second set of leaves from the soil. That assumes, of course, that the plant has at least three to five sets of leaves. If so, the sturdy topping should help the plant generate new growth.

I picked off and rinsed the leaves and dried them in a salad spinner and then on paper towels, choosing not to use some that were really chewed up. Then, I chilled them in the refrigerator until that evening. Even with some bug destruction, I got a good cup of basil leaves from one larger plant and two small ones. Then, I made pesto. And it was really easy. I modified a recipe I found online a few years ago and then used it right away to make dinner.

pasta with homemade pesto
Pesto pasta with chicken and garden zucchini. Other than the tomatoes and pasta (OK, and the chicken), this is all garden to table. And I hope to have tomatoes to add to my lettuce and carrots soon!

Take a look at the recipe below, and feel free to print or Pin it. And adjust it as necessary. I didn’t use a lot of garlic, so it’s all a matter of personal taste. After making the pesto, I whipped up a quick dinner of pasta with a chopped chicken breast and our first zucchini of the season, sautéing both in olive oil. I just added about a cup (measured raw) of cooked pasta to the skillet and a heaping tablespoon or so of pesto. The rest of the pesto went in the freezer!

Easy Pesto From Garden Basil

  • Servings: about 4, or a yield of 1/2 cup
  • Time: 10 mins
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

pesto-ingredients-food-processor

Ingredients:

1 cup of packed fresh basil leaves

1 clove of garlic (mine was already minced)

1/8 cup of pine nuts

1/3 cup of virgin olive oil

1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese

Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Place washed and dried basil leaves, garlic and pine nuts in a food processor. Pulse ingredients until coarsely chopped. Add a portion of the olive oil, processing the mixture until all ingredients are incorporated and the mixture is smooth. Season as desired with salt and pepper.

If using the pesto immediately, add the remaining oil and pulse until the mixture is smooth. Scrape into a serving bowl and add parmesan cheese.

If freezing, do not add the Parmesan cheese. Place in an airtight container and pour remaining oil over top of pesto. It will freeze for up to three months. Stir in 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese after thawing.