Planning a Garden as a Family: Why, When, and How to Get Started

By Bethany Johnson in Thinking Sustainably

I used to start my spring gardening … well, in the spring. But after a few harvests, I realized that starting earlier—even in the winter—would let my family cultivate some plants more than once in the same season. In other words, if we begin planning a garden each February, then our first little round of crops has more of a chance to escape the (many) unfortunate fates that plague gardens: an aphid infestation, unbalanced soil, hungry deer, underestimated spacing, or the occasional forgotten watering. If you start early enough each year, then there's usually time to try again while the lessons learned are still fresh in your mind.

Plus, planning a garden together is one of the best ways to satisfy the kids' winter cabin fever while providing an environmentally educational activity.

The Prep Work

Before grabbing the shovels and getting your hands dirty, sit down together for a strategy session:

  • Talk together about which vegetables, herbs, and flowers you would like to grow. No one in our family really likes tomatoes, for example, so we skip them. Decide together which plants are most important to each family member and how much space each one of those plants will need.

  • Determine what your yard will allow. Your climate zone, your plot's sun exposure, and the size of your space all determine which of your chosen plants are viable. Look at the Old Farmer's Almanac for inspiring examples of space-saving raised-bed gardens that you can copy and customize.

  • Check out seed catalogs to learn what's available. Since most gardening stores don't even have seeds on display yet, our family orders them through catalogs or online. Read about each variety, paying close attention to how a plant's features can benefit your family garden. For example, disease resistance is great for novices. Cold tolerance is a great attribute for plants that will live in northern climates. And smaller versions of iconic vegetable plants can be purchased for tighter spaces.

  • Plot your garden on paper. Include walkways, so you're not forced to compact your soil by stepping in your garden.

  • Learn which crops yield fruits and vegetables throughout the season (like tomatoes, peppers, or squash), and which produce only once (carrots and corn, for example). You can write a loose schedule on the back of your little map. One great resource for this step is the Better Homes and Gardens Plant Encyclopedia. This can be a teaching moment for sustainability and what the seasons bring in your area, as well. Ask the kids: if you can't grow bananas in the backyard or harvest strawberries in January, then where do these foods come from?

planting a spring garden, watering seedlings

Preparing Your Soil

Once the ground outside thaws, prep your garden beds. Use a tiller or spade to turn over the top layer of soil, and have children help nip weeds in the bud by laying down shade cloth or newspaper over your garden beds for a week.

The Fun Part

Finally, the part everyone envisions: planting seeds. Start your plants indoors by filling a seed tray with seed potting mix, or a mixture of peat moss and vermiculite (a growing medium that aerates the soil and is available in bags of pellets at your local nursery). Follow the seed packets' instructions to plant the largest seeds in each packet. Mist with a spray bottle, and place the whole configuration where it won't be disturbed by pets or people.

When sprouts appear, move the tray to a sunny room. Continue misting daily until your plantlings can be transplanted into their outdoor home. For little ones, this might be a good opportunity to bring in a calendar or another tool to keep track of what might feel like a long wait.

spring garden lettuce harvest

Care and Troubleshooting

Online idea boards are full of parenting ideas that stimulate kids' sensory needs. But why buy synthetic sand and water play tables for indoors when the real deal (and the hose) is outside? Including the whole family in daily plant care and troubleshooting also reminds the kiddos that the responsibility of a garden continues long after planning and cultivation are done.

  • Let youngsters check out these DIY soil sample test activities from The Spruce to check your garden for excessive sand, clay, sufficient drainage, and healthy pH levels.
  • Have kids experiment with beneficial garden dwellers like ladybugs and earthworms. This has been my kids' favorite part of caring for our kitchen garden.

  • Ask one child to be in charge of daily watering.

  • Assign another child the task of what my family jokingly calls "garden forensics." If a head of broccoli disappears overnight, who is the culprit? Can your little detective find "clues" to identify the pest?

  • Toddlers too young to contribute to the main garden can be given an indoor herb garden or microgreens operation to water regularly with a small cup.

What's the only thing better than planning, cultivating, and enjoying the harvest of your labor? Doing it with enough time to fail and try again, of course! When you start planning a garden early enough, you're usually able to tweak your method and start all over before the next winter.

Image source: Bethany Johnson | Bethany Johnson | Morguefile

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