Gardening with Children: Building the Garden

LAH_1247I’m not growing much of a garden this year. No seedlings are spouting under my plant lights. No plastic is warming the soil for my spring planting. I haven’t emptied the compost bin into the beds, and my greenhouse is still cluttered with dried cucumber vines and withered, brown tomato plants. Oh, I’ll probably sow a few summer squash seeds—I can’t quite bring myself to pay for zucchini in August—and maybe I’ll have time to put in some fall crops, but for the most part, this won’t be a veggie year.

No, I’m growing something much more important—grandchildren! In fact, I’m currently north of Seattle, helping my daughter and son-in-law after the arrival of their second daughter. Her older sister, at almost two, is keeping me on my toes—or on my knees—while my daughter recovers from childbirth. I miss my husband, who’s home feeding our cat and chickens, but I have to admit, I totally adore being a grandma!

It will be another year before our oldest granddaughter is ready to help in the veggie garden, but it’s not too early to start getting it ready for her. Children and dirt just naturally go together. Growing veggies is also a terrific way to encourage their consumption. The trick is to keep the plants alive while we’re all out there having fun.

WhLAH_1886en building a garden for children, the first consideration is placement. Where will this garden grow? If you’re after vegetables, they need full sun, at least eight hours a day. In my garden at home in Colorado, wind is an issue. Here, the tall firs behind the house block the wind but also make a lot of shade. We finally settled on a fairly sunlit spot in the backyard. There’s a water spigot near-by, it’s near the compost pile, and there’s easy wheelbarrow access from the driveway.

Next, my son-in-law and his dad built and installed wooden boxes for raised beds. While not essential, the boxes make it very clear where it’s okay to walk, and where the plants are to grow. Hopefully, we won’t have any little feet stepping on the seedlings!

LAH_1888Raised beds have additional advantages. The water table here is only a few feet below the surface, and the beds will help the soil drain. This is Washington, after all. Also, a friendly cottontail bunny frequents the yard, and I’m sure he would love a salad dinner. Our son-in-law attached some fittings to the inside of the boxes. They’ll support PVC hoops that will be covered with anti-rabbit netting.

I have raised beds in Colorado, too. While excessive rainfall isn’t usually a problem, the soil in the beds does warm faster in the spring. I cover my boxes with plastic panels to create temporary cold frames, giving me a jump on our short growing season.

LAH_1909When his dad arrived at the house to help, our son-in-law had the boxes built and ready to go. The guys placed them on the lawn, spacing them just enough to allow the lawn mower to pass between them. Then they moved them aside while they removed the turf underneath. They could have sprayed the grass with Roundup (or a similar product)  and waited for it to die, then left it in place, but they had a use for the extra turf. Finally, they anchored the bed in place with large wooden stakes.

LAH_1905The rest of the afternoon was spent hauling purchased topsoil and compost to fill the beds. There are no laws requiring topsoil to meet any specific standards; happily, this load looked pretty decent. The compost turned out to be mostly decomposed fir chips—not a good source of fertility but perfect for providing long-lasting humus.

LAH_2103It’s a very good idea to get the soil in a new garden tested before adding compost or fertilizer, especially if it was purchased, as you really have no idea what the nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus levels are, or how much organic matter is present. Once you have the test results in hand, you’ll know exactly what fertilizers to add—if any. While plants need adequate levels of these three primary nutrients (along with additional micronutrients) to thrive, too much of a good thing can stunt their growth. In this case, we added a bit of balanced fertilizer, plus some additional nitrogen (which is volatile, and needs to be renewed each year) to make up for what the still-decomposing wood chip compost will use up.

After thoroughly mixing the soil and amendments, the beds were watered and left to settle. In a few weeks they’ll be ready to plant.

Garden Bed Plans

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