Ready to start a backyard garden with your family? According to the 2012 North Carolina State University report, “Benefits of Connecting Children with Nature,” children who help to grow their own food eat more vegetables and fruits, learn more about nutrition, and are more apt to keep these healthy eating habits throughout their lives. And spending time outdoors reduces stress for both children and adults. If healthy living is a goal for your family, gardening as a family activity can be a fun way to achieve it!
Winter is the perfect time to plan a garden by flipping through seed catalogs full of pictures of ripe vegetables, lush fruits, and brilliant flowers. For the best first garden, start with these steps.
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Find a sunny spot
The closer you place your garden to your home, the better you will be able to keep an eye on it and enjoy it. Look through photos of your yard from last summer, and notice where the sun splashed the most and the grass grew the thickest. Ideally, you want at least six hours of sunlight per day in your garden during the growing season.
Once you have picked a spot, put on your snow boots and stamp out an outline of your garden plot in the snow, or let the kids paint a shape in the snow with colored water in a spray bottle. Now you can study the spot and daydream about what you’d like to see growing there this summer.
Start small with your family backyard garden
Backyard gardeners often get excited in the spring and start a larger garden than they can maintain through the dog days of summer. To keep your enthusiasm all summer long, start with a plot one size smaller than the garden of your dreams. Remember, you are creating a backyard garden with your family for fun and health, not to open a produce stand or win a prize at the state fair! You can always expand next year.
Make a backyard garden plan with your family
What foods would you like to grow? Do you want to use a raised bed? Consider easy-to-grow crops, like potatoes, lettuce, green beans, radishes, tomatoes, zucchini, and beets. Plant foods that your family already enjoys eating and then make sure to include one or two new foods your kids have never eaten to try in your backyard family garden.
Feed the soil
Start with a soil sample kit from your local state extension agency. You will dig up a few trowels of garden dirt, let it dry, then send a portion of that soil to the lab in the provided mailer. The results will reveal the pH level, and what to add to make the ground the perfect environment for garden vegetables. Adding compost (homemade or bought) will provide the nutrients garden plants need, as well as organic matter to hold moisture in the soil during dry periods and to prevent soggy soil during wet weather.
We recently started a compost pile and it’s been an amazingly easy way to reduce our waste and support our garden.
Consider “Lasagna Gardening.”
You’re going to have to replace the grass that’s been growing where you want your garden. Start by laying down a ground covering of wet newspaper or flattened cardboard boxes right on top of the lawn. Add layers of organic material. Start with wood chips or small- to medium-sized twigs; add several inches of finished compost, covered by grass clippings or kitchen vegetable scraps, or any type of plant material. Layer on leaves or straw, a final level of compost or soil, and a mulch topping of straw or leaves to hold in water and prevent weeds from sprouting.
Include some adventure
Don’t forget the fruits
Honeybees and native bees need all the support they can get. Make sure to include some zinnias, marigolds, sunflowers, or other nectar-rich flowers to attract bees and butterflies. Just a few blooms mixed in among the veggies will brighten up your garden and help draw the pollinators you need to grow peppers, beans, squash, raspberries, strawberries, and many other foods.
Try some herbs
You can fit several herb plants in a window box, where they will thrive in sunshine and well-drained soil. Clip some green thyme or oregano to add a burst of flavor and a fresh taste to your salads, soups, and other dishes. Parsley likes more water than other herbs and will add vitamins C and K to your dishes as well as great taste. Basil, the king of herbs, supplies vitamins A, C, and K to your diet, and is a happy companion tucked into the garden next to tomatoes or peppers.
Set aside some regular gardening time
The most crucial step in the whole process, i.e., routine care for your garden, will help both the plants and the humans thrive! After the initial effort to set up and plant your garden, you and your kids can stop by the garden daily and check to see if your plants need water, a trellis, or weeding. Just 10 to 20 minutes spent in your garden every day will leave you more relaxed and give your kids enough time to explore the plants and natural cycles going on in the garden.
Nip problems in the bud
Pull weeds with your family in your backyard garden when they are tiny, so they don’t steal resources from your garden crops. Keep a watch out for signs of pests or diseases and take action quickly. You can often diagnose the problem on the internet, or by taking a sample of the affected plant to your local extension agency.
Find a good resource for growing information
In Square Foot Gardening, author Mel Bartholomew provides simple tips for small gardens that produce lots of food. Also, consider Patricia Lanza’s book, Lasagna Gardening, for advice on this low-maintenance gardening technique.
Expect to have some of your plants thrive and others fail, and to enjoy the unmatchable taste of fresh vegetables and fruits right out of your garden. And remember that you are giving your children the gift of healthy habits and happy memories for life. What could be better than that?