By Stacy Whitman
Juicy red tomatoes, crisp cucumbers and sweet yellow corn may sound like the makings of a savory summer salad. But when you grow them at home, they can create a wonderland of fun and discovery for your toddler. From rows of crunchy crudités to herbs in pots, a family vegetable garden is a great way to teach your child where food comes from, says Sarah Pounders, education specialist at the National Gardening Association in South Burlington, Vt. “It teaches kids that plants, like people, need nutrients and water to thrive, as well as how to take care of other things,” she explains. It’s also a chance for your little one to learn about nature.
Early spring, after the last frost, is typically the best time to start. Toby Adams, manager of the Ruth Rea Howell Family Garden at The New York Botanical Garden, recommends involving your toddler from the get-go by letting her help choose the vegetables. Flip through a seed catalogue and look for varieties with wacky names, or plants that produce extra-large fruit, such as pumpkins, watermelons and corn, he suggests. Or try creating a magical fairy-tale garden with a mix of strangely colored giant and miniature vegetables, suggests Molly Dannenmaier, author of A Child’s Garden: 60 Ideas to Make Any Garden Come Alive for Children (Timber Press, 2007).
Keep in mind that plants with large seeds, such as beans and peas, are easier for small hands to handle. Also, veggies with shorter harvest times, such as lettuce, radishes and scallions, will mean less waiting time for your budding gardener.
To help with decision-making, pick out a dozen packets of seeds yourself, then ask your toddler which she’d like to plant fi rst, Dannenmaier advises. If your toddler is under the age of 3, don’t be surprised if she’s more interested in playing in the dirt than tending to the garden. But you can still get her involved and make it a learning experience—whether you’re teaching her the names of plants, digging holes for seeds, hunting for insects or counting tomatoes together.