By Hyacynth Worth
Before a patch of grass has been chosen, fresh Earth tilled and little hands become eager to sink their fingers into the Midwestern soil, a successful gardener gives thought to the crops he or she wants to reap and sow. Of course, not all plants grow easily or are hardy enough to survive little feet stomping around the garden, so the family garden bed needs extra-special thought. Here’s a list of the best, kid-friendly plants to grow in our May 15th – late October Zone 5 Chicago growing season (and perhaps some of the least frustrating for a novice gardener!).
These easy-to-grow vine plants are essential when gardening with kids because little ones become over the moon excited about growing a plant with which they often look forward to picking each fall. We like growing pie pumpkins (instead of the larger ones that are bred to accommodate carving at Halloween) not only because little arms can harvest and carry them but also because the meat blends into a smooth, rich puree that can be frozen and used for the filling in Thanksgiving pumpkin pies. Be sure to plant your pumpkins away from the other vegetables, as they spread out quickly and boast large, shady leaves.
When all other plants fail to thrive, mint never disappoints. In fact, mint is such a hardy producer, mint can often overtake the rest of the garden! Be sure to plant in deep pots or be prepared to dig up fast-spreading mint plants at the end of the growing season. Smaller gardeners love mint because it’s easy to grow, easy to pick without having to be gentle and easy to enjoy. Simply harvest your mint, rinse it off and blend it into a smoothie, boil it for tea or find another easy recipe in which mint is the star.
Cherry tomatoes are a winner among both the novice gardener and the tiny gardener alike. Children enjoy harvesting these bite-size tomatoes so much these tasty little fruits often never make it into the house to adorn the dinner salad. Tomatoes need more care than other fruit-bearing plants because they must be tied to a stake as they grow to reach maximum fruitfulness, but the harvests make up for the time spent caring.
A fast-yielding and low-growing crop, bush beans are a favorite for both parents and kids; the young gardener likes this plant because the fruit of their labor is seen quickly, as bush beans mature in just 40-65 days. Because they are low-growing, they don’t need the support of a stake or trellis, which also makes them easy to tend.
Have fun picking the different varieties of potatoes and let the kiddos go wild when choosing colors. Our family tends to enjoy eating the purple and red varieties quite a bit, so we’ll be planting these root vegetables with a “no-fail” reputation for the first time this spring. Little ones will think the best part about growing potatoes comes during the harvest when mom and dad turn them loose with forks and encourage them to dig up their vegetable treasures!
Like with most root vegetables, carrots grow best in well-tilled soil that is relatively rock free, so the preparation is a little more involved than when planting an herb or squash plant. However, seeds are easily sown into the ground and little gardeners enjoy the harvesting quite a bit; pulling carrots out of the ground and finding what shape they’ve taken is an exciting surprise after caring for them all summer long.