Growing up in northern Wisconsin on a hobby farm acreage, I have many good childhood memories of our whole family working together outside: planting seeds, weeding, watering, and harvesting our large garden. Whether we were starting seeds indoors or reaping the goods we’d sown earlier that year, there was a nurturing and fostering of the interest and curiosity of life, how things grow, responsibility, the circle of life, and the satisfaction of enjoying the foods that we had home-grown.
I had always wanted my children to be able to enjoy and experience the love of gardening, be outdoors, find bugs, dig in the dirt, even eat dirt (I hear the microbes aren’t all that bad for their system), identify plants and foods, as well as learn about the growing process with a cupful of grace and patience as the seasons change.
How could my family live a healthier lifestyle and facilitate the discovery of gardening with our kids- even while we lived in the city? Regardless of the size of your yard, patio, stoop, porch or acreage-your family can start a garden! The magic is in the process of setting up, watering and reaping the rewards as a family, and the size of the garden doesn’t matter! Adults and kids alike can see the value in spending quality time together, create something that will bring forth life, and food while discovering new things in the fresh air. There may be a complaint or two the 8th time it needs to be watered or the 3rd time it needs a little weeding- but the first, last, and all of the middle times that the kids find a ripe food to be picked, a worm to be named, a bug to be examined- are pure joy found in the garden.
While living in an apartment, my ‘need to garden’ drove me to grow patio-potted plants, including peppers, tomatoes, basil & herbs (aka-a “patio-pizza-garden”). In our first house (where the yard was cute, but not enough to make a full-garden), I converted a flower bed into a small in-ground garden (3’x 5’), as well as several patio gardens contained in pots. At our current home, we built two 8’ x 4’ raised beds with trellis backs and still have several pot-patio gardens. The patio pots seem to be the easiest for anyone under 3 years old to help pick tomatoes, etc., as there is no fence or barrier to contend with little arms.
Whether the kids are non-walkers (they can watch on a blanket, or crawl in a pack-N-play with a fitted baby sheet for a sun-cover), one year old up to 18, everyone can help. The bonding, memories made, and discoveries that each kid finds interesting- whether it’s the bugs, fun playing in the dirt, counting seeds, using tools, watering, or watching things grow or picking home-grown foods- each kid takes away something from the experience. Once the littles hit 1.5 years, we give them sand shovels to move the dirt around, and pails or watering cans to help carry water (even if the hose does reach, it helps them get involved and tired!).
Why raised beds?
In a raised bed, the plants are above the waterlogged ground, the raised soil warms more quickly each spring, and soil drains most efficiently with the spring rain. Raised beds also offer easy maintenance height and width for planting, weeding and picking. The raised bed is very convenient for anyone to be able to pull up a step stool, wheelchair, 5 gallon bucket or walker to sit on the side of a raised bed to plant or pick.
What seeds/plants should I use? Make sure to pick seeds or seedlings (pre-started sprouts) that will thrive in your zone (see map). Often nurseries and garden stores will sell seeds and plants that are not meant to thrive in our climate zone- their purpose is usually to draw in customers.
Location, location, location?
Make sure that you choose a location for your garden that you won’t need to move in the future, gets 6-8 hours of sunlight each day (preferably morning sun), is not directly under gutters/eves, a large tree, or water run-way.
What’s the diff> Annuals Vs. Perennials?
Annual: these are plants or veggies that will die (after winter) and not come back next year. Most veggies and the colorful annual flowers sold in the 6-packs are viable for just 3-5 summer months. Bummer, because they are such vibrant colors and the kids love to help with planting the colorful ones (of course).
Perennial: these plants, veggies, and fruits will come back each year when planted outdoors. The ‘greens’ above ground will die each fall, but the roots become dormant over winter and will sprout in the spring again! (*Talk about your low-maintenance and less hassle plants! Note- these usually do not come in as many bright, vibrant colors).
We make a point to plant both- that way the kids can help add pops of color and participate in bloom-planting each year, while we can still have the sturdy perennials (strawberry, hostas, grasses etc.) come up every year on their own. If you are feeling extra ambitious or the kids have cabin fever- you can do some seed-starting in the very early spring, it can be easy to do in recycled containers, or old egg cartons put in a warm windowsill. Once the seedlings are 2-3” and the outdoor temperature is adequate at night, they can be transplanted outdoors into pots or the garden.
Building our Raised Outdoor Garden Bed
Supplies Needed: (3) 2”x 4”x 8’*, (1) 4’x8’ wooden trellis (optional), (4) 16”tall, 4”x4” (cornerstones), a box of 1.5”screws, drill, saw (circular), spikes/marking-string (optional), seeds (check your zone!), fence & stakes (optional-helps keep out kids, rabbits, dogs) water, sun (6-8 hrs), soil & patience. *You can add a second or third board on top to make it a higher/deeper raised bed (then 6- 2”x4”x8’ are needed).
- We assembled the boxes on a flat ground or cement so that they lined up nicely. Using the 16”x4”x4” cornerstones, we screwed the ‘walls’ (4’ short sides, and 8’ long sides) in place with an electric drill in a rectangle form.
- Each kid can have or share the measuring tape or ruler, count out loud, measure twice and cut once. Great life skills here. 😉
- Kids make great “gophers” to help with getting screws, and shorter wood pieces. Older kids could help hold pieces in place while an adult uses the electric tools.
- If using wood, it could be painted or stained, however, cinderblocks, rocks, sheet-metal could also be used to form a raised bed box.
- Optional: Using a brace- simply a 2”x 4” or other size of material that is 4’ wide to act as an additional brace in the middle of the box for support.
- Reminder- the boxes need to sit on level ground and be filled with plenty of soil mixture (plants love egg shells and fire-pit charcoal mixed in). If it’s not level- the soil and seeds will wash away from under the boxes.
Elise Ward. Elise is a mom to two busy kids Adeline (4) and Theodore (1) and has been together with her college sweetheart, Clayton for over 12 years. She grew up in Northern Wisconsin, fell in love during college, moved to the Quad Cities & got married. She is now an elementary art teacher in Eldridge, Iowa, and enjoys supporting our youth in a variety of creative outlets. She is a momprenuer (to save a little sanity and as a therapeutic outlet) and has a custom-sewing boutique (The Country Button), and dabbles in freelance photography (QC Sweet Pea Photography). She was a landscape designer for 8 years and recently resigned to spend more time making memories with her little family. Elise & her family have 2 adopted dogs, one of which is now a retired Therapy Dog (7 years of service), whom Elise wrote and illustrated a children’s book about in 2011 (Zoe’s Tail). You can usually find her outside with the kids hunting for bugs, making forts, baking up treats or playing in the water; “when mom is ‘lost’- look outside!” (Adeline)