By Jane Perrone
We have teamed up with Mash Direct the award-winning ‘field-to-fork’ vegetable accompaniments brand, to help them launch their Grow Your Own Veg campaign.
Growing delicious veg is the perfect activity for getting the whole family involved. Here’s my top ten tips on how to get children growing - and eating! - food.
Children's taste buds can be a bit different to ours, so it's important to get them to try lots of new things: this is far easier when they've been involved in growing the food themselves. People often start out with crops such as tomatoes, but there's a long wait for the fruits to be ready, which in children's little lives can feel like an age!
Instead, go for crops with a short sow/harvest cycle. My go-to is pea shoots, as they are quick and easy to grow, the seeds are big enough to be easy for little fingers to hold, and children seem to like the taste, which is a bit like regular peas from the pod. These can be sown and grown on a sunny windowsill at any time of year. Colourful veg such as chard is fun, too: it looks a bit like spinach on steroids and the stems come in a range of bright colours, from bright pink to neon orange. You can put the leaves in salads, or chop them finely and add them to meatball or burger mixes, and the stems are great for adding to lasagnes, gratins and stews. Sow chard in from spring right through to August, sowing small batches so you get a harvest that will last right through to autumn and into winter, if you offer the plants some protection from a cloche or some horticultural fleece.
When it comes to herbs, lots have strong flavours that really need to be appreciated as part of a dish, so don't worry if your children don't fancy eating a whole leaf! If you have coriander seeds in your spice rack, just try flinging a handful onto bare soil at any time other than the depths of winter, and they should germinate and provide handfuls of fresh herbs in a few weeks. Or try buying a selection of herb plug plants from the garden centre and plant up a container with some of your favourites: get children involved in choosing the ones they like, both by looks and smells!
MAKE IT FUN!
Children’s attention spans are shorter than ours, so plan for short bursts of targeted activity. And if seed sowing turns into mud pie-making session, or you end up watching the birds in the garden, don’t worry - just have fun!
LET THERE BE MESS
Many parents worry about children getting their hands dirty, especially since the pandemic, but there is lots of scientific evidence that getting our hands in the dirt is good for us, so put on their oldest clothes and get stuck in!
KEEP IT SIMPLE
Keep it simple with a couple of different edible crops and perhaps a flower such as nasturtiums or sunflowers to start with. Larger seeds that little hands can easily handle are ideal: think courgettes, pumpkins, beans and peas: all of these will germinate quicker if they are soaked in water for a few hours before sowing. If you want to sow smaller seeds such as lettuce and radishes, mix them with some fine sand to make them easier to sow.
If you’ve never gardened before, start with pea shoots: they’re easy, and quick, producing a harvest in two to three weeks. Buy a box of dried peas from the pulses aisle at the supermarket, soak a handful in water overnight and sprinkle over a tray of compost (you can use a recycled plastic food tray, just make sure to add drainage holes in the bottom). Then cover over with a layer of compost about 1cm deep. Place in a sunny spot indoors or outside, keep the compost moist and within a couple of weeks, the peas will produce shoots. Get children to snip off the shoots a pair of scissors or their finger and thumb, and encourage them to have a taste - they’re crunchy and fresh and taste just like regular peas. If you leave the lowest set of leaves behind when snipping, you’ll get another harvest too.
Offering a choice of what to grow is empowering, especially for older children: maybe they want to grow a lemon tree or a blackberry bush for making their favourite ice cream, or basil for their favourite homemade pasta sauce.
You don’t need to buy fancy containers for your crops: an old plastic kitchen bin is ideal for growing a single courgette plant or a couple of potato tubers, and you can raid the recycling bin for plastic food trays to use as seed trays. Just make sure an adult punches some drainage holes in the bottom before starting. When it comes to tools, a trowel, a fork and a hoe will be enough to get you started: if you don’t have these to hand, improvise! An old serving spoon makes a great digging tool for children, and a plastic milk jug is ideal for watering plants.
MAKE IT PERSONAL
Get children to write their own labels, count out seeds, measure the length of bean shoots and decorate their own plant pots with a lick of paint - this way you can slip in an impromptu maths, handwriting or art lesson. (They’re also more likely to taste vegetables they feel they’ve tended!).
MAKE PLANT CHECKING AN ACTIVITY OF THE DAY
Try to get into the habit of checking your plants daily as a family, and encouraging children to observe changes as they grow - you’ll also spot problems such as pests more quickly. Take photos so you can compare growth week by week.
MAKE A WINDOW GARDEN
There are also lots of vegetable scraps you can sprout for a windowsill edible garden, too, from the bases of celery and onion to the tops of pineapples and carrots.
EXPERIMENT AND HAVE FUN!
Don’t be afraid to experiment: not everything will grow, some crops may be munched by slugs or wiped out by a late frost, but this is an opportunity to talk to children about resilience and how to cope when things go wrong, as well as encouraging them to try a few more veggies. You’ll learn lots along the way, and have lots of fun in the process too.