There are many plants you may choose to add to your school garden. I have created a list of plants that are best for growing with children because of the seed size and amount of time it takes for the plant to produce. It is important that your students are invested in the garden, so before planting, ask the students if there is anything specific that they would like to grow.
Radishes are fun for children to grow because they mature very quickly and come in a variety of colors. Radishes are great to grow with your students because they taste best when grown in cooler months, so they should be planted in the spring and fall, when school is still in session. Radishes can be planted directly in the ground, 1/2 and inch to an inch deep and one inch apart in rows 12 inches apart. Radishes require lots of sunlight, so make sure they are not shaded by larger plants. Radishes require consistent moisture so it is important that you keep the ground moist. Radishes will be ready to harvest about 3 weeks after planting; make sure that you harvest the radishes quickly to prevent deterioration. If you want to have a constant supply of radishes you should plant them consecutively every two weeks while the weather is cool.
Zucchini can be used in many recipes and will produce a wonderful harvest. This plant will need to be maintained over the summer. Allow the volunteers to take the zucchini home to their families or freeze the zucchini for future cooking with your students. The seeds can be planted directly in the ground about a week after the last frost. Space the plants 2 to 4 feet apart to prevent crowding. It is important that you plant the zucchini in an area with full sunlight and rich soil. The zucchini will taste best if you harvest when they are about 4 inches long.
I know that kale isn’t the most child friendly produce, but it can handle fall frosts so you can plant it in the late summer and harvest it until the ground freezes. Plus, there are tons of recipes that make kale taste yummy! The seeds should be planted directly in the ground 1/4 to 1/2 deep. After about 2 weeks, you should thin the seedlings so that they are 8 to 12 inches apart. After the first hard freeze, be sure to mulch your soil so that the plant may continue to produce throughout the winter. The kale will be ready to harvest when the leaves are the size of your hand. Be careful not to pick the terminal bud at the top center of the plant because this keeps the plant productive.
Peas are another cool-weather plant and they are fun to eat right off the vine. You can prepare your soil by turning it over in the fall and adding manure. Before planting, you can sprinkle some wood ashes in the soil. Peas can be planted in the ground 4 to 6 weeks before the last spring frost (you can find your first and last freeze dates here). Plant the seeds 1 inch deep and 2 inches apart. It is important that you do not let the plants dry out, or they will not produce any pods. Tall and vine varieties will require a trellis at the time of planting; you can find instructions for how to make your own here! You should keep your peas well picked to encourage more pods to grow. Make sure that your students pick the pods carefully, using two hands, to prevent damaging the fragile plant. Peas taste crispiest when picked in the morning after the dew has dried. Don’t worry if you miss the pea’s peak period, you can pick and dry them for use in soups in the winter!
Carrots can tolerate frosts and be harvested throughout the winter. They also come in many colors that may shock your students who are used to orange carrots. The best varieties for overwintering include Napoli and Autumn King. Plant these seeds in the fall, 3 to 4 inches apart in rows. The rows should be at least a foot apart. Make sure that your soil is free of rocks and deeply tilled so that the vegetable can grow. Once the plants are an inch tall, thin out the rows so that the seedlings are about 3 inches apart. After the first frost, cover the rows with straw or shredded leaves to preserve them over the winter. The tops of the carrots may die over the winter, but the vegetable will keep growing underground. Carrots are ready for harvest at about 2 1/2 months and 1/2 inch in diameter. The carrots can be harvested if the ground thaws during the winter or after the last freeze; make sure that you harvest the plants before the spring so they do not flower!
Pole beans require very little maintenance, and like peas, they are fun for kids to eat right in the garden! Pole beans do best when sown outdoors because they often do not survive transplanting. You can plant these beans anytime after the last frost as long as the temperature of the soil is above 48 degrees Fahrenheit. These seeds are easy for little hands to handle, so your students can help you to plant 1 inch deep and 3 inches apart. Pole beans grow vertically, so you will need to set up a trellis. I love this blogger’s teepee trellis: What an awesome use of space! I would love to let my students enjoy a book or their snack under the shade of this DIY teepee 🙂 The pole beans can share this trellis with other vertical crops, like peas or cucumbers. These beans should be watered regularly and weeded diligently. Pole beans are ready to be harvested when you see firm and sizable pods. Make sure your students snap or cut off the pods to prevent damage to the plant.
I have to admit that tomatoes are my favorite vegetable (or are they a fruit?) to grow in my garden. To me, there is nothing better than eating a ripe tomato seconds after being picked. Sometimes, I’m so eager that I can’t even bother to wash them! You should start your seeds indoors 6 to 8 weeks prior to the average last frost date. It is important that you choose a spot to grow your tomatoes that will get at least 6 hours of sunlight per day. When there are about 2 weeks until you plan to transplant your seedlings outdoors, till your soil and add compost or manure. When there is about a week until you plan to transplant your seedlings outdoors, you will want to start hardening them off. This means that you will bring the plants outdoors for a portion of the day so that they can begin to get used to direct sunlight, dry air, and chilly nights. Check out The Old Farmer’s Almanac for transplant date recommendations. Plant the seedlings 2 inches apart. At the time of planting, it is important to establish tomato stakes or cages to keep the fruit off of the ground. Make sure you water these plants well to reduce the shock of transplanting. You should leave your tomatoes on the vine for as long as possible; they will be ready to pick when they are firm and very red in color, with some yellow still near the stem. If there is still fruit on your plant when the first frost rolls around, you can pull up the entire plant and bring it home to hang upside down in your garage or basement. You can pick the tomatoes and bring them back to your students (or keep them for yourself) when they redden.
Peppers come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and flavors. I have found that young children enjoy bell peppers the most. Bell peppers should be started indoors 8 to 10 weeks before the last frost. Start these seeds by planting 3 to a pot and keeping them in a warm area; after the seeds begin to grow, thin out the weakest seedling. The other two seedlings will remain together as one plant. Start to harden off the plants (see explanation under tomatoes) 10 days before transplanting the seeds outdoors. When the soil is at least 65 degrees Fahrenheit, transplant the seedlings outdoors, planting them 18 to 24 inches apart, but keeping the paired plants close to touching. In order to give the plants a bit of sulfur, you can plant the seeds with a few match sticks and a teaspoon of fertilizer. Make sure to water these peppers frequently, especially if you live in a warm climate. You may need to support the peppers with tomato cages. As soon as the peppers reach their desired size, they can be harvested, but they sweeten as they stay on the vine. Use scissors to cut the peppers off of the plant to prevent damage.
Children really enjoy growing berries because they are sweet and colorful. Growing berries in your garden may be a bit tricky because they can take several years to produce fruit. If you are interested in growing berries, I recommend that you visit The Old Farmer’s Almanac to learn which berries are best to grow in your region.