Little Green Thumbs: Crops for Kids

Children will discover where their food comes from, learn about insects and life cycles, and how to care for and nurture plants. Children are also more likely to taste and enjoy fruits and vegetables they have grown and harvested themselves.

The following list of plants contains kid friendly crops. They grow fairly quickly, have large seeds that are easy to handle, and the edible plants are tasty. Children also will enjoy plants that provide an interesting sensory experience with fragrance or flower color. Remember to be aware of potential allergic reactions to plants, and take precautions when introducing new plants to your children.

Every garden needs flowers to attract more pollinators for fruits and vegetables, here are some that work best with children:

Celosia – Cockscomb: Easiest when bought as plants. The flower heads on cockscomb celosia looks like a cockscomb or, in kid speak, like a brain. The flowers come in hot colors of red, orange and yellow.

Marigold: Easy to grow from seed and seeds are sizeable and easy for little hands to plant. Flower colors range from yellow to orange and burnt orange. The plants are easily deadheaded with the `popping’ of the flowers.

Snapdragons: Best bought as plants and can range in heights from 6 to 24 inches. These can be especially fun for children as the flowers open when you squeeze them and snap closed when released.

Sunflowers: Easy to grow from seed and seeds are large and easy to handle and plant. Sunflowers come in many sizes and heights. There are single stem varieties with one flower and branching types with many smaller flowers, so be sure to read the label to know which variety you are buying. Dwarf sunflowers like Big Smile grow 10 to 24 inches tall and are perfect for a toddler’s height.

Zinnias: Easy to grow from seed and seeds are sizeable. The flowers are large and come in a wide range of colors including red, orange, yellow, green, purple and various striping.

Vegetables and Fruit

Beans: Plant big, easy to handle seeds in a straight line for easy harvest. Bush beans grow as a bush and you can plant these every few weeks to extend the harvest. Pole beans grow as vines and need a structure to climb on. Try creating a kid-favorite “secret hiding place” with your pole bean structure.

Carrots: Root crops are especially fun for kids, as the vegetable “magically” grows under ground where it can’t be seen. Carrots are best grown in the spring or late summer. Surprise your children with growing different colored varieties including purple, yellow or creamy white.

Cucumbers:  Big seeds are easy to plant, and make sure to give this viney plant extra room to grow. Pick the fruit when it is young and tender; once it yellows it’s too late to be tasty.

Lettuce and other leafy greens: Most of these will be fast crops, quick to germinate and harvest. Baby leaves can be picked as early as 28 days and full maturity is around 40 to 50 days. Leafy greens enjoy cool weather and do best in the spring and again in the fall. They may be planted in a straight row or sprinkle-planted in a block.

Peppers:  It is easiest to buy plants as growing by seed needs to start in the house. Stick with sweet bell peppers which are tasty for children. Avoid small hot and ornamental varieties as well. Curious children can’t resist and will want to pick them. Capsaicin (what makes peppers hot) can rub off onto skin and the oil will cause a burning sensation on their hands and spread to their face and eyes if touched.

Radish:  This fast crop, ready to pick in 20 to 30 days, can be planted from seed at the end of a seed row (beans, carrots or the like) to remind you where the row is located. Radish will taste hotter when grown in warmer weather, so plant them in the spring and late summer for a nice, mild flavor.

Tomatoes: Nothing else says summer like a tomato fresh from the garden.  These should be bought at the garden center as plants, because growing by seed needs to start in the house. Kids especially like the bite size Cherry and Grape tomatoes and the interesting color patterns of some heirloom varieties.

Along with learning about fruits and vegetables, children will learn lifelong lessons and skills like patience and hard work. Children will find satisfaction in reaping the rewards of a job well done. Gardens are a place to nurture a child’s curiosity about the world all while making sure they spend important time out-of-doors. Remember, it’s just dirt and will wash off with soap and water.

Barbara Arnold is green corps coordinator at Franklin Park Conservatory.