If you and your kids have been anxiously awaiting getting back in the garden, the wait is over! There are a number of fabulous spring veggies you can start weeks before the last frost, as early as the soil can be worked without sticking to your tools. Many of these crops also happen to be extremely kid-friendly.
The Perfect Pea
My all-time kid favorite is the shelling pea. Here are some of the reasons they are my absolute top pick for gardening with children:
1) You can plant them early in the season, perfect for impatient little ones (and big ones) who can’t wait to get into the garden
2) The seeds are huge and among the easiest for little hands to manage.
3) They come up fairly quickly, and the sprout is large and unmistakable. This is a plant less likely to be pulled up by wee “helpful” weeders.
4) They bear their yummy little pods early and are easy to pick.
5) They are delicious eaten raw and extremely entertaining to open and pick out the little green pearls of yumminess. I get almost teary-eyed with delight watching my little ones busily harvesting and munching fresh peas in the garden, like young pandas in a bamboo patch.
Another great early spring pick for kids is the radish. They are often planted in the same area as carrots to mark the rows, as they come up weeks earlier than the wispy carrot seedling. (Kids love to grow and eat carrots, but know that the seeds are super tiny, and they take a loooong time to come up.)
Radish seeds are considerably smaller than peas, but still manageable for many small fingers. They also come up quickly and are extremely quick to mature (about 25 days for the smaller varieties.)
They can also be extremely beautiful. The Easter Egg radish comes in the most lovely shades of pastel pinks and purples.
However, many the enthusiastic mini-gardener has been shocked to bite into a rose-hued radish and experience a flavor most un-Easteregg-ish. The flavor of radishes is far less kid-friendly than the pea, often peppery, even sulfury, so you may have some work to do to make them more appetizing. Try slicing them very thinly into salads, or take a tip from the 50’s hostess and make some radish roses: slice off the tops and bottoms of your radishes. Place a flat (cut) end down and cut four or five “petals” into the perimeter of the radish, by cutting ¾ down from top. Then soak them in ice water until the “petals” separate a bit. (recipes.howstuffworks.com/how-to-garnish-cooking8.htm explains it better.)
My dad describes eating radish snacks as a boy in Germany, a large white variety he remembers as “Bierettich,” maybe similar to “icicle white.” To prepare them, you’d hold them by the root, cut off the greens, and then slice them from the top down to make a sort of fan. Then the cuts were well salted and left to soak. It was ready to eat when it got good and “teary.” (This was traditionally accompanied by a cold beer with the older set.)
Maybe your gardening posse would like to try growing the mighty daikon radish, which can measure as long as 5 feet! These white giants have a milder flavor and can be thinly sliced and then shaped with cookie cutters for a light-hearted veggie treat.
Or perhaps your little guys will simply pull up fistfuls of rosy-hued radishes, give them a squirt with the hose, and happily munch them straight from the ground.
Of course, there’s always ranch dip.
Spinach is another easy, kid friendly early spring crop we’ll be growing this year. The seeds are also fairly manageable. It also matures quickly and has a mild flavor that can be used in just about any delicious, nutritious dish.
It’s a particularly great cold-frame crop for those of you lucky enough to have a handy-person in your lives. You can enjoy fresher-than-fresh spinach all winter long in many climates with the help of a simple wooden frame built to catch the southern sun. Another way to get a jump on the season is to plant it in the fall, about four weeks before your last average frost date, and then cover it with mulch or row covers to overwinter. In the spring you uncover the baby spinach, which will be ready weeks earlier than that sown in the spring.
For those of us who lacked such foresight, just scatter your spinach seed over well-worked soil with plenty of compost and nitrogen, water well, keep damp, and wait for your greens. Little ones will tend to uproot the plants when harvesting. If you’re planning on more than one harvest, you may want to harvest the spinach yourself by picking or slicing off individual leaves.
If you have a finicky spinach eater, here are a couple of truly yummy recipes to try.
Creamy Baked Spinach
2 lb fresh spinach 1 ½ cups hot milk 1 c grated cheddar cheese 2 tablespoons butter 2 tablespoons flour 1 teaspoon salt Dash of pepper Dash of nutmeg
Trim and wash 2 lb of fresh spinach.
Place in a big pot.
Cover and cook only until wilted.
Cool, then squeeze out excess water.
In a saucepan, melt the butter; then add the flour.
Whisk and gently cook for 3-4 minutes.
Add the milk; then bring to a boil.
Add the salt and a dash of pepper and nutmeg.
Cook for about 5-6 minutes.
Combine the sauce with the spinach and ½ cup of cheese.
Spoon into a baking dish, then top with the other ½ cup of cheese
Bake at 375°F (190°C) for 20 minutes.
Yummy Spinach Salad
1 grocery-sized bunch of spinach, leaves only 1 small red onion, minced ½ lb of bacon, cooked and drained ½ cup of mayonnaise 2 tablespoons of white wine vinegar 2 tablespoon mayo
Combine mayonnaise, vinegar, and sugar; let stand at least an hour and a half.
Clean and dry the spinach leaves, then tear into bite-size pieces and place in bowl.
Sprinkle onions over spinach.
Crumble the bacon and put over top.
Toss with the dressing and serve.
If you have a picky eater at home, as I do, take heart. Research has shown that kids are more willing to eat the types of vegetables that they themselves have been involved in growing.
Add that to the endless list of reasons you garden with your kids.