Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Urban gardening with kids

Welcome to the May Carnival of Natural Parenting: Growing in the Outdoors

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Code Name: Mama and Hobo Mama. This month our participants have shared how they encourage their children to connect with nature and dig in the dirt. Please read to the end to find a list of links to the other carnival participants.

Urban gardening with kids

I didn't grow up with a garden grown by my parents, but maybe it's in my blood. My grandma had a fantastic garden, way up in the Rocky Mountains, surrounded by tall electric fences to keep out the deer. Every time we'd visit her, she'd let me tag along to pick the produce that would end up on that night's dinner plates. She also ringed her alpine house with hanging fuchsias (I thought of them as ballerina plants) and window boxes. It was a riot of color amid the arid high-altitude landscape.

But my dad was in the Army, and we moved around a lot and lived in military housing — neither conducive conditions for gardening. When we settled into a house for good when I was in high school, I tried planting a garden out in the yard. In the shade. Under a bazillion pine trees. Yeah, um, it didn't so much grow. I also made a half-hearted attempt to start a compost pile. I hope I made some earthworms happy at least.

By the time I got married, I thought I was good only for killing houseplants. Living in apartments, I'd kind of given up on my dream of having a garden — until I realized it didn't have to look just like my grandma's. After all, she'd had decades to make hers so lush! I just had to start somewhere, and somewhere small. And, most important of all, I had to give myself and my plants the grace to fail. Or, as I came to see it, to experiment.

Along the way, I acquired a kidlet, and it was fun to see how my urban and rental gardening techniques could work with kids. I still have a lot to learn — mostly patience related — with regard to gardening with children, but that's an experiment, too. Here's a pictorial overview of our family's gardening odyssey so far.

Gardening indoors

In our studio apartment set into a hill, we got indifferent sunshine for our single bank of windows. But I had some luck with herbs, and another good indoor option is a broad container of mesclun lettuce that you can grow year-round. I did not have so much luck with sun-soaking veggies like tomatoes and strawberries — I think, even in a sunny window, there's simply not enough direct light and heat.

This is my bizarre collection of plants from outside our apartment. Many of these did not make it — as I said, I learned to chalk it up to experimentation, not to blame myself, and to move on. I also have had to let things not look pretty all the time. Nature's variable like that, after all.

The sprawling white-flowered plant is a hardy mum. I recommend them to anyone who wants occasional flowers and persistent greenery indoors. The name is apt. They are very hard to kill. Our mum has been through two cross-country car trips, one in summer's heat and one in winter's freeze. It has been reduced to a single dismal stick at least a few times. Most recently, it was attacked by aphids for months on end. And still it flourishes! So let that be an inspiration to any black thumbs out there. It's a good starter plant, for you or for your kids.

I took the above picture because, unlike its usual routine of flowering at Christmas, it had bloomed in profusion that year in October — right when the baby we had miscarried would have been born. And this year? It's blossoming right now, in a lush advance welcome for our newest little one.

There are a lot of seeds you can plant inside with kids, and a fun thing you can do in a sunny window is pop the plants into clear containers so you can watch the roots dig down. In these experiments, it doesn't so much matter if you get the harvest you expected — your kids will teach you that the growing is just as important.

Gardening on the balcony

Another option is growing on a balcony. Unfortunately, our balcony here is very shaded, which means our plants can be happy only if I set them on the very edge. I did have a couple tomatoes and strawberries show themselves last year, but generally, I do better with herbs and perennial flowers (some of which, like lavender, are edible in themselves), supplemented seasonally with pretty annuals that catch my eye.

Container planters and hanging baskets work well if you have a small space outdoors. If your outdoor space (balcony, patio, even a yard that you don't feel like digging up) gets a lot of sunlight, the sky (the dirt?) is the limit as to what plants you can grow. Veggies like tomatoes want deep containers for their roots. Veggies like salad greens want broad ones to spread out. Ask at your local nursery to buy big planters they're throwing out (such as the ones tree saplings came in — they'll usually give them away or sell them for cheap), and you'll have the best of both worlds. And then get a lot of soil, and you're golden!

Happy tomatoes in a pot, none the wiser that it's not a real garden.

The makings of a wonderful salad.

The great news about container gardening is its very impermanence. It makes experimenting — and letting your kids experiment — that much less painful. You know you'll be tossing annual veggies and flowers at the end of the season anyway, so you can feel free to take some risks. Let your kids plant some special seeds they pick out for themselves.

Scooping soil is a good task for little ones. Yes, not all of it will go where you want it, but they find the feel of digging in dirt irresistible.

Kids especially love helping with watering. Getting pint-sized tools (watering can, gloves, trowel) can be a perfect way to help get them excited about being involved.

Flowers blossom (ha ha!) in container gardens. Whether you're getting seeds or starts, let little ones have a say in the colors and varieties you put together. And with such rich potting soil, don't be afraid to fill your flowering containers to overflowing.

In fact, growing an abundance of flowers is a great idea — because kids love to pick 'em!

Limited space might mean thinking 3D and going for vertical. Herbs and flowers work beautifully in hanging baskets, but so do some veggies and fruits, such as tomatoes (grow them upside down!) and strawberries.

If you're lucky, you'll get some help figuring out the hanging baskets.

Gardening on a concrete slab patio

Ok, this is just kind of a weird one we discovered by happy accident. At our last apartment, our patio was broken concrete in the corners, and some sand and dirt had collected there — as had some weeds. That gave me an idea.

If you bring in enough dirt, the plants won't notice they're sitting on concrete!

This, our shadier and smaller plot, I dedicated to flowers and greenery. The other side was half-shade and half-sun, so the sunny portion bore our fruits and veggies.

A bunch of soil and compost on top of concrete can support snap peas…

…berry bushes…

…fresh and imaginative salads…

…and an inundation of tomatoes.

Not to mention the occasional garden gnome.

Transforming a bare urban space with natural elements is a delight and lets you pass along your values of green living to your children even in the midst of the city.

Gardening in shared space

When we moved away from our beloved patio garden, I sought out other ways to garden without a yard. Some options to look for are community gardens, match-up programs like Urban Garden Share, and asking around to family and friends — anyone who might have a yard but who lacks the gardening vision. Or homeowners who want to garden but need guidance and help with the hard work.

I got super lucky with an invitation to garden with a new friend (astonishingly new at the time — this is why I was so lucky!). Sharing the land and the work is the perfect solution for urban living. It brings people and resources together — and, in this case, gives my kid two adorable girls (and their toys — he loves their toys) to hang out with while I garden.

Both families pitched in and constructed three raised beds. As you can see, kids can enjoy any aspect of gardening — even the building.

Especially the building!

And the cardboard stomping.

And the dirt filling.

And the worm spotting.

And, of course, the watering. What kid doesn't love to play with a hose?

I've tried to keep things organized with a square foot gardening plan.

That way I can keep track of which squares the kids can still muck around in!

If you're full-out gardening, you can let your kids help you choose and plant the seeds indoors or out.

Children are invariably helpful.

Include something fun, like sunflowers or pumpkins.

Like hoses, spray bottles are always a hit.

They're often eager to help with the harvesting.

And if you're lucky, they might even eat some of those veggies they've helped to grow!

How do you garden in seemingly inhospitable conditions? And how do you include your kids in the fun?

Carnival of Natural Parenting -- Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama

Visit Code Name: Mama and Hobo Mama to find out how you can participate in the next Carnival of Natural Parenting!

Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants:

  • Get Out!Momma Jorje gives reasons she doesn't think she gets outside enough and asks for your suggestions on making time for the outdoors.
  • How Does Your Garden Grow?The ArtsyMama shares her love of nature photography.
  • We Go Outside — Amy at Peace 4 Parents describes her family's simple, experiential approach to encouraging appreciation of nature.
  • My Not-So-Green Thumb — Wolfmother confesses to her lack of gardening skills but expresses hope in learning alongside her son at Fabulous Mama Chronicles.
  • Enjoying Outdoors — Isil at Smiling like Sunshine describes how her children enjoy the nature.
  • Five Ideas to Encourage the Reluctant Junior Gardener — For the rare little ones who don't like to get their hands dirty, Dionna at Code Name: Mama offers tips for encouraging an early love of dirt (despite the mess).
  • Connecting to NatureMamapoekie shares how growing your own vegetable patch connects your child to nature and urges them to not take anything for granted.
  • The Farmer's Market Classroom — Jenn at Monkey Butt Junction shares how the Farmer's Market has become her son's classroom.
  • Seeds — Kat at Loving {Almost} Every Moment's hubby Ken shares his perspective on why gardening with their kiddos is so important . . . and enjoyable!
  • Toddlers in the Garden — Laura at A Pug in the Kitchen shares her excitement as she continues to introduce her toddler and new baby to the joys of fresh veggies, straight from the garden.
  • Nature's Weave — MJ at Wander Wonder Discover explains how nature weaves its way into our lives naturally, magnetically, experientially, and spiritually.
  • Becoming Green — Kristina at Hey Red celebrates and nurtures her daughter's blossoming love of the outdoors.
  • Little Gardener — Rosemary at Rosmarinus Officinalis looks forward to introducing her baby girl to gardening and exploring home grown foods for the first time.
  • Cultivating Abundance — You can never be poor if you have a garden! Lucy at Dreaming Aloud reflects on what she cultivates in her garden . . . and finds it's a lot more than seeds!
  • Growing in the Outdoors: Plants and People — Luschka at Diary of a First Child reflects on how she is growing while teaching her daughter to appreciate nature, the origins of food, and the many benefits of eating home-grown.
  • How Not to Grow — Anna at Wild Parenting discusses why growing vegetables fills her with fear.
  • Growing in the Outdoors — Lily at Witch Mom Blog talks about how connecting to the natural world is a matter of theology for her family and the ways that they do it.
  • A Garden Made of Straw — Kelly at Becoming Crunchy shares tips on making a straw bale garden.
  • The Tradition of Gardening — Carrie at Love Notes Mama reflects on the gifts that come with the tradition of gardening.
  • Gardening Smells Like Home — Bethy at Bounce Me to the Moon hopes that her son will associate home grown food and lovely flowers with home.
  • The New Normal — Patti at Jazzy Mama writes about how she hopes that growing vegetables in a big city will become totally normal for her children's generation.
  • Outside, With You — Amy at Anktangle writes a letter to her son, a snapshot of a moment in the garden together.
  • Farmer Boy — Abbie at Farmer's Daughter shares how her son Joshua helps to grow and raise their family's food.
  • Growing Kids in the Garden — Lisa at Granola Catholic shares easy ways to get your kids involved in the garden.
  • Growing Food Without a Garden — Don't have a garden? "You can still grow food!" says Mrs Green of Little Green Blog. Whatever the size of your plot, she shows you how.
  • Growing Things — Liz at Garden Variety Mama shares her reasons for gardening with her kids, even though she has no idea what she's doing.
  • MomentsUK Mummy Blogger explains how the great outdoors provides a backdrop for her family to reconnect.
  • Condo Kid Turns Composter and Plastic Police — Jessica from Cloth Diapering Mama has discovered that her young son is a true earth lover despite living in a condo with no land to call their own.
  • Gardening with Baby — Sheila at A Gift Universe shows us how her garden and her son are growing.
  • Why to Choose Your Local Farmer's MarketNaturally Nena shares why she believes it's important to teach our children the value of local farmers.
  • Unfolding into Nature — At Crunchy-Chewy Mama, Jessica Claire shares her desire to cultivate a reverence for nature through gardening, buying local food, and just looking out the window.
  • Urban Gardening With Kids — Lauren at Hobo Mama shares her strategies for city gardening with little helpers — without a yard but with a whole lot of enthusiasm.
  • Mama Doesn't Garden — Laura at Our Messy Messy Life is glad her husband is there to instill the joys of gardening in their children, while all she has to do is sit back and eat homegrown tomato sandwiches.
  • Why We Make this Organic Garden Grow — Brenna at Almost All The Truth shares her reasons for gardening with her three small children.
  • 5 Ways to Help Your Baby Develop a Love of the Natural World — Charise at I Thought I Knew Mama believes it's never too early to foster a love of the natural world in your little one.
  • April Showers Bring May PRODUCE — Erika at NaMammaSte discusses her plans for raising a little gardener.
  • Growing Outside — Seonaid at The Practical Dilettante discovers how to get her kids outside after weeks of spring rain.
  • Eating Healthier — Chante at My Natural Motherhood Journey talks about how she learns to eat healthier and encourages her children to do the same.
  • The Beauty of Earth and Heavens — Inspired by Charlotte Mason, Erica at ChildOrganics discovers nature in her own front yard.
  • Seeing the Garden Through the Weeds — Amanda at Let's Take the Metro talks about the challenges of gardening with two small children.
  • Creating a Living Playhouse: Our Bean Teepee! — Kristin at Intrepid Murmurings shares how her family creates a living playhouse "bean teepee" and includes tips of how to involve kids in gardening projects.
  • Grooming a Tree-Hugger: Introducing the Outdoors — Ana at Pandamoly shares some of her planned strategies for making this spring and summer memorable and productive for her pre-toddler in the Outdoors.
  • Sowing Seeds of Life and Love — Suzannah at ShoutLaughLove celebrates the simple joys of baby chicks, community gardening, and a semi-charmed country life.
  • Experiencing Nature and Growing Plants Outdoors Without a Garden — Deb Chitwood at Living Montessori Now shares some of her favorite ways her family discovered to fully experience nature wherever they lived.
  • Garden Day — Melissa at The New Mommy Files is thankful to be part of community of families, some of whom can even garden!
  • Teaching Garden Ettiquette to the Locusts — Tashmica from Mother Flippin' (guest posting at Natural Parents Network) allows her children to ravage her garden every year in the hopes of teaching them a greater lesson about how to treat the world.
  • Why I Play with Worms. — Megan of Megadoula, Megamom and Megatired shares why growing a garden and raising her children go hand in hand.


MJ said...

Wow, it seems that growing is a part of you wherever you go! I have had a few rough starts, especially with finding the right sun/shade spaces. In FL, the sun can be relentless (learned that the hard way). We are joining a CSA this year and I am hoping to learn more from experienced FL gardeners. Thanks for the encouragement and inspiration!

ana z. said...

I love all the different gardens you have set up! I'm no stranger to the balcony garden nor the stairwell/window garden. I even had some plants out on my roof in my third floor apartment for a while. I love community gardens, too. They are so nice when you don't have your very own space. I love all the pictures of Mikko, too! Adorable!

Kelly said...

Wow - what a fascinating (and encouraging) post Lauren! I love all the information you have here (particularly impressed with your growing on concrete) - you are making a recovering houseplant killer believe she can do this!

And I'm sure you've heard this more than once, but your son is ADORABLE!! :D

Thanks for the awesome information!

Jamie said...

ooh, i love this one. we've started gardening the last few years and i'm getting more ambitious. though we have a yard we also have a very bad dog, so i do most of my planting in containers (where i can put them up high) or in raised beds with fences. she already ate my ONE ripening strawberry. GRRR!

this year we're doing parsley, scallions, sage, oregano, cilantro, double basil, lots and lots of tomatoes, cucumbers, and zucchini. after reading this now i want to add some lettuce! now to find somewhere to put it...

i've found that getting "kid" sized gardening tools has helped get the jude into it. technically he could use regular sized tools but it keeps me from having to fight him for the shovel all the time, haha..ha. i think he'll like watering too, but it's been to rainy here so far to need to do much.

Bethy said...

I love your pictures!

We are lucky enough to live in a rental duplex where we are allowed and encouraged to grow our own stuff in the yard and flower garden. We also have a huge porch and a community garden a few blocks away. But we used to garden on our urban fire escape balcony, It was my first time to grow anything and I messed up more then I succeeded, but I loved every second of it. Good for you, living urban and still growing things with the little ones is a great thing!

Carrie said...

"The dirt is the limit!" Love it!!

What an inspiring post on thinking outside the box when gardening. Anyone who feels they don't have the space/place for gardening need only look here. It's also a nice reminder that you can grow things while living in a city.

Your little one looks like a natural with the garden!

I have sunflowers too - "kid sized" ones! - to grow for my daughter. They'll be the perfect height for her to admire eye-to-eye and me to capture in pictures. :)

Sybil Runs Things said...

Oh too funny, I forgot about the carnival but yesterday morning posted a few pics of the garden beds. Things are coming along!

Patti @ Jazzy Mama said...

Seems like gardening is definitely in your blood! My secret ingredient for success is my GARDENING COACH. With any luck I won't need him every year!

Love the pictures of little Mikko. Amazing that he doesn't appear to have eaten that much dirt, either!

Darina said...

It is, as you pointed out, really important to keep perspective when comparing fledgling experiments with happy childhood memories of grandparent's gardens which, as you say were built up (and matured) over decades... one of the golden rules of gardening is time!

Unknown said...

Oh my gosh, Lauren, I really enjoyed this post. I always love seeing your photographs, and there are some really beautiful ones here! I have a lot to say, so please forgive the book:

I have had very similar experiences with killing houseplants, to the point where it's comical. (Our plants always seem to die of uncommon buggy parasites and fungi, and Jaymz has killed several from over-watering.) I've learned to adopt a similar philosophy about doing gardening "experiments" instead of having failures. At this point, I figure if the plant didn't make it with the amount of attention I was able to give it, it wasn't right for our family, anyway. =)

I've done a lot of container gardening too, and most of my plants this year are still in containers. I'm even attempting carrots in a deep pot, and I bought one of those upside-down tomato planters to try out this year, as well. The place where we live now has a landscaped raised bed in front with about an inch of topsoil/mulch (on top of construction debris and rocky clay soil) with a bunch of ornamental shrubs in it. I've slowly been taking over the bare patches, and this year I got up the nerve to plant some wild flower mix and raspberries out there. I still have aspirations to garden in an actual yard or plot someday, but like you, I find that I just NEED to grow things to feel connected to the environment in that way. There's just nothing like watching little green things sprout up from tiny seeds in the dirt.

Another place I've found to plant things is in the parking strip (that bit of grass between the sidewalk and the street). Lots of our neighbors use theirs for raised beds and all types of fruit & vegetable gardening, so I figured why not! Last year I put acorn squash and zucchini out there but never got any veggies out of it. I'll definitely try again this year, though.

I'd not heard of this square foot gardening idea...I'm definitely going to check out that book.

And that last photo looks so delicious! Now I'm craving zucchini with bacon. Yum!

Rosemary said...

Fantastic! Love all the pictures and so many great ideas. Your tomatoes looked amazing! And I agree with Amy... may have to make zucchini with bacon tonight...

Anna said...

This is incredibly inspiring to a novice gardener like me. I'm taken with all the possibilities and good ideas. I'm particularly engaged with your ideas about gardening with children. It's my first year growing and I haven't even begun to involve the kids beyond giving them trowels for digging and watering cans. I'll definitely be encouraging them to choose some seeds and love the clear container concept. I suppose glass would work for windowsill growing but what about drainage I wonder? This Carnival may be the start of some serious gardening fun for me and my family. Thanks again.

I Thought I Knew Mama said...

I am SO impressed! I killed more than I grew when we lived in the city. :-(

Gorgeous pics!

Jenny said...

wonderful photos!! sad i missed this carnival! we live in an urban condo and have been maintaining a small garden of herb pots in our balcony. would love to expand into other flowers or veggies!

Deb Chitwood said...

I'm so impressed, Lauren! You've done an awesome job of showing that gardening is possible wherever you live! Love all the photos and ideas! :) Deb @ LivingMontessoriNow.com

Dionna @ Code Name: Mama said...

What an awesome picture-filled post!! I really need to make a note somewhere to plant a few things in clear containers. I know Kieran would love to watch the roots dig down, I just never think about it when it's time to plant seeds.

Also - how did I not know your dad was in the Army? Mine was too! Well, by the time I was born he'd switched to the army national guard - but that's what he retired from. Since we were nat'l guard, we only moved around in Kansas. Blech.

What were we talking about again?

Kristin @ Intrepid Murmurings said...

Love all the gorgeous photos and ideas! I love your patio garden and your square foot garden -- wow! I want to try that sometime!!!!

suzannah | the smitten word said...

your creativity is inspiring. i love how you said you are experimenting. that's how we've rolled, too, and then you're just pleased with what you manage--which is always more than nothing (and what we had at the start.)

how great to garden now with friends. we're embarking on that endeavor now, too, and this summer will be a joy shared:)

XmasDolly said...

You certainly have a green thumb.

Jessica | Cloth Diapering Mama said...

Lauren, you have done amazingly well with your quest to plant and grow no matter where you dwell!

GREAT pictures.

Mikko is the cutest garden gnome I've ever seen.

It touched my heart to hear about your blossoming mum around the time of your lost baby's due date and NOW to welcome this child. Precious...and another way that mother nature is reaching out in a serendipitous way!

Luschka said...

Oh wow. What an incredible post! You've got such a successful garden going! What do you use for aphids? I found a bunch on my coriander (think you call it cilantro?) this morning!

Mikko looks so comfy in the garden, it's fantastic.

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