“The first year we grew ours, it went to 500 pounds. To me it looked like we had an orange Volkswagen in our garden!” said Phil. We’d called Phil Hunt at the Giant Vegetable Growers Association of Ontario for pointers after our first attempt to grow a giant pumpkin failed. By the end of our conversation with him we were eager to try again. It sounded fun!
Last year we included two giant pumpkin beds as well as giant tomato and giant pepper plants in our garden. We also planted giant sunflowers in a square playhouse shape with two “doors” to get to the middle, where we put a couple of logs for sitting. Along with the giants, we planted lots of other fun crops for kids.
If you’re planning a kids’ garden, you probably won’t find a seed catalogue with a children’s section. Instead, just look for the unexpected. Kids like surprises so go with miniatures, the unusually coloured, and weird tastes. Ask yourself if a crop might make a child take a second look. If yes, try it.
Getting kids into the garden is a realistic goal. Soil, water, and mud are a big attraction. Just watch kids in a schoolyard when there’s mud and puddles—they want to check it out. But getting kids to garden like adults—with manicured beds and practical crops—probably isn’t realistic. For kids, forget being practical and let them choose fun and novel crops instead. Here are a few that have worked well for our family.
Kids like surprises so go with miniatures, the unusually coloured, and weird tastes. Ask yourself if you think a crop might make a child take a second look. If yes, try it.
Small, kid-size crops can be lots of fun. One of our favourites is ‘Mexican sour gherkins’ (also known as “mouse melons” or “cucamelons”). These little cucumber relatives are crunchy and about the size of a thumbnail—perfect for kids’ lunches (although some days we don’t have enough because the kids eat them right out of the garden).
Last year Emma’s youngest brother, Keaton, grew mini ‘Cream of Saskatchewan’ watermelons, which were about the size of a grapefruit and had cream-coloured flesh. He was protective of his plants and made sure to water them regularly. When he finally served slices of it to us, he was pretty proud.
We also grow ‘Red Currant’ and ‘Yellow Currant’ tomatoes, which are smaller than cherry tomatoes (about the size of a large blueberry) and little, round, bite-size ‘Parisian Market’ carrots (about as wide as a Loonie).
We had lots of fun growing colourful heirloom tomatoes—white, yellow, orange, purple, and even a couple with some blue in them. Emma grew 68 varieties last year.
Purple-podded pole beans are a regular feature in our garden, too. They turn from purple to green while they cook, which most kids think is pretty cool.
The purple potatoes we grew looked nice, until we tried making purple French fries and ended up with purple-grey mush instead. We've since learned that young, waxy, fingerling-type potatoes are better suited to potato salads!
Carrots come in a rainbow of colours: white, yellow, orange, through to light and dark reds and purple. ‘Purple Haze’ is a carrot variety we love. It is purple on the outside and orange on the inside, so we cut it into medallions that show both colours.
There are lots of other wonderfully coloured crops to watch out for. What kid wouldn’t smile at the sight of a purple pea? Or maybe a yellow or white-and-red-striped beet!
What kid wouldn’t smile at the sight of a purple pea? Or maybe a yellow or white-and-red-striped beet!
Crops to Keep Little Fingers Busy
Sometimes small children just want to put those little fingers to work. Try growing ground cherries: to get to the golden fruit inside kids must peel back a papery husk
Consider the mundane, too! What’s boring for adults can be fun for little kids. Steve used to enlist Emma to stem currants while she sat in her high chair—she loved it, munching away as she worked. She still loves eating fresh currants!
Shelling beans are another fun crop for little kids, who love to pry open the shells and remove the dry beans inside. One year while Emma shelled beans, her little brothers disposed of the empty shells with their toy dump trucks. It’s not how an adult would do it, but it’s fun, and that’s what keeps them coming back to hang out in the garden.
Some Just Plain Weird Crops
- Magenta spreen, an edible green, has pink-tinged leaves. When picked and rubbed on a child’s cheeks, it leaves a pink colour. It’s garden makeup for kids!
- Emma grows a heat-free jalapeño pepper. She packs it in her lunch and takes it to school to show friends.
- Edible flowers such as nasturtiums are the perfect, harmless challenge: “I dare you to eat this!”
- For older kids, try the litchee tomato, which isn’t really a tomato, but is related. It’s a ferociously spiky plant, but the little red fruit are delicious—almost like cherries. The trick is to extricate the fruit with the fewest prickles possible—a fun challenge.
What fun crops do we have lined up for the coming year? Emma has her eye on some heat-free habanero pepper seeds. She also wants to grow 100 varieties of tomato this year, with as many fun colours and shapes as she can find.
As for our foray into growing giant vegetables, last year Emma harvested a 3-pound tomato and plans to top that weight this year. We will try giant pumpkins again (last attempt we started our giant pumpkins a bit too late, and then had a cool, wet season).
The vegetable garden can be fun for kids. It’s also a great way to introduce new tastes. Some years our prized sorrel plants are grazed to the ground. We catch the boys shoving the sour sorrel leaves at their friends, saying, “Here, try this!” That’s success.
Seed and Plant Shopping
If you’re plant and seed shopping, here are some places to get started:
- Our favourite plant sale is Tomato Days, which takes place over the Victoria Day weekend at Tree and Twig Heirloom Vegetable Farm in Niagara. There are hundreds of varieties of tomato seedlings.
- For seed swaps and sales, check out Seeds of Diversity for events in your area. We have a favourite “Seedy Saturday” event in Niagara that we hang out at every February—it’s a great start to our gardening year.
- Our friend Colette Murphy runs Urban Harvest Seeds. We see her throughout the year at gardening events, and she always gives us new crop ideas and tips for our garden.
- Richters Herbs is a great place to find unusual plants and seeds. After a visit there last spring, Emma came home with 20 types of mint, everything from grapefruit mint to chocolate mint.