Kid's Activity: Container Gardening

by Cindy Enghusen

"Hey, Mom! I am SO bored!!"
"But Dad, there is NOTHING to do!"

Dirt!School is out less than a week. The pitter-patter of feet has led them to YOU for entertainment. Just what is a parent to do? Get dirty! Literally! We are talking hands in the soil, dirt all over the patio. Add water. And we have the formula to end boredom for a bit. Grab a pot, grab some dirt, grab the kids and let's get to work!

The Basics: Why garden with children?

There are tons of reasons but here is the big one -- boredom. Boredom can drive a parent nuts! And you like fresh veggies, fresh fruit, fresh cut flowers? This is where your kids come in. They can help and be un-bored at the same time -- works all the way around!

Fruits and veggies rarely taste as good as fresh off the vine (unless, maybe fresh off someone else's vine). And dirt! What goes better with kids than dirt? Mud? I think not, but you can work with mud as well (if you are feeling adventurous). Besides, it can also be the perfect reason/motivator to get a child to try something healthy for them as well! After all, they grew it, maybe they will be more tempted to eat it.

The Bones of the Project

Potting soil and garden soil

Potting or garden soil holds water better than "plain" old dirt. I very highly recommend investing in a good potting soil or garden soil mix -- one with nutrients in it. Bear in mind it is important to use the appropriate soil type for the plants you choose.

What is in here?Be aware of what is actually in the cheaper mixes. I bought a cheap knock off one time, figuring I would fertilize it myself, and ended up with weed seeds and tiny (but painful) thorns. It came pre-seeded and all. Sadly, nothing that came up was anything worth growing! I like Miracle Grow™ Garden Soil for veggies and flowers, but that is a personal preference. I have heard of much success with other brands, and would recommend trying one or two smaller bags until you find the one that best suits you. If you have even marginally good ground, mix the garden soils with the potting soil or you can mix it with some topsoil. Read and follow all directions on the bag.

Nutrients

When choosing a bagged soil, know that each one has been "formulated" to have the right mix of nutrients (called N, P and K which stand for Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium, respectively). For instance, N is good for thick dark green grass as it promotes leaf growth, but isn't good to overdo with a plant you want to flower or produce fruit. So it would be good for lettuce, but not necessarily great for green peppers. With too much N, you can either burn (kill) the plant, or have a huge leafy plant, but little more -- few to no flowers. This can mean few to no fruit (not good).

Phosphorus can promote flowers and fruiting and root growth. Potassium can promote the storage of starches (plant food), quality of fruit and also aids in root health. For more information on plant nutrients, read "Essential Nutrients in Plants". Please bear in mind, any nutrient done in excess can kill a plant. It is important to use the correct nutrients, but also in correct amounts. You can buy simple kits to determine soil nutrient level if you are interested. I have never really tried them, and usually "feed" my plants a slow release when potting, and regularly as needed. This can vary widely from place to place as conditions are not the same. I hate that "as needed" phrase because it can be difficult to determine, on the other hand, what works for me, might not for you. If you have questions, you can always call a master gardener in your area or a local nursery.

Pots and Containers

Ok, so now I have bored you with what is IN the soil. Just remember, you, too, can bore your "bored" herd with it!

Put the dirt here?Now we need something to put the soil in. Your choice will depend on what you want to put grow, how big the plants will get, how you want it to look in the end, and where plan to place the container. One way to gauge the size of pot needed is by the size of the plant above the ground. Most plants are about as big (deep) above the soil as they are below. Tomatoes are bigger and require bigger pots. Marigolds are smaller and require small pots. Another tip to remember -- smaller pots hold less water and need more frequent watering (means less time to forget to water them before they die!).

Each container type can suit a different purpose: from utility to decoration.They come in many different shapes, sizes and colors. Terra Cotta pots (not the plastic look alikes) can be very beautiful. They can hold water, or if dry can indicate the need for water. Terra Cotta can also be very expensive, can shatter from freezing or impact, and isn't always best suited for an active house full of kids and pets. If you have a subdued child (do they actually make subdued quiet children?) and you have the bucks to burn, the sky is the limit!

For most of us however, plastic pots or wooden barrels from the local home and garden store will suffice just fine. Pick one that suits your taste (or can be decorated to suit) and will be large enough for your project. Strawberry pots are wonderful for not just strawberries, old wine barrels are beautiful. Pots full of soil and plants (especially newly watered), however, are VERY HEAVY. It's a good idea to place the containers before you start filling them. If mobility is necessary, you can purchase or make small rollers to put under the planters.

For more extensive reading, check out:
·  Guide to Container Gardening.
·  The April 2004 copy of Sunset Magazine, April 2004, "Veggies in a Pot." Read online here.

Plants

Nice plantsSo, what is an un-boring parent to do? You have the soil, you have a few pots, now what? Pick a plant! The possibilities are endless. What you plant, how long you want to keep it, and your willingness to put it indoors over winter can help make the selection larger or smaller (depending on your answer). For instance, if you have a large, grand house, a green thumb, a humungous pot, you can even grow dwarf varieties of citrus, avocados etc in the colder regions, provided you are willing to take them indoors when the weather turns cold.

Yes, even kids can grow a tree indoors, but be reasonable. Most folks have more modest means and not the huge cathedral ceilings needed to grown indoor trees. Especially for just starting off, start smaller, don't overdo it. Or, more appropriately, don't drive yourself nuts. We are talking a family plant here. How many children eat avocados? Let us poison them with something a little more manageable, like dreaded peas, tomatoes or beans. If you have big enough pots, you can grow just about any veggie you would like. Here are some suggestions:

Quick Growing, Quick Producing - Perfect for Containers!

Veggies

Lettuce: Does best in cool (not cold) temperatures and can bolt (go to seed) in the heat. Best grown in spring and fall. Can be grown in somewhat smaller shallower pots, but need frequent water.

Beans: Sprout quickly. Harvestable as early as 40 days, depending on variety (dry vs snap etc) will depend on harvest. Some need support (pole or trellis), some don't. Read up on the variety you choose.

Peas: Sprout quickly. A spring crop, preferring cooler weather.

Carrots: Cool season crop. Prefer full sun, but will take some shade if its hot. Try to limit both the heat and shade.

Garlic and Onions: Early crop. Need plenty of space both for the bulb itself, AND its root system. They are particularly water hungry and need to be kept watered (but not always wet as it can cause rot). Harvest onions very young for salads, or wait until the top bends over for storage. The sweeter the onion, the shorter it will store (usually). Onions are a biennial plant and will go to seed the second year. Both plants are a deterrent to some pests (and some goats as well).

Tomatoes: Cherry tomatoes are a favorite, either in hanging baskets or staked in a large container. Rewarding for their long season of productivity. Get along well with marigolds and basil. Not frost tolerant.

Flowers

Allysium: Quickly up and quick to flower. Produce tons of seed and can spread rapidly. Some colors are purple, lavender, and white.

Marigolds: One of the more commonly used flowers in containers. They are reseeding and self-sowing. Variety of colors from a creamy white to yellows, oranges and red. Deterrent to some pests. Prefer full sun but will tolerate some shade. Not frost tolerant.

Lobelia: Common container plant. Somewhat viney and will do will in a hanging basket. They prefer full sun. Not frost tolerant at all.

Impatiens: Very profuse flowering, and easy to grow. Prefer cooler shady areas, but still need some sun. Not frost tolerant.

Petunias: Fast becoming a favorite, especially with the new wave and miniature varieties appearing. Come in a variety of colors and do well in pots. Prefer full sun. Not frost tolerant.

Pansies: One of the first annual/perennial flowers of spring, often up with the tulips. Cold hardy. Will bloom in many colors of the rainbow. They are prolific seed producers and can be crossed to produce new color. How fun! Also edible.

Herbs

Mint: Can be started from cuttings or starts. Mint is very invasive and best grown in pots to keep it under control. Not frost tolerant above ground, but the runners below ground can run forever, frost or not. Can be used in tea and jelly or as a fragrance.

Thyme: Comes in a variety of forms -- creeping, upright, variegated and wooly. Hardy plant which comes back easily after cutting or cold damage.

Sage or Salvia: Not only edible, it attracts hummingbirds. There are many hearty varieties.

Chives: Cousin to onions and good for flavoring. Frost tolerant, over-winter well and produce early, lovely round purple or white ball-like flowers.

Basil: Staple for Italian foods and is easily grown. Many different varieties to choose from. Leaves come in purple or green. They are a reseeding annual (if allowed to go to seed). Likes sun and lots of warmth. Allow soil to warm up before planting.

Rosemary: Fragrant herb, used for many foods. A perennial that tolerates frost, has a lovely delicate purple bloom and likes full sun.

Lavender: A feminine favorite, said to promote good sleep. For containers I would recommend dwarf varieties. A hardy perennial that likes full sun and tolerates some "drought". Will reseed.

Some bulbs can be grown in pots or barrels, but usually require a little more care. They are fertilizer hogs and like blood meal and need to be trimmed back. Bulbs in containers can be more frost susceptible if the roots freeze as a result of being above ground.

Some advantages to growing some plants in pots are: warmer roots, controlled spread, weed control easier, some disease control and move-ability. Plants can be started well in advance in the house if you have a sunny spot and the room (and safety). A south facing sliding door or large window will suffice. However, the same things can be disadvantages as well: the roots are more susceptible to winter freezing, so move them inside in bad weather/winter, transplant/divide before they become crowded, and disinfect pots before using used pots.

There are many many other plants that can be planted in containers, and there is also companion planting or mixed plantings. They sky is just about the limit. Use your imagination. Kids are a here and now kind of creature, so plant a variety. Let them help mix up the soil, get muddy, water, weed and harvest. Take them with you to pick out seeds or plants, and let them choose a few of their own, even if it doesn't match the house and surroundings. You can show them the backs and symbols of what grows best where and what will grow in your area. Have some fun, get out, and get dirty!

Water

Oh, the plants?One disadvantage to container pots is they require more water. Those pots heat up on decks and cement and that promotes evaporation. House mounted planters drain quickly (that darned gravity thing) and the heat of a house in the sun can dry things out quickly. Plants under these conditions need frequent waterings both to water the plant and keep them cooled and hydrated.

Test the amount of soil water with your fingers, you always want some moisture. The surface of any plant will rapidly dry out, but not just underneath. Kids and dirt go very well together. Let older kids test it a little, carefully as not to disturb the roots. If it is dry, water it. Mulch/bark can help prevent some water loss. Don't be afraid to put your hands right in, just don't play with the roots!

There are many different ways to take care of watering.

  • Set up an auto-watering system on a drip hose connected to a faucet or timer: The easiest method.
  • Place plants under sprinklers: Let the kids get involved. Playing in the sprinklers (just not watering the plants) can be fun on a hot day, both for you and they kids!
  • Water with a hose: If you do water with a hose, place something to dribble water onto, like a rock or small brick, so you don't create a hole in your soil. (Caution, you may prefer holding the hose unless you want the children and plants dry and you soaked!)

Finishing Touches: Decoration

There are endless possibilities for decorating your creation. For some, the flowers/plants themselves are the ornament, especially brightly colored flowers. Others prefer more flair. You can decorate with treasures found on a walk or a vacation, small metal or clay sculptures available at most gardening centers or older children can create their own.

Pots can be painted or decorated. Broken ceramics, twigs, found treasures can be glued/tiled onto the pot depending on how involved the creator wants to get. The web has a many ideas on decoration to suit any taste, from subdued to wild to modern.

Prefer a little height? Bamboo stakes make wonderful "sculpture" holders for crafty folks and kids. Created from toothpicks, yarn, broken pot pieces, mementos, the possibilities are limited only by the imagination. Have some fun, be creative. Doing a craft with your child, no matter how simple or involved, no matter how quick or time-consuming, this project is a boredom-buster that lasts the summer and beyond!

Cindy Enghusen is the mother of 2 boys. Cindy has worked in many fields (literally), is quite a handy person around the house and yard. Her first love is animal husbandry and farming, but it doesn't hold a candle to being a Mom. She has 3 AAS degrees in Agriculture (technical degrees) and when her child(ren) go to school, she hopes to return to work in agriculture, and maybe, some day, try her hand at writing.

Copyright © Melissa Jaramillo & Julie Snyder. Permission to republish granted to Pregnancy.org, LLC.