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Ready, Set, Grow!

Dig into fun family food with square foot gardens

The sunshine-filled days of spring are perfect for burying your hands in the dirt of a garden. Planning a vegetable garden as a family is a great way to reduce your grocery bill, get some fresh air and exercise, and create lasting memories.

Square foot gardening 

If you’re new to gardening, a square foot garden is a great place to start, especially with youngsters. This technique organizes plants in squares instead of rows, taking up less space, which means watering, weeding, and maintenance is easier – perfect for busy families.

A small 3-foot by 3-foot raised bed can be divided into nine equal squares with twine, or thin wood strips, giving each family member his or her own square to plant, nurture, and enjoy. A different kind of plant is embedded in each square, allowing for a variety of vegetables to grow in a small space. Be sure to plant a few flowers to attract pollinators and beneficial insects.

Ready-to-assemble garden kits are available at hardware stores and online but, with a few tools and some pre-cut lumber, it’s pretty simple and much less expensive to make your own. Study up by checking out Mel Bartholomew’s book titled Square Foot Gardening from your local library for planning and planting tips.

Choose a theme 

Themed gardens are a fun way to generate enthusiasm for gardening and cooking with your kiddos. Plant a Pizza Paradise Garden with oregano, basil, chives, tomatoes, and sweet pepper plants for pizza lovers; or let preschoolers help pick out plants that start with A, B, and C for an Alphabet Garden.

A Tea Cup Garden with mint, cinnamon basil, and lemon verbena will add spice to your brew and is the perfect setting for a little girl’s afternoon tea party.

If your kids like Chinese food, try a cool season Stir-Fry Garden with snow peas, carrots, cabbage, and onions. For an edible and visual treat, plant a Rainbow Garden filled with green, yellow, or red tomatoes, Swiss chard, purple eggplant, and banana peppers.

Make it Fun 

“Kids get excited about smaller and weird looking vegetables,” said Ed Thralls, Herb and Horticulture agent for the Orange County Extension Service. He suggests spiral-budded Romanesco broccoli for its alien-like appearance, baseball-shaped 8-ball zucchini, and petite purple and white Hansel and Gretel eggplant. Purple Dragon beans and Tiny Tim tomatoes are winners too, and might even inspire picky eaters to finally munch on vegetables.

Pole beans or sugar snap peas can be planted around a circular base of bamboo sticks and tied together at the top to look like a teepee. Leave an opening in the front, and kids have their own secret hide- away.

Radish, lettuce, and cucumber seeds will germinate in three to five days, making them a good choice for young gardeners with limited patience. Give kids a magnifying glass, a ruler, and a journal to encourage daily tracking and findings. Charge little ones with bug patrol to pick off pests and count bees or ladybugs.

Keep it Simple 

If you can’t manage a full garden, you can still enjoy a container garden with just a few pots of tomatoes, peppers, and herbs, or a garden in a bag. “Get a large bag of Miracle Grow gardening soil and punch a few holes on the bottom for drainage. Make an X on top for the plants. You can grow tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants all in one bag,” said Thralls. Make sure to keep your ‘bag garden’ moist and add some liquid fertilizer every few weeks.

The University of Florida’s website ( is a great resource for newbie home gardeners. You’ll find detailed information on building a square foot garden, monthly gardening guides, and troubleshooting advice. So what are you waiting for? Get growing!

Garden Herb Dip

Set out a selection of veggies from the garden and let the kids invite some friends over for a “tasting party.”

  • 8 oz. cream cheese
  • 1-2 tbsp. freshly chopped herbs (basil, cilantro, parsley & chives)
  • 1-2 tsp. milk
  • ½ tsp. lemon juice, optional
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

Directions: Mix cream cheese and herbs together. Thin with a little milk and add a few drops of lemon juice to taste. Season with salt and pepper.

Beat the summer heat! Here’s what to plant NOW:

  • Bush, pole, and Lima beans
  • Cantaloupe and watermelon
  • Basil, oregano, parsley, rosemary
  • Sweet corn and cucumbers
  • Eggplant and summer squash
  • Peppers and tomatoes

Kirsten Harrington always has something growing in her garden and loves to cook with her two young sons.