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Containing Your Green Thumb

Container gardening is a great way for kids to learn to grow plants

Summer is on its way! I am so ready, and so are my kids. We’ve started planning their garden plots for this year. My daughter wants to plant snapdragons and shell peas again. Do you have to have space in your yard to garden with your kids? Absolutely not! If you have a place that gets at least 6 hours of sun a day where you can put a pot or two, you can garden and enjoy the literal fruits (or flowers) of your labors.


Here’s how to get started. Choose your container(s). Almost any container will work – plastic, clay, etc. – EXCEPT for metal. Metals can enter the soil with frequent watering and cause toxicity problems. (If you want a metal pot, put a plastic one inside it.) And, make sure it has drainage holes. Note that unglazed terra cotta and wooden bushel baskets will dry out quickly. You can line them with plastic or a plastic pot to help maintain soil moisture. And, if you use a plastic container, make sure it is food-grade and did not contain chemicals or pesticides in a previous life.

The size of the container will determine what you can plant in it so think about what you want to grow. You can successfully grow herbs in pots as small as 4 to 6 inches, but if you want to grow tomatoes or broccoli, you’ll want a 2-5 gallon container.

Place your containers on top of some “feet” to allow better drainage. Drainage will reduce staining on the deck or patio where you have them. And the drain hole is important so that you don’t have standing water in the pot, which will kill your plants.

Next, add your soil. You want something with a lot of organic matter, but I would not recommend a soilless mix. They dry out really fast and are difficult to water once completely dry. Many garden centers have a “container mix” that will work, but check to see if it includes organic matter like compost, shredded bark, or peat moss, and something to promote drainage such as vermiculite or perlite. Look for sterilized soil to avoid soil-born diseases. But you can usually get bulk “garden” soil at garden centers, which might be easier on the pocket book. (Please remember to put your pots in the right location first. If they are big, you won’t want to move them after they are full!) You’ll also want to add a bit of slow-release fertilizer into the mix: about 1 cup of a 10-10-10 per bushel of soil.

There are a couple of things to remember when you’re picking out what to plant. You don’t need special seeds to plant in containers, but there are some varieties that are especially suited to containers – usually more compact ones. You can plant almost anything except sweet corn and big squashes and melons as long as the pot is big enough and you provide a trellis or a cage if it needs it. If you are planting something from seed such as beans, lettuce, or carrots, use the same spacing suggested on the packet. If you plant seedlings, make sure you leave room to grow!


So, what should you plant with your kiddo? I would recommend herbs as a starting place. They are easy because they are tolerant of sun or shade. They have both a smell and a taste which makes them great for sensory exploration. They can be eaten raw. And, they can be added into food to make it more exciting or tempting. (“Can you taste your oregano in this pasta sauce? Isn’t it amazing?”) Herbs also can be planted in small pots and some – such as thyme, sage, oregano, and rosemary – can survive the winter indoors and go outside again in the spring.

If you have space and ambition for bigger pots, I would choose something that is easy for kids to pick. Strawberries, beans, peas, and cherry tomatoes are varieties my kids are particularly fond of. But don’t forget about root vegetables. My kids LOVE carrots, especially digging them out of the dirt, so that might be fun to try. And don’t forget flowers. There are many flowers suitable for containers such as marigolds, pansies, and petunias.

Whatever you plant, don’t forget to check the pots at least once a day for watering. If the pot is dry an inch under the soil, water it until water comes out the bottom. This will most likely be every day unless it rains.

Because you’re watering so often, nutrients get washed out of the soil fast, so you might want to fertilize two or three times during the season. Most garden centers sell products labeled for flowering plants or vegetables. Those are good guides to go by.

My kids weren’t incredibly interested in vegetables when they were younger. But once my daughter discovered shell peas, it wasn’t long before she was picking tomatoes and beans and now she’s planning her own garden. Whether you have yard space or a pot, planting some seeds or plants and caring for them every day is a great way to spend the summer with your kiddos.

Rachel Hart-Brinson is a part time ag educator with UW-Extension in Chippewa County.

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