Keeping children busy, entertained and learning is essential, including during the lock-down, whether or not they’re attending nursery or pre-school. It can be amazing fun too, if activities are carefully chosen. One really cool activity to tick all the boxes is to encourage children to grow food at home. Growing vegetables and herbs is a great place to start — and it’s relatively easy. One of the best things about the activity is that children don’t need a seed or seedling to get started. Essentially they can grow produce for free by ‘re-growing‘ offcuts from shop-bought vegetables and herbs. The resulting food could save the family money as well as teaching the children a huge amount, on many different levels.
“Why try to explain miracles to your kids when you can just have them plant a garden.” (Robert Brault)
Children love growing vegetables and herbs
It may surprise some to learn that you can buy some vegetables and herbs just once and never have to buy them again. The secret is knowing which, and how to re-grow them. It turns out that it’s pretty easy, so we encourage parents to help youngsters get started. Once they see growing shoots or roots and, later, vegetables or herbs that the family can actually eat, they’ll be so pleased that they made this little miracle possible. What’s more, it will have taught them something about where food comes from, how to grow it sustainably and how to look after the living plants. If you’re really lucky, it may even encourage them to take things a step further and get involved in food preparation and cooking later on. It’s amazing, actually, where such a simple, fun, activity can lead!
“In every gardener is a child who loves to play in the dirt. In every child is a gardener ready to grow.” (LeAura Alderson)
No garden? No problem!
It’s possible, and indeed fairly easy, to grow your own produce even without a garden. So long as you look after your plants and give them water, soil and light as a bare minimum, they will grow. If you don’t have a garden, perhaps you have a small courtyard or patio where you can grow in containers. If you don’t have any outside areas at all, you can grow in flower pots and other containers on window sills, balconies, under skylights and so on. This makes growing produce possible almost anywhere, including in urban London in high-rise flats. After all, it’s in a plant’s nature to want to grow.
Vegetables & herbs kids can grow for free
Once you and your children have tried this, you may totally re-think how you deal with vegetable and herb ‘waste’. We hope so. The secret to re-growing free herbs and vegetables is to save some of those parts that often you’d usually cut off and discard. Some of them can be used to ‘seed’ a whole new plant and, ultimately, new produce that you can all eat.
• Children could start with green onions or spring onions. These are particularly easy to ‘re-grow’. Later, perhaps, the children can apply the same approach to celery, lemon grass, Cos lettuce and Pak Choy (a type of Chinese cabbage). Simply save an inch or so thick section of your shop-bought root vegetables (perhaps the last you will ever need to buy), which includes the bottom part at the root end. All your children need to do is to place that section, root end downwards, in a glass of water. Leave them in the water and, after somewhere between 1 and 3 weeks, roots will start growing. Children will love monitoring this process each day and they will enjoy looking after and caring for a living thing. Once the roots are substantial enough, children can take them out of the glass and re-pot them in soil, ideally with a bit of compost if you have any. This can be in containers, appropriately sized flower pots or in the garden if you have access to one. Before long, your plants will give your children more, free herbs and vegetables that you can all enjoy.
• Other vegetables that can be grown in similar ways, for next to nothing, include Swiss chard, lettuce (which tolerates shade fairly well) and beetroot.
• Garlic cloves are also incredibly easy to regrow in a similar way. Perhaps at some point you’ve unintentionally allowed your shop-bought garlic cloves to ‘sprout’. Well, that’s how to start off. Rather than discarding them, your children can put them in water and allow roots to grow. Then, they should plant them out in soil and eventually they’ll end up with more, free, garlic cloves. What’s more, they will tend to taste more mild and delicate than shop-bought garlic — children will probably appreciate that. It’s the same with ginger roots, but allow months rather than weeks in their case.
• If you ever buy carrots from the supermarket, look for the ones with green leaves (‘carrot greens’) sprouting from the top. Once you’ve prepared the carrots to eat, you’ll usually discard the top sections where the carrot greens sprout. Instead of throwing those away, show your child how planting them in a dish of water and sitting them on a well-lit windowsill will allow the sprouts to grow. You or your child can use the resulting carrot greens to garnish salads and similar.
• Herbs like Coriander, Rosemary and Basil can also be re-grown. Children can simply take scraps or clippings (4 inches long in the case of basil, 2-3 inches in the case of Rosemary) and place them in glasses of water in a well-lit spot on the windowsill. Once they have sprouted roots of about 2 or so inches long, these young ‘plants’ can be transplanted into soil or compost in pots. Your child will then be able to watch the plants flourish and grow into new herbs that can be harvested for food later on. The children will also soon discover that each of these herbs has a wonderful and distinctive taste and smell.
• Potatoes are pretty easy for children to re-grow too. The only limitation is the space they need (ideally they would grow in the ground although you could also try ‘grow bags’ or deep pots if you don’t have access to a garden). Either way, old potatoes that have started sprouting are actually ready to plant. Cut each potato into two or three pieces (each with a growing section) and get your child to plant those in soil. Later, when growing sprouts reach the surface, the child should keep those covered with soil (this is called ‘hilling’). Get your child to keep the soil moist but not over-saturated over the subsequent weeks. If planted in the spring, your children should be able to harvest potatoes in the summer.
• Meanwhile, tomatoes and peppers can be grown from the seeds you’ll find inside shop-bought equivalents. Once sprouted they can be planted out into grow bags. A garden is not strictly necessary if you have a small outdoor space of some kind, for example a balcony. Vegetables like courgettes, marrows, squashes and pumpkins can also be grown from seeds found inside their shop-bought counterparts, but only if you have the significant room they’d need to grow in a garden or other outdoor space.
• Then, of course, your children can also experiment with nursery bought, or mail order seeds. Although not free, they’re reasonably inexpensive and also fun for children to grow if you follow the instructions and timing suggested on the seed packets. Beans of various kinds and sugar snaps are particularly easy to grow and usually result in an excellent crop. They will benefit from being in a garden or outdoor patio area, ideally, due to the space they require. They will need more vertical space than horizontal space, however, so even balcony planting may be possible if you have suitable grow bags.
“By the process of directly working in harmony with nature, we do the one thing most essential to change the world — we change ourselves.” (Jules Dervaes)
Children learn so much by growing food
There are so many lessons that children will learn if they grow their own food. Here are a just a few:
• Children will have fun and stay entertained, even during lock-down;
• They will have learnt new skills;
• They will understand nature and the natural world a little better;
• They will learn where some food comes from;
• They will learn that they can make things happen with effort, care and patience;
• They will have a sense of responsibility, having cared for a living thing;
• They are more likely to eat food that they have grown;
• They will see how easy it is to save money;
• They will learn that they don’t need to rely on electronic games and gadgets in order to have fun and to learn;
• They will learn the art of trial and error, also learning from mistakes along the way;
• They will have enjoyed working with you, their parent or guardian. Working closely together on a common interest may improve the bond between you;
• They will also learn about eating healthy, fresh food.
If it all goes well, you may even find that your home-grown vegetables taste better than shop-bought produce. Peas, carrots and tomatoes often taste more sweet than those bought in shops, for example. Kids can taste the difference.
If you’re really lucky, you and your children will end up with more home-grown produce than you can eat. If so, it’s easy to freeze it, give the excess to friends, family and neighbours or to swap produce with others who have grown something different. The important thing is not to let your children’s hard work go to waste.
Contact Little Cedars Nursery, Streatham, London SE16
This article was brought to you by Little Cedars Day Nursery and pre-school in Aldrington Road, Streatham, in London SW16. For more information about our setting and the childcare services we provide for children from 3 months to 5 years of age, click any of the bold links, call 020 8677 9675, contact us here or email our manager by clicking this link.