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Kid-Friendly Crop Selection

Updated: Mar 18

If you are just about to start a garden with your kids, and you begin by strolling through the seed aisle at your local garden centre picking up every seed variety that strikes your interest, I would wager that you could count on quite a few surprises and a fair bit of disappointment once you get growing. That's because every vegetable variety you select will have a unique growth rate, maintenance requirements, and harvesting pattern, and these characteristics will have a big impact on how compatible that vegetable is with your family's lifestyle and needs.


Of course, garden compatibility is important for every gardener, not just for families with kids. Therefore, one of the first lessons in the Seed to Table course includes a grower assessment that helps students identify their ideal garden type. The five common garden types I talk about are Hobby, Kitchen, Pantry, Homestead, and Market. I'm not going to get into the details of these garden types in this post, but you can take this introductory quiz to identify the garden type that is best for you and the vegetables that will be most compatible with your lifestyle and needs. What this list of garden types doesn't include though is a Kid garden! That is our focus in this post.


our daughter with harvested garlic
Kids have a natural interest in soil, plants and food, and they long for meaningful roles in their family. Vegetable gardening checks all of these boxes.

What exactly is a Kid garden? Well, I'm only 6 years into my parenting journey so far, but it's already clear that some crops are a lot better with kids than others, and the criteria for selecting crops for a Kid garden don't exactly match the criteria used for the other garden types. When it comes to growing food with kids, there are a few new questions to consider.

In the video below, I walk you through our kid-friendly crop criteria and share our top 5 crop picks. Read on for more details.




If we were going to fairly rank our vegetable crops according to their kid-friendliness, we needed some kind of judging criteria. Otherwise, I would just pick strawberries because I like strawberries, but there's more to it than that. We made a list of the main questions parents should have on their mind as they set out to start a garden with their kids, and then we narrowed these questions down to three categories, which I will describe below. If a crop is going to qualify for the Kid garden, it must rank high in each of the following criteria.


Heart Compatibility


Is the crop compatible with your heart? That is, does everyone in your family actually want to watch this plant grow, see it on their dinner plate, and stick it in their mouth? It's easy to see an interesting looking plant in a seed catalog and think it would be fun to grow, but do you really want to deal with 30 lbs of eggplant or a box full of kohlrabi? Maybe, but likely not. The best tip I have for you year is to select crops that are already popular items in your family's kitchen and keep the weird and wacky crops to a minimum.


Head Compatibility


Is this crop compatible with your head? That is, do you have enough mental capacity to successfully plant, maintain, and harvest this crop well along with all of your other parenting responsibilities. One crop our family loves is broccolini, but this crop requires careful attention to pest protection and a commitment to regular harvesting. The plants give us plenty of tender broccolini shoots to enjoy but each shoot is only in its prime for 2 days at the most. If we miss that window, we just have a bunch of flowers to pick.


Hands Compatibility


Is this crop compatible with your hands? Can your children make significant contributions to the work of growing this crop? Not every crop can handle the gross motor skills of a toddler. For example, pruning and trellising tasks are usually not great for our kids because the work is beyond their reach or a little too delicate in nature. On the other end of the spectrum, a huge crop like winter squash might leave you with tasks too large for your children, such as vines too stiff for them to maneuver, or boxes of fruit far too heavy for them to move. It's not essential that kids can perform every single task in a kid-friendly garden, but this hand compatibility factor has to be given significant weight if we want our kids to develop a meaningful relationship with their food and experience some the satisfaction of growing it themselves. If we get this factor right, we could easily inspire a gardener for life. If we get it wrong, our kid involvement efforts could have the opposite effect.


With these three criteria in mind, our family set out to rank our vegetable crops according to their Kid friendliness. What resulted from that exercise is the chart you see below. Each crop was assigned a score out of 5 for our Heart, Head, and Hands criteria, with a score of 5 representing desirable characteristics. The total score should then reveal to us the most kid-friendly crops, all things considered. The heart criteria depends a lot on personal preferences so you'll likely have some different scores in this column.


Our Kid-Friendly Crop Rankings




This kid-friendly ranking exercise was a new one for us and it was interesting to see the final rankings. Initially, I was skeptical about how effective it would be to try to rate our crops according to their strengths and weaknesses in these three areas, but when I added up the totals, it really did help clarify our most and least kid-friendly crops quite accurately.


Our Top 5 Kid-Friendly Garden Crops


I'll spare you from detailed explanations of why each crop was rated the way it was, but I will take some time to highlight our top 5 crops. This way, you'll at least have a general understanding of how these numbers came to be.


Raspberries & Strawberries


Tied for 5th place, we have berries, and in our garden those berries are raspberries and strawberries. Don't ever make me decide which one I like best! That would as impossible as picking my favourite child. Everyone in our family loves berries in all of their applications so it's an easy 5 points in the heart category. In terms of the head category, these crops are two of the easier ones to manage because they are perennials and this helps them score pretty high in the this department as well. Their only weaknesses in the head category are that they need to be harvested with proper timing for the best quality, and they require some important pruning and thinning work to do at certain times of the year as well. Finally, both raspberries and strawberries were given a rating of 4 in the hands category. Kids can be fully involved with the harvest of these crops, but they didn't score a 5 here because the pruning and thinning work isn't entirely kid-friendly.


Unique Challenges: Raspberries and strawberries are both quite hardy and forgiving so they'll likely give you some harvest even if they have to endure less than ideal conditions. If you want to optimize their growth though, some extra attention will be needed to controlling their plant density as they both will multiply and overcrowd themselves if left unchecked.


fresh garden strawberries
You can't beat the flavour of fresh berries from the garden!

Peas: Shelling and Snap


In fourth place we have peas, both shelling and snap pea varieties. Our first thoughts were that snap pease were a little more kid-friendly because they can be eaten right off the vine and packed easily in lunches. However, the shelling peas as just as popular. We often shell them together and our kids are just as happy to eat shelling peas raw off the vine. Who am I to suggest that they should be cooked first? Maybe that's why I had a hard time finishing my peas as a child? Anyway, whether the peas are enjoyed in or out of their shells, I think we can all agree that fresh garden peas offer a dining experience far beyond that of the bitter soft snap peas or frozen shelling peas found in the grocery store.


Unique Challenges: Peas germinate best in warm temperatures but if we wait to plant peas until our soil has warmed up in spring, the crop will be maturing in the heat of summer, and peas do not perform well in the heat. They greatly prefer to grow in cool weather so they are best planted in early spring. The difficulty is that their seeds tend to rot away to their demise when planted in cool damp soil of early spring. To avoid this problem, we presoak our pea seed to start the germination process at warmer temperatures then direct seed these pre-sprouted seeds in the early spring.


pea harvest
Both snap peas and shelling peas are favourites with our kids.

Carrots


In third place we have carrots. All carrots rank high in our books, but for a little extra pizzazz, let's consider these rainbow carrots. This crop offers something our previous two crops could not. That is flexibility. If we plant carrots a few weeks later than we hoped, they'll still have time to mature, and when they mature, we have a window of at least 3 weeks to get them out of the ground. That forgiving harvest window is much appreciated during our busy summers. It's a pleasure to know that our carrots aren't spoiling in the garden if we spend an extra day or two at the beach, and when the time comes to harvest the carrots, our kids can be fully involved in the digging and washing thanks to the durable nature of carrots.


Unique Challenges: New gardeners tend to fail with the seed spacing and germination of carrots. We really want to avoid over seeding carrots because that leads to a lot of extra time we'll need to spend thinning the excess plants. We also want to be sure to give our carrots optimum conditions during their germination period, which will typically be 1-3 weeks depending on the soil temperature. If we let the soil dry out at all during this period, we can expect to lose a significant portion of our newly planted seeds. The good news is that once you've earned the trust of a carrot seed and convinced it to germinate, it'll carry on growing for you for the rest of the season with minimal attention.


rainbow carrots
Rainbow carrot varieties add novelty to an already popular crop.

Potatoes


In second place we have potatoes, admittedly not the most exciting crop to grow, but I'm saying that as an adult. To a child, potato planting is quick fun skill that they can easily master, and the unearthing the newly formed tubers at harvest time is a pleasure that never seems to get old. ( You can't hear it in this video, but there was constant chatter from the girls announcing the large small and quirky looking potatoes they discovered in the soil.). From my perspective, potatoes are a nearly flawless crop to manage. I don't need to start transplants, I have a window of about a month when I can plant them, the timing of the mulching and/or hilling is flexible, and the final harvest can happen on my schedule.

As a result, the potato scores big points for both the head and hands criteria, but that's not enough to warrant a ranking this high. It's also important that potatoes work so well in our kitchen in many family pleasing forms.


Unique Challenges: This one is pretty simple. I could highlight ways to optimize the performance of your potatoes, but those tidbits aren't prerequisites for growing some potatoes with your kids. Just throw some seed potatoes in the ground, give them their share of water, and keep an eye out for potato beetles.


potatoes
There's a reason civilizations were built around the potato.

Corn


The top ranked kid-friendly crop according to our family's preferences is corn. Technically, sweet corn was second place and flint corn was in first place, but they're going to share the victory for our purposes today. What's so great about flint corn? There's nothing fancy about this crop. It just ranks high in all the criteria. First, both corn varieties are very enjoyable and easy to eat. We love fresh corn on the cob, and flint corn, once dried, turns into homegrown popcorn, which is a very popular snack amongst the ladies of our household. In terms of the head criteria, we appreciate corn because it's basically a "set it and forget it" crop that is very easy to grow. We do need to be attentive to our sweet corn so that we don't miss its narrow harvest window, but the flint corn can be ignored the entire season because it needs ample time for the ears to dry on the plants. Then finally when we consider the skills required to work with these corn crops, they still rank at the top because our kids can direct seed or transplant this crop with me, there's no tricky maintenance work involved, and at harvest time the corn can be ripped from the stalks by any child without risk of inflicting much damage. The whole process is very forgiving and we end up with food that we all want to eat. That's a winner in the world of kid-friendly gardening!


Unique Challenges: Corn pollinates best when grown in patches so plan to plant full beds or multiple rows side-by-side. If you plant a single row or just a few plants, you'll likely produce cobs that are missing quite a few kernels because of poor pollination.


Glass Gem corn
Glass Gem corn has plenty of colour to show off before it gets popped or milled.

Keep it Simple


After completing this thorough comparison of our crops from a kid's perspective, I was a little surprised that the top 5 crops were not that fancy at all, just berries, carrots, peas, potatoes, and corn! They're all so simple? I realize now that when kids are in the picture, simple is what works! The novelty can come later. With only a few years of life on this planet, everything about gardening is still new and interesting to kids.


I hope this post has encouraged you to think a little more carefully about the crops you decide to grow with your kids.  Use our list of kid-friendly crop rankings if you like, but don't expect your list to look exactly like ours because your family will have unique preferences. Whatever you choose, remember that the planting of each crop marks the start of a new relationship.  If you want things to work out with a happy ending, it sure is easier if you are compatible right from the start.  To get a better grasp on which vegetables will be most compatible with your gardening style, take this short quiz.

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