Children love to play in the dirt, and tending a vegetable garden gives them that freedom while learning science, math, reading, and other skills that count toward “school time.” My daughters, aged 3 and 6, have played and learned in the garden from the time they stopped eating dirt. My 6-year-old understands which vegetables are seasonally available, saying, “We eat strawberries in the springtime and tomatoes in the summer.” She knows that carrots grow under the ground and that beans grow above the ground, knowledge many children lack when all of a family’s food comes from the grocery store. Gardening helps children understand God’s plan for creation.

If you want to plant a garden for your homeschool, but have never gardened before, start with a small space; 10 square feet is enough room to grow several plants but small enough to be a pleasure to tend. Folks without yards can garden in large containers. Make sure to choose a spot that gets sun most of the day.

To start a new garden in existing sod, dig holes for the individual plants, mix in all-purpose organic fertilizer and compost, and cover the remaining sod among the plants with layers of newspaper (no shiny ad slicks) and compost. Put a layer of mulch, several inches thick, on top. The sod will eventually decompose and enrich the soil. Alternatively, dig up the sod from the entire area, shake the soil from the roots of the plants before composting them, mix in fertilizer and compost, and smooth the soil surface with a rake. Fill containers with a commercially available potting mix, not topsoil, to make sure the plants have adequate nutrients.

Depending on your geographical location, you will plant vegetables at different times. Most gardening books say to plant cool-weather-loving vegetables as soon as the soil can be worked, which means as soon as the ground thaws. I live in South Carolina, where the ground is almost always workable because it rarely freezes. I plant cool-weather-loving vegetables about six weeks before our last frost, which occurs in early April, and expect to have their harvest completed in late May. I plant warm-weather-loving plants after the last expected frost, in early April. In late August, I plant the cool-weather-loving plants again and have a fall harvest.

If you have very cold winters and short summers, you will plant everything at about the same time. Consult your local Cooperative Extension office, garden center, or neighbors for more information specific to your area; visit the helpful websites cited below.

Buy your seeds and transplants from local garden centers or from catalogs and websites. I order seeds from Pinetree Garden Seeds, Seed Savers Exchange, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Heavenly Seeds, and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. I start broccoli, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants from seed inside under lights, or I buy transplants. For everything else, I sow seeds directly in the garden. If you are a beginning gardener, buy a few transplants of tomatoes, peppers, and broccoli at a store, and sow seeds of other vegetables directly in the ground according to the directions on the seed package.  

Gardening has obvious benefits, but you can include it on your lesson plans in all subject areas. Older children can read the directions on the package, calculate the number of seeds needed for the row length, and space the seeds correctly for practice in reading, math, and spatial perception. Give younger children just enough seeds to cover the row, and explain that the seeds should be spread evenly from one end of the row to the other end.

Consult your garden center or extension agency for information about conducting a soil test. Older children can apply soil amendments as recommended by the test, as well as weed and water the garden. Little ones love to “help” and can learn patience as they notice seasonal changes in the garden. Just make sure everyone understands which plants are weeds and which plants are the veggies!