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!
To reduce the buildup of diseases and pests, rotate crops among garden beds by putting plants together in the same family. Tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants, which are in the nightshade (Solanaceae) family, could be rotated with root crops, such as carrots and beets, and legumes. Your older child can organize a crop rotation plan for the garden and can research, diagnose, and treat any disease and pest problems that arise. Older children can also research the history of various garden plants; for example, people once thought tomatoes were poisonous and did not eat them.
All plants have scientific and common names, and the scientific names are usually Latin: cabbage is properly known as Brassica. Your Latin student can translate common names to Latin and learn to write scientific nomenclature correctly. Seed catalogs are a good resource for examples of Latin terms.
For more work in math and science, make graphs and charts that document the amount of time required for different seeds to germinate, elapsed time from planting to harvest, rainfall, temperature, and first and last frost dates from year to year. Determine the effect of rain, temperature, and fertilization programs on the amount of vegetables harvested. Children could also find out what happens to a sun-loving plant when it grows in the shade.
Look through seed catalogs and talk about why all the beans are separated from the tomatoes, and why the leafy greens are together. Talk about their similarities and differences in color, whether the edible portion grows above or below ground, and whether the plant likes cool weather or warm weather. Your children will come up with numerous questions about the garden; find out the answers together.
Plant a garden for your homeschool this spring, and you will have an excuse to spend beautiful spring days outside while also “doing school.” Your children will find out where food comes from, and you all will get exercise, tasty food, and many happy hours inside too, when the weather is bad, as you make plans for your garden.
- Apply a 2-inch layer of mulch to reduce water evaporation.
- When the garden soil is dry, provide enough water to penetrate an inch or so below the surface of the soil.
- Plants learn to tolerate drought better when you water deeply, applying ½ to 1 inch of water at a time to the roots of the plants instead of sprinkling the plants frequently with a little water.
- Broccoli, spinach, collards, lettuce, turnip greens (and other leafy greens), leeks, garlic, carrots, beets, parsnips, English peas, potatoes
- Tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, okra, beans, lima beans, crowder/Southern peas, sweet potatoes, corn, melons, squash, pumpkins
Consult your local extension agent, garden center, neighbor, or the NOAA l to find out the first and last frost dates for your area.
- The National Garden Association’s website offers general gardening information.
- Visit this page to locate your local extension agent and find links to gardening information.
- Mother Earth News magazine’s website contains information about gardening, homesteading, livestock, and “green” energy.
- To learn how to compost and to learn about its benefits, visit www.howtocompost.org.
- The Garden Primer by Barbara Damrosch
Mary Ann has gardened since childhood, and since having children, enjoys having them “help” in the garden while they learn about the natural world. She writes a weekly gardening column in her local paper and blogs about gardening at maryannscountrygarden.blogspot.com. She lives in South Carolina with her two daughters, whom she homeschools, her husband, nine chickens, and two dachshunds.
Copyright, 2012. Used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education magazine, March 2012. Read the magazine free at www.TOSMagazine.com or read it on the go and download the free apps at www.TOSApps.com to read the magazine on your mobile devices.
Publication date: April 25, 2014