Growing to eat

What could be better than children growing their own food? They have the fun of watching it grow, the satisfaction of eating something they created and you have an easier ride getting them to eat their ‘five a day’! Here are some easy to grow fruit and veg:

  • Courgettes – These large seeds germinate quickly and easily and, so long as they are kept well watered, will produce a huge crop of courgettes (harvest them regularly to maximise cropping). The courgettes can be used raw or cooked and their flowers are also edible (try dipping them in batter then deep frying). Try the cultivar ‘One Ball’ which gives you round, orange fruit.
  • Tomatoes – A huge variety of tomatoes can be grown from seed. Most like to be started off growing indoors, but some can then be put outside. You can even get ‘tumbler’ varieties of cherry tomatoes which will cascade over the edges of hanging baskets or pots. Water them regularly and pinch out the growing tip once you have four of five pairs of side stems growing, so that the plant puts all its energy into producing fewer, but better, fruit. Interesting varieties are available, such as the striped ‘Tigerella’.
  • Pumpkins – Pumpkins can be used to make a wide range of dishes, including soups, stews and pies but, let’s face it, that’s not why kids love pumpkins. They love them because of Hallowe’en! You can get seeds specifically to grow large pumpkins for carving into your ‘jack-o’-lantern’. But there are other ways to have fun with pumpkins; try lightly carving a face or pattern into a young pumpkin (the child can draw it on with a pen then you can trace over it with a knife) and watch it expand as the pumpkin grows, put a baby pumpkin into a plastic box (eg a milk carton with the top cut off) and the pumpkin will grow into a cube shape, or tie a cord around the middle of a young pumpkin and watch it bulge out at either end to make a ‘figure of 8’ shape.
  • Peas – Have fun making the pea supports together, then sowing the seeds, watering, weeding and finally regularly harvesting the ripe pods (don’t leave them on the plant or this will reduce the cropping). Nothing beats a lazy summer afternoon splitting open pea pods ready for dinner!
  • Strawberries – Strawberries can be grown from seed, but are much easier for children to manage as bought in plants. Plant them in your veg patch on a layer of straw (to protect the fruits from damp) or in pots on the patio. There’s nothing like the taste of ripe strawberries! The long, horizontal stems (‘stolons’ or ‘runners’) should be removed during the fruiting season, but can be allowed to develop afterwards and pegged down on the soil or in a new pot to create a new plant. For older children you can do an interesting experiment with strawberries; carefully remove a ring of seeds around the circumference of a young strawberry. As the fruit ripens it won’t grow in the area where the seeds were removed from, so it will make a figure of 8 shape – this is because the seeds contain hormones which trigger the growth of the fruit.
  • Kidney beans – Try the cultivar ‘Black and White’ for Killer Whale style markings on the outside of the bean, which can then be used in soups and stews.
  • Sweetcorn – Majestically tall plants which are easy to grow and crop readily, so long as you plant a block of them closely together. Try the cultivar ‘Strawberry Popcorn’ for remarkable pink, oval cobs.
  • Potatoes – Easy to grow in the ground or in deep (at least 30cm) tubs. Potato leaves are toxic, so take care if you have young children.
  • Radishes – These tasty little root vegetables are great for kids as they grow really quickly, with as little as 4 weeks between sowing them and harvesting.
  • Lettuce – Salad leaves grow quickly and easily from seeds. Try growing in large pots to fend off slug or snail attacks, but remember to keep them well watered.

Birds can be a real problem with growing food, whether they are pecking the seedlings out of the ground or feeding on the fruits of your labours, but this can be a fun problem for children to solve! A scarecrow can be made easily from two stout bamboo canes; a tall one stuck into the ground to form the ‘body’ of your scarecrow, and a shorter one tied across it to form its arms. An old plastic plant pot can be upturned on the cane to make the head, or stuff an old sack full of straw, then all that remains is to decorate the plant pot/sack face and dress your scarecrow in old clothes. Gloves stuffed with straw can make the hands on either end of the horizontal bamboo cane.

Alternatively children can have fun making a bird scarer to hang over their veg patch. Stick bamboo canes at either end of the veg patch and tie a string across them. Then hang anything you can think of from the string; the shinier and noisier the better! Why not try old CDs which can be decorated with glitter or stickers, a bunch of shells which  jangle together (an adult will have to make holes in the shells so they can be tied to string), shiny bells or tin cans with the labels removed (put masking tape over sharp tin edges).