March is National Nutrition Month, when the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reminds everyone to return to the basics of healthy eating. It is also the time of year when the Academy celebrates expertise of registered dietitian nutritionists as the food and nutrition experts.
If you want to eat local, know where your food is coming from, save money and reap healthy rewards, start a home garden. There's a harvest of benefits when you involve kids in the process, too. A study published in The Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology found that children who lived in a home with a garden ate significantly more vegetables than a group that did not have access to a home garden.
A Fun Alternative
If the space you have available at home limits your ability to garden, or if time constraints, neighborhood regulations or poor soil quality are concerns, consider container gardening. "Container gardening is a great way to connect kids to where their food comes from. And eating what you grow is one of the most fun and wonderful things you can experience — no matter how old you are!" says Liz Reid, MS, RD, LDN, pediatric dietitian at the Penn State Hershey Children's Hospital and coordinator of a local farmer's market nutrition program.
Choosing a Container
Barrels and buckets work well, but encourage your child to get creative — some people even use things such as wheelbarrows for containers. Hanging baskets are good options for small spaces. Clay pots can work for plants that don't need much soil. Match the size of the containers to the depth and amount of soil needed for the plants you want to grow, using seed packets as references. Before using a wood container, get advice from a local hardware store about safe types to use, as some old woods might have harmful chemicals. Similarly, avoid using containers that previously held toxic materials.
Reid says finding a container with adequate drainage is key. If your container doesn't have holes in it, make a few half-inch holes near the bottom to allow water to run out. This will keep plant roots from rotting. To protect surfaces, you can put a saucer under the container to catch water, but be sure to empty it regularly.
Planting the Crops
Start with a mixed blend of soil for best results, and then let your child dream of the colorful possibilities! "I recommend starting with something easy to grow — such as sugar snap peas, or sweet cherry tomatoes," says Reid. "But you can try any vegetable that your child is interested in growing. Potatoes and carrots will grow in a container, and some children really like digging through the dirt to find their harvest." says Reid. Seed packets will tell you the best times to plant different crops. You can start seedlings inside and transplant them at the right time, or put starter plants from a greenhouse in your container.
Caring for Your Garden
A plant in its natural environment has ample soil with nutrients that are constantly being replenished. Since soil in a container is limited, you should give your plants some extra nutrition in the form of commercial fertilizer or compost materials. Ask the experts at your local agricultural extension program or garden center to help figure out what your plants need. Container plants need to be watered a little more often, too — up to twice per day in hot weather. Pinch off dry leaves and buds to make room for healthy new ones to thrive.
Then, when harvest time comes, celebrate the labor that led up to the finished product!