What edibles to grow in a garden with small kids in Toronto?
May 12, 2008 1:20 PM   Subscribe

What edibles should we plant in the garden? Parameters: inexperienced gardeners, Toronto, raccoons and squirrels will be present, items that are exciting/educational for four-year-olds, and it's a plot in a community garden that we probably won't visit every day.

I'm thinking that sunflowers will be fun for the kids (is there anything else that has such dramatic results?). Maybe some zucchini, just because that seems to be most likely to get a big crop. The kids are interested in growing tomatoes and carrots. There are already rhubarb and chives growing in the plot which came up again by themselves from last year (when somebody else was using it).

I guess the two main qualities would be: don't need much tending and

I remember hearing that there are some plants (maybe it was garlic or onions?) that will keep raccoons or rodents away.

We can probably water every day initially, but we're planning on scheduling an two one-hour visits per week for working on it, with quick visits on other days if necessary. There is a hose in the garden.

The main purpose is a fun project for the kids. They're excited about eating things that they grew themselves. We've got two parents and two four-year olds from two different households.
posted by winston to Home & Garden (22 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Oops. I got called away in the middle of editing the post. I don't even remember what was supposed to come after "don't need much tending and"

Further info: The garden is pretty shady. A narrow vacant lot with some big trees, surrounded by row houses . I don't think I've ever seen much sunshine hitting the ground there but I guess I'm almost never there in the morning.
posted by winston at 1:29 PM on May 12, 2008

I remember hearing that there are some plants (maybe it was garlic or onions?) that will keep raccoons or rodents away.

Nice in theory. But no. Raccoons will go wherever they please.

Try growing pumpkins. Fun for the kid. They don't need a lot of tending. The vines will take up a lot of space, though. Not too late to plant from seed, but you could also buy starts at a nursery.
posted by mudpuppie at 1:34 PM on May 12, 2008

Good call on zucchini and sunflowers--great results. Home-grown tomatoes are better than anything you can buy, so that's a good bet, too. Carrots are usually a disappointment--they take forever to ripen, and the results are likely to be scrawny, at least in my experience. Kinds love mint, too--easy to grow in abundance. Oh, and loofah is always impressive.
posted by MrMoonPie at 1:35 PM on May 12, 2008

Zucchini is definitely a good idea (maybe make some zucchini bread?)...though I don't know how well it will do in shade. A lot of herbs would probably do well, try some basil, mint, parsley. Leafy vegetables might also be a good idea, since most are quick to grow and would probably do alright in the shade. Oh and 2nding pumpkins..
posted by pilibeen at 1:41 PM on May 12, 2008

Radishes are great for quick production and are super easy. The seeds can be planted and about a month later you'll have some to eat.
posted by sulaine at 2:03 PM on May 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Carrots! Super easy to grow, though they take a long time, and I don't think your critters will bother them. And seconding the herbs, like basil and parsley.
posted by Asparagirl at 2:14 PM on May 12, 2008

Mint is fairly shade tolerant and smells wonderful. It's fairly invasive so it will need its own container. However, it's worth it to make your own mint tea, mint candies and mint syrup.

Fresh peas are also fantastic, nothing like anything at the grocery store. They won't take up too much space and you'll only need a month or two to reap the results.

Swiss chard will tolerate the shade and give you nice, edible leaves with bright, candy colored stems. Salad greens are also shade tolerant and quite pleasant to look at. I'm especially fond of my eye-catching red orach, which, despite its name, is a cheery purple.

I have to agree that carrots aren't the best choice. Most varieties are bi-annuals.
posted by Alison at 2:20 PM on May 12, 2008

Response by poster: I don't expect the best results from the carrots, but that's what was in the garden in a favourite book of my son, so he wants to grow carrots (he doesn't even like to eat them).

Thanks for the great responses so far.
posted by winston at 2:29 PM on May 12, 2008

Peas are lots of fun, though they do need something to climb on. I'd especially recommend some variety of sugar snap peas or snow peas, which can be eaten raw — as a kid, I was always particularly fond of the veggies I could pick off the stem and eat right away without any need for cooking.

Carrots will take a while, and won't get big & long in areas like Toronto with a short growing season. The baby ones have a wonderful flavour, though, and if the kids want 'em, why not give it a shot?

If you could draw a sketch map of the site, with the shade-providing trees, buildings, and compass directions drawn in, it'd help figure out where the most sunlight would be.
posted by Johnny Assay at 2:32 PM on May 12, 2008

Sunflowers are fun, but are huge pest attractors-- the squirrels and rabbits will eat the young blossoms. You'll need to protect them with chicken wire. Bush beans are super easy to grow and don't need any elaborate supports, plus they have a long fruiting season-- you'll get a meal's worth every few days for a couple of months. I planted mine in a shady spot last year, and they didn't do as well as they did in the sun, but if I hadn't been used to planting them in the sun, I don't think I would have known that it was a small harvest. Carrots are good too-- make sure you don't use too much organic compost, it'll make them tough and stringy. Plant enough so you can pull them at different stages of their maturity so your son can "see" what's happening underground. You might try green peppers. A four year old might not want to eat them, but watching them grow from perfect miniature peppers into big ones is fun, and you can leave a few on the bush and watch them turn red. If you can keep the rabbits from eating the plant sprouts, the pests will keep away from them once they are larger (maybe plant largish bedding plants.)

I always did a garden since my kids were small on the Shaker system-- you plant a third for the family, a third for the parish and a third for God. (The third for you, you eat. The third for the parish are the ones you give to friends. The third for God are the ones the animals get. In other words, plant three times more than you need, and you'll end up with what you need.)

The year I skipped putting in a vegetable garden, because I thought the kids had lost interest, they were appalled. It's just a great thing to do, especially for urban kids. Have fun!
posted by nax at 3:34 PM on May 12, 2008 [2 favorites]

How about chilli peppers? Nothing wild will want to eat them, and while a four-year old might find them too much, they will be SHINY and RED LIKE A FIRE ENGINE and SCARY. OOOH CHILLI PEPPERS.

Strawberries are also neat. Grow them under wire mesh to keep the critters out. YUMMY SLURPY STRAWBERRIES.

Climbing beans with purple pods (a local variety where I live called Purple King) grow fast, look dramatic and are nice raw when young. MMM CRUNCHY PURPLE PODS.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 3:38 PM on May 12, 2008

You've got kids. You need fruit. Raspberries are easy - you can get a mix of summer and Autumn fruiting varieties. Blackberries are similarly easy to grow and you can't have too many strawberries.

If you want to put things in the ground and come back when they're done, grow potatoes and onions, though you'll still have to weed around them.

Tomatoes are actually quite fiddly to grow and carrots can be beset with problems. Try broad beans and peas.

I'm also growing garlic this year, so far so good.

Take a look at the My Tiny Plot blog for more good ideas.
posted by baggymp at 3:49 PM on May 12, 2008

When I was a kid, sunflowers and good old corn were the impressive garden plants to grow. They're bigger than you are!

Starting them indoors would prevent critter damage at that stage (digging up seeds and eating them--often a problem around here), although the season is moving on a little bit for that. Eggplants are constant heartbreak--the plants produce lots of little purple deals, somebody (squirrels, rabbits, etc.) picks them off too early, drags them across the yard and spits them out. I end up picking half-chewed eggplants out of the yard all summer.

My garden plot is in Minneapolis, I think similar to you in climate, but I've noticed lots of variation just among gardens in my block. My garden is shady too. Sunnier gardens get lots of zucchini, I don't get squat. Legumes and cucurbits in general also seem to need more sun than I can give them.

On the other hand, I do well with heirloom tomatoes (typically tons tastier than regular ones, could be interesting if you're dealing with tomato avoiders).

Basil, oregano, rosemary all grow well here, and could be marketed as "spaghetti sauce" herbs. You could make pizzas using them at the end of the season. In my plot, oregano is essentially unkillable.

One other outside possibility: lemon verbena. It's lemony and not too "weird" in flavor. It's only an annual in our zones--cold weather will kill it off--but I've had it shoot up a foot or more from a little sprig over a summer. Richter's in your area carries it.
posted by gimonca at 4:06 PM on May 12, 2008

Radishes grow fast and are wonderful fun to pull up.

Beets were the first thing I ever grew - also fun to pull up, and you can eat both the greens and the beet which is kind of exciting.

Chard is great because you can just keep on cutting it - and it can be very pretty. Also delicious.

Herbs might be nice - mint and rosemary are particularly good because they're very easy to root sprigs of, perhaps to give away to friends. And they smell nice! I loved them when I was a kid.

Garlic and onions are low maintenance, though this might be a bit late to be starting them (garlic is usually planted in the fall).

Tomatillos are totally neat-looking on the plant and make tasty salsa.

I recommend against squashes, since they do tend to take over and sprawl, and because in some places pests can be a problem.

Nasturtiums would be great for kids - flowers you can eat! - and pretty, too.
posted by bubukaba at 4:34 PM on May 12, 2008

My daughter is 3. This year we are growing:
  • Easter Egg Radishes (they're red, pink and white)
  • Pole beans (We made a teepee-like framework for the beans to grow up - fun for the little one)
  • Carrots (Purple, orange and yellow varieties)
  • PEAS!!!! There is NOTHING like fresh, sweet peas. My daughter loves them, and can eat an entire row by herself. The sugars start turning to starches as soon as you pick them, so homegrown ones are so sweet and unlike anything you find in stores.
  • Jack-be-little pumpkins. These are the small, decorative ones. Very cute and prolific!
  • A "pizza patch" perhaps, with Roma tomatoes, basil and oregano? Most kids like pizza, and it can be fun to grow your own ingredients. These plants might not do so well in the shade though.
  • Sensitive plant - not an edible, but also fun for kids. Touch the leaves and they fold up! They re-open a few minutes later. They do like shade.
  • Thornless blackberries and raspberries.
  • Currants

  • posted by Ostara at 5:30 PM on May 12, 2008

    With no sunshine at all you will not have a successful vegetable garden of any kind. Tomatoes require at leat 6 hours of direct sunshine. Your tomato plants will be very thin and not likely to produce many, if any, fruit. Some herbs will produce in the shade but that does not sound very exciting for a young child.
    posted by JayRwv at 6:23 PM on May 12, 2008

    Anyone have experience with hanging tomatoes? I LOVE homegrown tomatoes but have had huge tomato worm problems in the past. When I've grown them from the ground, I've gotten tall, leggy plants with little fruit (which I hear is from too much light, they were on the west side of the house). I have a huge tree in my backyard that would be perfect to hang things from (like hanging tomatoes) but our growing season is also short (seacoast NH) so I wonder if it is worthwhile.
    posted by sisflit at 8:34 PM on May 12, 2008

    Sunflowers are great (although I don't know about the shade thing, admittedly). Don't go away on vacation right before the seeds are ripe, or if you do, cover the heads with plastic bags or something, or the birds will pick them all. I am still cranky about my sunflowers from two years ago - I was growing them to have a bunch of fresh seeds to sprout for my gerbils, and then we went away for vacation and when we came back? The birds had nabbed almost all of them.

    And then my mother decided to microwave the remaining seeds to "get rid of the bugs" and I didn't get ANY sprouts. The end.

    But yeah, kids love sunflowers, and they make a great science lesson 'cause you can talk to them about how the flowers rotate, etc. etc. If you don't eat the seeds, you can feed them to birds/your gerbils ... or, actually, I'm pretty sure the sprouts are good in salads.
    posted by bettafish at 12:00 AM on May 13, 2008

    Hmm. I'd say if you have a lot of shade, most vegetables may be tricky.

    But salad greens may work -- and, it's a VERY quick turnaround from "plant them" to "eat them," which may be good for those with younger attention spans and senses of patience. Some types of salad greens even grow better if you cut from them now and then.

    Others have suggested various herbs, but most herbs need lots of sun. Mint is the only herb I can think of that can tolerate that much shade, and that'd be pretty kid-friendly in terms of how you can use it (fresh mint ice cream! woo!), but the only caveat there is that mint is VERY aggressive and can take over the whole plot quickly.

    However -- some herbs and some varieties of cherry tomatoes are actually adaptable to CONTAINER gardening. So what you could do is the salad greens in the plot, and then a couple pots of different herbs and a big pot of cherry tomatoes in a sunny window at home - and hey presto, you've grown your own salads!
    posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:19 AM on May 13, 2008

    I'm a lazy gardener. I put things in and tend them when I feel like it. I also tend not to water unless my plants are looking crispy (except for the rain no one waters the wild plants after all). The plants that do well for my children are plants that are native to my area. So just think of all the native crops we have in Ontario. Strawberries do well, even in partial shade in my garden, raspberries, blueberries die on my alkaline Niagara Escarpment soil but I think they will grow in Toronto, corn will not get big in your garden but it is still a neat thing to plant, especially if you incorporate a bit of the Iroquoian Three Sisters lore with beans and squash. You might want to try popcorn rather than sweet corn. I have in the past made a teepee/wigwam structure of cheap bamboo stakes and then planted vines of peas that grew and covered it except for the opening I left on the north side so my children could go inside a "secret" spot. If there is a sunny fence grape vines are another option. I also have non-native rhubarb growing in a shady pot in my garden, it gets huge very fast. Baby tomatoes would probably be better than large tomatoes. Lettuce does very well in shade (it frys in full sun), there are a huge number of different shapes and colours they come in (I was just looking at them last night at Loblaws). Beyond vegetables you might want to look at plants to encourage beneficial insects (like butterfly weed for monarchs) or other plants for their sensual attractions (lambs ears for touch, lavender for smells, bleeding hearts - blooming now for the lady inside, hens and chicks for appearance, etc). I'd love to try a cranberry bush next.

    Evergreen has a native plant database and other resources. Their mission is to encourage healthy, natural spaces in cities. No need to re-invent the wheel. They have various things going on in Toronto this summer.

    Two Toronto writers that are highly respected are Lorraine Johnson and Marjorie Harris (I used to live one street over from her fabulous garden in the Annex). Their books are available at TPL. Barabara Damrosch's book Theme Gardens has a chapter on children's gardens that is very nice too.

    It sounds like you will have a fun summer together!
    posted by saucysault at 7:42 AM on May 13, 2008

    sisflit, I have a friend who did the hanging tomatoes thing last year. She was so successful that we're trying it this year. Kids would think that's neat, I reckon.
    posted by MrMoonPie at 8:04 AM on May 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

    Response by poster: Johnny Assay, sorry for the slow reply. Here's an image from Google Maps of the site. It's the vacant lot in the middle. The garden plots are the back (south) half of the lot. The whole lot is about 25 x 60. The image was made when there were no leaves on the trees but you can make out how far the branches reach. Looks like there might be morning sun after all.
    posted by winston at 2:34 PM on May 14, 2008

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