Dogpatch Urban Gardens: Gardening with Kids

My name is Jenny Quiner and I am a mom to three amazing boys (Oliver – 5 ½, Walter 3 ½, and Lewis 1 ½) and the owner of Dogpatch Urban Gardens (DUG).  DUG is an urban farm located just north of Beaverdale off of Meredith Drive and 51st Street. I grow annual vegetable crops on less than ½ an acre.  That may seem small compared to most farms, but you would be amazed by the amount of food that can produced in a small area.  I grow biointensively using organic methods, so I’m proud to say that all the food sell it to the community is nutrient dense and grown in a manner that regenerates our precious soil.

I sell my produce to multiple places in the Des Moines area.  I have an onsite farm stand called the DUG FarmStand.  Many people assuming the stand is a tent over the back of my pickup truck, but the DUG FarmStand as quickly evolved into a locally sourced grocery store.  I sell the produce I grow, but also buy from other local producers.  Along with produce I sell transplants, flowers, dairy products, eggs, jams, honey, pork products, ground beef, salad dressings, mustards, barbecue sauce, ice cream, and more all source as local as possible.  The FarmStand will open Mother’s Day weekend and is open Thursday from 3:30-6:30 and Saturday and Sunday from 9-1.

I also have a modified CSA called a Salad Subscription, sell to local restaurants (Table 128, HoQ, The Wine Experience, Baru 66, La Mie Elevate, The Cheese Shop, Reeds Hollow, and others), the Iowa Food Coop, and through a food aggregator.

This is my second season running Dogpatch Urban Gardens.  Prior to becoming an urban farmHer, I was a high school science teacher at Dowling Catholic for six years.  It was a great job, but in the time frame I had my 3 boys.  One of my reasons for the career change was because of my kids.  I loved teaching, but running my own farm gives me more flexibility with my hours.  I also get to raise my boys with a better understanding and appreciation for our environment and where their food comes from.  Full disclosure, my farm is a tightly run ship and my boys are not at the ages where they can help me be productive.  If I let them loose at the farm I end up with pounds of unwanted harvested green tomatoes.  That being said, I fully recognize my boys will be assets to me at the farm as they grow older.

When it comes to gardening with kids, there are so many fun things you can do as a family.  It’s actually difficult putting this blog together because I feel like my mind is going in so many different directions.  

First off, you don’t need a large space in order to explore/experiment with growing.  I specialize in growing produce, so that will be my focus, but you can grow so many other things with your kids to get them excited about gardening.  From my experiences, kids learn the best through doing, so the more experiences you can give them the better.   Make the plunge and get out there and grow some food.  Your garden may not look flawless, you may have weeds, disease, pest issues, etc. but who cares.  Make those lasting memories with your kids!  If you’re in an urban area and don’t have a yard, you can still grow.  Look into straw bale gardening or even setting up some lights somewhere in your home.  Where there is a will there is a way to grow food!

Why is this important?

I feel strongly that our youth should be more connected with our food system.  When I ask kids where certain food comes from, a common answer is the grocery store. When kids grow their own food they have a better understanding and appreciation that food comes from the Earth and to not take that for granted.

I find that my kids eat better when they are more connected to their food.  One, it helps that locally grown/produced food naturally has better flavor.  Think about the flavor difference of a vine ripened tomato picked from your garden compared to a tomato you buy at the grocery store.  Most all tomatoes sold at grocers are picked green and exposed to ethylene gas to help them ripen in the transportation process.  They are likely traveling hundreds of miles to get to the store.  Tomatoes grown on your own taste better, are more nutrient dense, and have less impact on the environment.

The other day I was preparing dinner and my 3 year old son was watching me.  Like most three year old’s, he was asking question after question about the food I was making.  When I started to chop carrots and potatoes he perked up and proudly said, “Mommy, those grow underground.”  When I started to prepare some spinach he said, “Mommy, those leaves are from plants in your garden.”  One last ingredient I had out were eggs.  I asked him the question, “Walter where do eggs come from?”  I was expecting him to say a chicken or hen, but his response was even better…He perked up proudly in his chair and said, “Our eggs come from Jordan!”  I laughed because Jordan is our farmer friend who we sometimes get our eggs from.

If you’re interested in specific tips/tricks when it comes to gardening and incorporating your kids I can definitely help you out.  Feel free to shoot me an email with specific questions.  More importantly, I think the biggest thing is to just go do it.  Here are some plants suggestions that I think are great to grow with kids:

Radish: Some kids may not love the flavor, but the great thing about radishes is they are quick crops. When the season is right you can have product around 21 days after planting.  They are also easy to pull out of the ground so kids can enjoy them.  Note – The leaves can be prickly so be aware of that when harvesting.

Carrots: Most kids are familiar with carrots and so they are an easy sell.  I would experiment with planting a variety that will have colors other than just orange (Starburst is a variety I enjoy).  The key to having success with growing carrots is to make sure your soil is loose and not compacted.  If your soil is too compacted the carrots will become stubby.  When you harvest you will probably want to use a pitchfork to loosen the soil before pulling out of the ground.  If you just pull the carrots up by their greens the root can easily snap underground.

Tomatoes: An Iowa classic!  Tomatoes are a great plant to start from seed and have your child go through the whole process of seeing the production from seed to fruit harvest.  That said, I wouldn’t recommend starting your seeds now because it’s about time to plant tomatoes and they take around 6-8 weeks to be ready to transplant.  The number of tomato varieties available to grow is overwhelming, but I’ve found my kids favorite to be Sungold.  Sungolds are yellow cherry tomatoes that are super sweet.  Be warned — when you harvest they may not make it back to the house because they’re so good right off the vine!

Lettuce: Lettuce is an easy crop to go and it develops pretty quick.  I find those tend to be more favorable with kids (as we know their attention spans may not be the longest).  Pick a few varieties that interest you.  There’s so many options from head lettuce, romaines, buttercrisp, etc.  I say grow what you and your family will eat.  Lolla Rossa is a fun variety because it has a vibrant red color.  Another thing I like about it is that you can get multiple cuts off of one head of lettuce.  When you harvest hold the leaves in 1 hand and cut about 2 inches above the core.  This will allow for the leaves to regrow for another harvest in a few weeks.  Note — lettuces tend to go bitter and bolt in the summer so they are more ideal in spring and fall.

Brussels Sprouts: I chose this plant mainly because I think it’s one of the coolest plants out there.  No, I don’t expect your kids to become overwhelmed with the joy at the thought of eating a brussel sprout, but I think this plant has a great wow factor that kids can appreciate.  You ideally transplant  brussel sprouts in the late spring/early fall and you won’t get yield until the fall, but the way they grow is so unique!  They are larger plants and the brussel sprouts form off the main stalk of the plant.  You can twist off the sprouts (starting at the bottom of the plant) for a few weeks and that’s a great task for your kids to do!

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