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One of the wonderful things about homeschooling is that every aspect of life is an opportunity for learning. Whether you have a tiny urban plot or a full-fledged homestead, a family vegetable garden perfectly fits the bill of learning through life.
Planning The Garden
The first step in preparing a vegetable garden, of course, is the planning. This stage alone offers abundant learning opportunities for a child. Before you can even think about planting, you’ve got to choose a location for your garden. Include your kids in this process. Talk with them about what a vegetable garden needs—sunlight, good soil, and access to water. Help kids learn to be aware of the growing conditions found naturally on your property. Some areas are more protected from the wind than others. Low-lying areas may collect frost. A vegetable garden needs frequent care, so position it reasonably close to the house, if possible.
Kids also love planning which vegetables to grow. Pull out some seed catalogs and gardening books on a dreary day. Take a vote on which plants to grow and chart the results. Encourage kids to consider some unique or little-known vegetables too. Once you’ve determined what to grow, you need to calculate how many seeds or plants you’ll need. Do you use your garden for canning or simply for fresh summer produce? Are you feeding just your family, or do you want to grow extra to sell or give to friends? Visit a gardening site  that includes estimated plant yields to help in your calculations.
Assessing The Soil
A vegetable garden is only as good as the soil it’s grown in. Do a few experiments with your kids to find out what type of soil you have. First, do you have clay, sand, or loam soil? Clay is sticky and difficult to work, especially when wet. Sandy soil feels coarse and crumbly. It dries out quickly. Loam, every gardener’s dream soil, is soft, loose, and moist. It is often described as having the texture of chocolate cake.
Next, determine the pH level and nutrient content of the soil. You can test the soil at home with a soil test or take it to a commercial lab. Once you know what type of soil you have, let your kids help you amend it. Dig in compost or manure at least once every season. Healthy soils encourage microorganisms and earthworms. These organisms, in turn, benefit plant growth.
Your homeschooling gardening experiences can start long before the snow melts and the frost stops if you opt to start seeds indoors. You’ll save lots of money starting seeds ahead of time, and you’ll also have a much wider variety of plants to choose from. Best of all, your kids will benefit from the experience of caring for young seedlings. Fill seed starter trays or even empty yogurt cups with a lightweight starting mix. Spread the seeds over the starting mixture, pressing down on them gently so they make contact with the soil. Mist the soil with water and cover the tray with plastic wrap. Keep the soil moist and remove the plastic wrap once the seedlings appear. Move the trays to direct sunlight and plant them outdoors when they stand four inches high.
The Life Cycle Of A Seed
A sprouting seed is truly a miracle! Here’s an experiment that allows your kids to view the miracle up-close. Moisten a paper towel and place it in a zip-top plastic bag. Sprinkle a few seeds over the paper towel. Choose seeds that germinate quickly, such as radish or lettuce seeds. Tape the plastic bag to a sunny, but not hot, window. Be sure to moisten the paper towel with a mister if it gets dry. In a few days, the seed coats will start to soften. The first leaves, the cotyledons, will push their way out of the seed coat as the plant begins to grow. Your children will be fascinated to know that a seed contains a plant in embryo . The embryo contains all the parts of an adult plant, including the roots. Cut a softened seed in half to see this tiny plant embryo.
This is also a good time to discuss how plants reproduce . Some plants produce flowers, fruit, and seeds all in one year and then die. Other plants, biennials, live for two years. A few vegetables, including asparagus and rhubarb, live for many years.
Talk with your children about the edible parts of plants, such as roots, greens, and fruit. Make a graph featuring common vegetables and sort them according to their edible plant parts. For example, potatoes and carrots are root vegetables; lettuce and spinach are greens; squash and tomatoes are fruit.
Caring For Plants
You’ve planted the vegetable garden and the seedlings are starting to grow. Now it’s time for the real learning—and work. Kids can learn a great deal by taking care of a garden. Through caring for a garden daily, kids learn how to observe plants and give them what they need to grow and thrive. They learn responsibility and work ethic too. If kids forget to water, the garden dies.
The garden offers many opportunities to solve problems and consider solutions. For example, perhaps your garden’s been overrun by aphids. Your first impulse might be to reach for pesticides. However, many pesticides kill bees and other beneficial insects needed for pollination. What to do? Research your options and consider the potential consequences of each. Encourage kids to read books or visit reliable Internet resources. Talk with an extension officer or a garden-savvy friend.
Finally, the garden offers quick and tangible rewards for a job well done. Few things in life are quite as satisfying as serving a meal prepared from the food you grew yourself. When it’s time to harvest vegetables, let your kids pitch in. Kids can shell peas, snap beans, shuck corn, and wash carrots. Older children can even help with canning chores.
Advanced Gardening Lessons
Once your kids have mastered the basics of gardening, encourage them to keep learning. Below are just a few ideas to extend your lessons in gardening:
- Build a compost bin with your kids and put them in charge of composting.
- Learn about the benefits of mulches and cover crops. Discuss the problem of soil erosion.
- Grow organic vegetables as a business. Let your kids set up a vegetable stand in the summer.
- Take gardening classes at a local nursery or college. Many states have Master Gardener programs available to teens and adults.
- Join gardening clubs or 4-H.
- How about extending the gardening season with hoop tunnels or floating row covers?