It is a well-known fact that obesity is on the rise in the UK, especially among children. Over the past 30 years, obesity in children has almost tripled, according to JamieOliver.com. Jamie puts this down to several factors, including a reduction in activity, diet and education.
In this current age of self-service and fast food, food has become a multi-trillion-dollar business, and to cope with demand food has been designed to last longer, to cook more quickly and meet the immediate need of hunger without addressing the wider issues surrounding health, vitamins, balanced diet and portion size.
With such a massive industry, and with so many negatives just where do you start? Jamie Oliver has used his celebrity to remove turkey twizzlers from school menus and to make the menu healthier. He has campaigned and succeeded in introducing a sugar tax which dramatically increases the cost of those foods which most contribute to obesity among children, sweets, cereals and fizzy drinks.
Why Grow Your Own Vegetables?
Whilst all those large-scale changes are amazing, the work on educating children to eat healthily and to understand where their food comes from starts closer to home. Building a vegetable patch gives you the opportunity to work on a fulfilling project with your children and to taste the goodness of homegrown vegetables and herbs.
Spending time outside in the fresh air with your children is great bonding time. See their enthusiasm as they spy the first green shoots, and the sense of satisfaction and accomplishment when they taste the foods they have grown themselves.
Gardening is an activity that the whole family can get involved with. Whilst it may be more difficult to motivate older children, people of all ages can benefit from the process. Getting muddy while learning dexterity, hand/eye coordination, confidence and team work are just a few of the results from creating a vegetable patch.
Gardening teaches children:
- Nurture – How to care for something
- Consequence – What happens when you water/don’t water the plants
- Confidence – A sense of achievement
- Ecological Awareness – The fragility of plant life
- A love for the Natural World
- To Enjoy Fresh Air
- Nutrition – How to eat healthily
- Origins – Where food comes from and what it should taste like
- Co-operation and Teamwork
Your Vegetable Patch Starter Kit
Before buying tools or preparing the ground to sow, you should first check the pH level of the soil. The normal pH level for growing vegetables should be at around 6.5pH (slightly acidic) normally soil is approximately 7pH so anything is this area is acceptable. You can buy a pH tester kit for a few pounds from most garden centres or garden supply retailers.
You should ensure have a few essential tools as a starter kit.
- Secateurs – perfect for pruning
- Hoe – great for breaking up clumped up soil
- Trowel – perfect for planting small plants
- Hand fork – ideal for unearthing small root vegetables
- Rake – Use this to ensure soil is level
- Watering can/hose
- Boots or Wellies
- Gardening Gloves
Making Your Vegetable Patch
Pick a Sunny Spot
A South-facing plot will get the most sunlight. Plenty of sun is vital to the growth process, the sun’s energy creates ‘photosynthesis’. Photosynthesis literally means transformation through exposure to light.
If your children are small, you need to consider the depth of your vegetable patch to ensure they can reach easily. The simplest layout is to use a flowerbed. However, a lawn-level bed is prone to lawn invasion, weeds and trampling.
A raised bed, made from sleepers and filled with compost, not only makes it easier for your children to reach but reduces weeds which sap the soil of nitrogen, a much-needed nutrient. Finally, installing a raised bed means the soil thaws sooner in spring meaning that there is potential for a longer harvest season.
How to start a vegetable patch from scratch. If you’re lifting turf to create a brand-new plot, or reappointing an existing flowerbed, you will firstly need the spade and fork to break up the ground. This can be back-breaking work so don’t attempt to do everything on day one.
Once you have broken up the soil with the spade and then the fork into fist-sized clumps, you can use the hoe to further loosen and break up the soil.
Add Compost or Manure
Having broken up and loosened the soil, you can now begin to prepare the ground for planting. Over time, soil can lose its nutrients.
The farming practice of crop rotation works on the principle that fields need to lie fallow every 3 or 4 years in order to regain their nutrients whilst maximising what can be grown in the active fields. Therefore, once active, it may be a good idea to allow your vegetable patch to lie fallow every few years to allow the natural nutrients to build up again to support your vegetables.
As you will be working on a relatively small area, you can feed the soil with nutrients. The primary nutrient in soil is nitrogen. Mixing in manure, compost or mulch will add much needed nutrients into the soil.
Which Vegetables are Easiest to Grow?
Peas or Runner Beans
Start by planting the seeds in little pots inside until your plants are established. Be aware, pea seeds are poisonous so make sure your children wash their hands carefully after handling.
Once they are established you will need to lash canes together into a wigwam or set up a trellis for your plants to grow up. Peas have lovely white flowers before they come into fruit.
Not all your plants have to be vegetables. Sunflowers are a colourful addition to any garden growing ideally against a wall. Measure their progress against your child and watch them marvel as the tiny seed turns into an enormous giant sunflower plant. Sunflower seeds are a great source of nutrition.
Small fruits like strawberries can be grown in pots. Their pretty white and yellow flowers fade to reveal green nubs, which, with time and patience ripen into bright red sweet strawberries. The perfection addition to a summer day salad.
Cabbage and Lettuce
Cabbage and lettuce are easy to grow vegetables. They grow big really quickly, and the simple wonder of transferring from veg patch to kitchen to plate is an incredibly simple way of teaching kids about the origin of foods.
Cabbage can be used as a part of Sunday dinner, stew or homemade coleslaw. Lettuce can be incorporated into a salad or added to sandwiches. We all remember being told to “eat your greens” but why, what is it for?
The chlorophyll in green leafy vegetables such as cabbage is proven to be good for red blood cell development, essential for children’s healthy growth, high in Vitamin B, which contributes to a happy mood, improves cardiovascular protection, high in antioxidants, improving immunity levels and to assist in digestion in both children and adults.
Once you have gained some confidence with veg growing, you can try your hand at root vegetables such as carrots, potatoes, parsnips, turnips and swede. All of these are callused as winter vegetables because they tend to harvest later on in the Autumn/Winter.
Vegetable Patch Tips
Here are some handy tips to bear in mind:
- Use raised beds to minimise frost damage
- Rather than raking the soil flat, try to form raised arc mound. Doing this dramatically increases your planting space, maximising the yield from your planting.
- Whilst it may be tempting to plat out in nice neat rows, doing so, reduces the amount of space available. Instead, plant in triangles, not too close together. It has proven that you can increase the number of plants per square foot by up 14% by using this simple method.
- Climbing plants grow upwards and entwine with each other enabling you to maximise on space. Tomatoes, runners and peas are all good hardy climbing plants.
- Plant compatibly – Some plants naturally work well with others such as tomatoes, basil and onions. Tomatoes grow tall giving space for the basil and the onion, which grow best in slightly shaded areas, to grow underneath. Other good combinations to consider are Peas and lettuce; carrots onions and radishes and beetroot and celery.
- Time your crops carefully. Early lettuce can be followed up by fast-maturing corn. (Bear in mind that corn plants are either male or female. To ensure a crop, you will need to plant a couple to ensure the bees pollenate them for you.) Within the same season, there is still time to grow more greens or to plant garlic for the following spring! – Each time you replant, replenish. Add a layer of compost before planting out the next plants.
- Wrap up Warm – You can further extend your growing season by adding a layer of mulch around your plants as nights start to draw in. This will increase the temperature of the soil and protect the plants from the cooler nights.
Starting a project like a vegetable patch may seem daunting at first, but with preparation, time and planning, ensuring you start small, you can quickly develop a small but productive veg patch in no time! Most of us aren’t all that au fait with all things garden, but by following these handy tips, in no time at all you too can be a green-fingered god or goddess of the garden!