Organic Gardening For Beginners (And How to Involve the Kids!)

You guys know how I always need a project to focus my attention on? First it was the kidsroom renovations, our bedroom and dining room, then our “zen” patio

All of these projects keep me centered and busy, and I love the sense of accomplishment I feel when I trust a vision and complete a project I took on solo. No better feeling!

This time, I wanted to take on a personal challenge. For years, I’d told everyone around me I didn’t have a green thumb. That I couldn’t even take care of an orchid without it dying (yes, orchids are supposed to die and come back to life. I didn’t know that, at the time. Whoops.) Never in a million years did I ever think I’d be the gardening type. So, naturally, that was the project I chose this year. I was going to start an organic vegetable garden from scratch, compost and all.

When I really thought about it, it made so much sense to get into gardening. I only buy organic food and, as I get older, am always trying to find ways to live a more sustainable, eco-friendly life. I’m all about getting my hands dirty, too (I live for “Pick Your Own” farms!), so really, the only thing I had to get over was my fear of failure. I didn’t think I could do it. I didn’t think that I had it in me to grow my own vegetables and was convinced that I would inevitably fail. For years, I told myself that.

This project wasn’t just a fun one. Liam became a little gardener in the process, too, learning to love and respect plants because “they need to grow”. He melts my heart when he gets excited over a ripe cherry tomato and thanks the plant for its gift. I discovered how therapeutic it is to take care of plants, and learned so much in the process–from pollenating to harvesting–realizing that gardening really is a labor of love. It takes patience, hard work, but also trust. Nature works in wonderful ways, and I’ve learned to trust its cycles. I realized that I can do whatever I decide to do, something I’ve always told myself but never really put into practice. Thank you, gardening.

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Now, if you’re a beginner like me, you’re probably wondering where in the world to start. And I’d say it all starts with a plan. What does your family eat? How much sun do you get in your backyard? How much space do you have? I did a ton of research on gardening sites, Pinterest, and watched many Youtube tutorials before I even got to work. Keep in mind that certain vegetables require a lot of room for roots (tomatoes, zucchini), whereas others, like lettuces and herbs, can thrive in tight quarters. Lettuces do not require much sun, whereas tomatoes and zucchini need as much sunlight as possible. Also, there are “companion” plants, meaning that some vegetables can be grown side by side, whereas others cannot (some herbs/plants also complement other herbs/plants by preventing pests from eating them.) I know. Lots to think about. And the learning never ends… That’s the fun/beauty of gardening. A lot of it is theory, and you just have to try it for yourself. You learn as you go.

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The wonderful thing about growing your own plants, in my opinion, is that it can be a family affair. Everyone can pitch in. Kids love getting their hands dirty and helping out, so it’s really all about giving them little tasks to do while you get busy as well. Liam planted his own tomato seeds (that are now three tall, thriving tomato plants!) and dug up the holes for the cherry tomato plants we transferred (I even got him his own gloves, and miniature rake & shovel – too cute!) He also helps me prune the tomato and zucchini leaves when they get a little too crazy.

Liam loves searching for ripe, red tomatoes and gets so excited when he spots one. I have him smell the tomatoes and tell me what they smell like, have him taste them and tell me what they taste like, etc. He’s only three, but can already tell the difference between homegrown and store bought! I lead by example and love that Liam is interested and curious about the whole process.

It’s really all about explaining where our family’s food comes from and that we must be thankful for what the earth provides us with. I think that’s the first step in raising responsible kids who respect and care for the planet!


Once I picked the plants I wanted to grow (tomatoes, zucchini, romaine lettuce, and a variety of herbs), I chose a spot for each plant based on optimal conditions and where  they would do best. Then, the search for high quality garden beds and planters began.

My picks were:

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Screen Shot 2018-07-29 at 2.22.36 PM.pngI was so impressed with Gro Gardens during my initial search for planters. I got both our raised garden bed (in which I currently grow cherry tomatoes, roma tomatoes, and zucchini), and raised planter (in which I grow parsley and lettuces) from them. Not only are their planters/beds handcrafted in the USA from 100% California Redwood, they are also the easiest to assemble. No tools, stackable, and expandable. All of their products are natural rot and insect resistant, chemical free, all natural, and organic. Quality at its finest! Added bonus: they partner with the Redwood Forest Foundation to plant a redwood tree for every garden kit they sell!

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De Meyer Wood Crafts is the real deal. I love this planter for deeper roots (carrots, for example, which I will be growing this fall) and the fact that it saves me so much space in my backyard. They use 100% untreated Northern White Cedar (it smells so good!) and never particle, ply, or pallet wood. Because they do not use treated wood or glues, you can be confident you are growing truly organic vegetables.

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I really like this aged cedar planter by Stone Won Designs. If you are into aged cedar, it can take a really long time for your wood to get that grey “look”. This particular piece is made from reclaimed cedar wood from a local property near Josh’s house in McKinney, Texas.

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I love the look of this pallet and steel planter by After School Wood Works, and it works so nicely for shallow roots like basil or parsley. My basil has been thriving in it!

Screen Shot 2018-07-26 at 10.12.48 PMScreen Shot 2018-07-29 at 2.40.03 PMNow let’s talk compost, guys. I wasn’t feeling the whole worm thing (where do you even start with worm composting?), so I was thrilled to find this tumbling option on Amazon. These are so easy to put together and literally just need a spin every now and then. I recommend researching how to compost before throwing everything in there. It’s not rocket science, but you do want to make sure you have a variety of dry/green waste in there and know when it’s ready to use.

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I wasn’t sure how I would gather my compost waste daily, and if I would have to literally bring it out to the backyard every day. This little compost bin by Zero Waste is perfect for our kitchen, and can be secured to a cabinet as well. Once it is full, I bring it out to the tumbling composter, but it allows me to go a few days without doing so.

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I use these 100% compostable Primodebags in my compost bin – they are large, sturdy, and super easy to use.

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Here are some photos of our little organic garden – it’s still a work-in-progress, but I am super proud of how far I’ve come! I thought I’d lost my cherry tomato plants after I transferred them into the raised bed, but they came back even stronger. The zucchini plants require tons of sunlight, and only get about six hours in my partially shaded backyard – regardless, they’ve been producing amazingly well, and I’m glad I gave it a shot despite what I’d read online! Like I said, a lot of it is theory and you just have to try everything at least once when it comes to gardening – so many factors come into play. Good luck!

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Johanna Riehm teaches in the department of Communication and Media at Manhattanville College and in the department of English at Mercy College. She teaches courses in the history of communication, public speaking, and social media, as well as creative and technical writing workshops. Johanna’s work has been featured in Graffiti Literary Magazine, The Write Place at the Write Time, The Bangalore Review, Cactus Heart Press, and the LaMothe Review. She is working on her first longer work, a creative nonfiction novel called We Carved Our Names in Tamarind Trees.

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