Never mind the snow: spring is coming! It might seem early to be making plans to garden with the kids, but the truth is, it’s almost time to start seeds indoors! (A cool, educational thing to do with kids in the final days of winter.) Lots of families learned the joy of urban gardening when it swept NYC last year, and rest assured: anyone can grow and nurture plants with some research and the right advice. We spoke to local experts about how you can garden with kids in NYC whether you have a windowsill or a wide open field. Read on to get growing!
The Basics: What You Need to Get Started
You know this from grammar school—heck, your kids know this from grammar school—but just to review, these are the key ingredients for happy, healthy plants.
Emily Carter, Brooklyn Botanic Garden's Children’s Garden Assistant Coordinator, stresses that getting these basic plant needs right will lead to a good experience for both your family and the plants: "Remember that sun, water, and nutrients (healthy soil) are the fundamentals of happy plants, so focus on how you can provide those basics."
Location, location, location
First, some good news: You can grow many things indoors, as long as you pick your plants carefully. If you're gardening for the first time, that's the first thing you'll need to consider — your available space.
Where will you put your plants? You can grow plants indoors, grow them in-ground or in pots outdoors, use a window box, or some combination of these. The space you have for your little garden will determine what kinds of plants you get, so give it some thought before you go seed shopping!
Another important factor to consider is the sunlight available in your space.
Does your place get a lot of natural light throughout the day, or are you working with a square foot of direct sunlight for an hour in the morning? (That's the experience of this writer, and we still managed to get some plants to grow, so don't be disheartened!) Even if you have outdoor space, think about how often it's in shadow. Depending on the amount of sunlight you have at your disposal, you can consider supplementing the natural sunlight with some grow lights, but it's often easier to choose to grow plants that suitable to the conditions you have.
Not all soil is made equal! The NYC Parks Department describes the best potting soils as containing "peat, sphagnum moss, perlite, and vermiculite." Stay away from the dollar store stuff and invest in a quality soil that contains those components listed as primary ingredients. It really makes all the difference!
Once you get your plants situated, you'll need to water them, of course. You don't need any special sources or water here: Tap water — and NYC tap water in particular — should be perfectly safe for your plants, though it's recommended that you leave the water sitting until it's room temperature to reduce the chances of shock from the temperature shift in the soil.
You might think that the more water, the better but the truth is actually closer to the opposite: Many first time plant owners tend to overwater their plants, causing them to die! Juliette Vassilkioti, founder of NYC-based indoor plant experts My City Plants, recommends that you make sure top of soil is completely dry before watering your plant. (You can stick a finger into the top inch of soil to make sure it's dry — a task the kids are sure to love taking part in!)
”Easy-to-grow Starter Plants”
Are you getting plants because you think they’re beautiful or delicious? Do you want your kids to actively participate or do you plan to turn the experience into a full teaching moment? Your reasons for starting a garden (indoor or out) will guide your plant- and seed-purchasing decisions.
Set yourself up for success by picking plants that are more forgiving of beginners.Here are some of the best starter plants for first-time gardeners and budding young botanists.”
Vegetables & Herbs
Both Carter from the BBG and the gardeners at Wave Hill recommend leafy greens and culinary herbs for growing plants with kids. Plants like lettuce, arugula, mesclun, mustard greens, basil, thyme, mint, and oregano are not only easy to grow, but they also "put on growth that kids can harvest at any stage and don't have to wait for a whole season," point out Wave Hill experts.
Carter notes that "These plants have edible leaves, which means they require less solar energy and time to be edible. Plants like tomatoes require much more solar energy and time to grow leaves, flowers, fruits, etc. Therefore, they are not the best match for small indoor spaces." (In general, vegetables and fruits need a lot of direct sunlight.)
If you do have an outdoor space that gets six to eight hours of sun available, Wave Hill and the BBG name eggplant, pepper, and tomato as good plants to start indoors. Move them outside when the weather warms, whether your plan is to replant them in the ground or into larger pots. You can either start these from seed (more on that below) or buy "starter", or smaller plants at your local garden center. If you do plan on potting your plants in containers, know that some varieties have been developed specifically for growing in containers, which means you'll likely have more success with them.
If you have the luxury of a patch of sunny soil, Carter recommends radishes and carrots. "If you can grow in-ground, many radish varieties have a quick harvest turnaround and carrots come in lots of exciting colors."
Beans and other legumes are a good choice for beginning botany. Per Wave Hill, "[They are] a fun crop because they offer an introduction to seed biology and plant structure. The large seeds produce cotyledons and roots that help kids visualize how seeds can transform into full-grown plants."
You can also settle somewhere in between by planting the BBG's recommended choices for large outdoor pots, whether that's in your garden or in a window box: Herbs like rosemary, lavender, lemon balm, cilantro, and dill. (Hot tip: cilantro often "bolts" or produces seeds, especially as the weather warms; one way to maintain a supply is to periodically seed throughout the season.)
If you're looking to brighten up your space and attract wildlife and insects, flowers are a great choice. BBG's Carter recommends marigolds (shown above)— their seeds germinate easily indoors and they can be moved into larger outdoor pots later in the spring. Nasturtium are also a good choice— you'll need to soak their seeds overnight then start them indoors or plant them directly outside in May. (Once they flower, you can add their vibrant flowers to your salads!) "And don’t forget your giant sunflowers," adds Carter. These are definitely outdoor plants, as they can grow up to 16 feet tall depending on the variety! (Smaller varieties are available as well.)
Planting flowers native to this area is also a good bet, as they are more likely to thrive in conditions here. For outdoor containers like window boxes, balcony pots, or gardens, NYC Parks suggests planting native perennials, which return every year, such as milkweed... bee balm, and native grasses which are great for bees, butterflies, and moths."
A mix of flowers and herbs can also be used to create a sensory garden with plants that stimulate the senses with "Strong smells (basil, mint), unique textures (nasturtium, snap dragons), beautiful colors that attract pollinators (zinnias, marigolds, and other flowers)."
When to Plant Seeds
When to plant inside
For plants you plan to move outdoors, start them from seeds about six weeks before the last frost, which typically occurs in NYC in April. So if you plan to move your plants outdoors in early May (past May 7 is officially listed as a "safe" time to plant without fear of frost), you'll need to start your seeds around late March.
Wave Hill's gardeners add that "many warm-season vegetables such as tomatoes and eggplant benefit from transplanting seedlings. But most vegetables and flowers that are recommended to be started indoors can also be direct-sown, you just have to be a little more patient. The most important factor in timing seed starting is your area’s last, frost-free date and the specific needs of each plant."
Some seeds may need extra help
Know what your plant needs to do its thing. For example, some plants like basil, tomato, and pepper can only germinate when the soil is warm (between 65- and 85-degrees Fahrenheit), so if you're planting inside to get things started, consider buying a heat mat or placing the seed tray above your heater.
When to plant outside
If you're planting your seeds directly in the ground outdoors, they'll require a bit more care. In addition to choosing your planting time based on the need of each plant, you'll also need to consider compost, mulch, and pest control.
Mid-April to mid-May is a good time to start planting outdoors, since you're likely to be safe from frost by then. According to NYC Parks, April and May are also when you'd typically plant flowering plants like dahlias, sunflowers, and cosmos.
But at the end of the day, each plant has its own needs and requirements. "Remember," says Carter, "The back of seed packets and a quick internet search of the plants you hope to grow will let you know exactly what each plant needs, to better guide your decisions."
Additional food for thought
Whether you're sowing outside or starting your seeds indoors, Carter also has some more intuitive advice if you want your little garden to yield vegetables and other edible goodies: "If you are hoping to grow outside, a good way to gauge timing is to think about what is 'in-season' in your grocery store throughout the year. Radish peas, beets, and arugula are the freshest in the spring, which means that starting your seeds in late winter will allow you to have a harvest several months later. Tomato, pepper, zucchini, beans, and eggplant is fresh and abundant at the farmers market in the summer. They like to grow in warm temperatures, which tells you that starting those seeds may be best in early to mid-spring so that they can grow big in the summer heat."
"Again," says Carter, "refer to your seed packets when you are thinking about timing for your plants! Agricultural extension webpages can give more specific seed starting times for the region that you live in, but it’s also exciting to think intuitively and follow the weather patterns of your area."
Where to Get Seeds
The easiest places to get seeds and starter plants are plant nurseries, hardware stores, and garden centers. There are also many, many seed resources online (packages from one of our favorites Hudson Valley Seed Company shown here), but it can be fun to go to a store and pick out the seed packets with the kids. Know that the hard-core gardeners are already snapping up packets online and some seeds are selling out.
You can support NYC businesses by shopping local — we have a list of some great places to check out in our roundup of stores that got gardeners through the early days of the pandemic last spring! (They delivered then, and they'll deliver now if you need them to.)
Beyond shopping around, there's one other excellent place where you can get some great plants to start with: Your kitchen. "Get creative!" says Carter. "You can use kitchen scraps to experiment with regrowing plants, try planting nuts and seeds you find outside, and reuse milk cartons or plastic drink containers to house your plants." Be sure to punch drainage holes at the base of recycled containers.
See What Works
In the end, it's important to remember that while science is a big part of gardening, it's not an exact science. Any seasoned gardener will tell you that trial and error is part of the process; it often takes seeing what doesn't work to find out what does. "The best lesson that we have learned in our gardening journeys is to 'give it a try!'," says Carter of the BBG. "Plants are very resilient and the best way to learn is to put a seed in soil and keep track of what happens. Some may die and others may thrive, but diving right into the experience is the best way to learn."
So go get dirty this spring—and have fun!