Growing potatoes with kids can be a revelation.
I run a weekly School Gardening Club with a group of eight and nine-year olds. They’re a great group and enthusiastic about getting their hands dirty and doing lots of practical work. They’ve been growing lots of plants from seed, both flowers and vegetables, and are now proficient planters. Hand them a packet of seeds and they’ll set to with a production line of activity, potting, planting and watering.
But potatoes – they turned out to be more mysterious.
Earlier on in the school the children had a go at growing beans in plastic containers and they’ve had lots more experience with seeds through the gardening club. They know what sees look like, and they know the seeds first send out roots that go downwards in the soil and then shoots with leaves that grow up. Or do they?
They were really keen to try potatoes. All the produce from the school garden is shared out between the club members (and any extras gifted to the teaching staff) and the thought of home-grown chips, fries and mashed potato was popular. We’d chosen two varieties of potatoes to grow and when the seed potatoes were pulled out of the bag for the kids to plant there were puzzled looks. ‘But – that just looks like an ordinary potato!’, said one. Ahh, that’s because it is an ordinary potato and it’s not going to grow quite how you expect!
Growing potatoes with children
You can plant potatoes, depending on the variety and where in the world you are, between February and the end of May, for harvesting between May and October. Choose between small salad potatoes and big baking potatoes or try something a little different such as red Rooster or Purple Majesty.
We always chit our potatoes to get them started. This means sitting the seed potatoes in the daylight until the eyes begin to sprout leaves. This was the first surprise for the kids, who are used to every seed sending out roots first. And no other plant has been started by sitting them in an egg box on the window sill.
Then the potatoes are placed in soil near the bottom of a deep container. You can of course plant them straight out in the soil in your yard but we like to grow ours in containers – a big bucket or trash can is ideal – which makes them easier to earth up. And that’s the next thing that the kids didn’t expect, because once the potatoes start growing you need to bury all the leaves in lots more soil, completely covering the plant and encouraging it to grow up and up and up some more. Growing in a container also makes it easier to gather all the potatoes which will grow off the plants tall shoots as you can just tip over the bucket when you’re ready to harvest and pick out your crop.
Watching science in action
To help the children better understand what’s going on with the potato plants, why not use one of the seed potatoes for a science observation experiment? Take a tall plastic bottle and make some drainage holes in the bottom. Use this as your potato planter, placing your potato at the bottom and filling the bottle with more soil as the potato grows. Using this clear plastic container gives you a window under the ground, so your children can observe close-up how the potato grows a new crop. Just be aware that the potatoes in this container are for the science experiment only – being exposed to the daylight can cause green patches to appear on the potatoes making them inedible.
The lesson I took from growing these potatoes with the kids was that you really can’t beat hands-on ways to learn. It was a reminder that things we take for granted can be amazing for others and adapting an activity to make it more child-friendly can open up lots of interesting investigations and discovery.
What about you: what are you growing with your kids this year?
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