Michelle Obama just became the hero of parent-gardeners across America by spading up a corner of the White House South Lawn and planting lettuce, chard, and kale. She's not alone; seed companies across the nation say they're swamped with orders from first-time gardeners eager to grow their own. And why not? Homegrown veggies are cheaper, they're local, they can be organic, and they are less likely to have food-safety issues. The first lady also pointed out that making a family effort to raise vegetables emphasizes the importance of healthy eating at a time when childhood obesity is a national epidemic. Plus, homegrown veggies are way yummier. So it's time to join Sasha and Malia in the garden. (Michelle joked that she expects to have the whole family, including the president, out there pulling weeds. We'll see.)
U.S. News sought out expert advice on backyard vegetables that kids will love planting and eating. These are almost foolproof to grow, don't need pesticides, and many will grow happily in a pot on the patio. Here's the list for your own White House garden:
1. Sugar snap peas. Sweet, crunchy pods that beg to be eaten right off the vine; these also make a terrific lunchbox snack. Now's the time to plant in most parts of the country. Just let the vines flop on the ground, or plant along a fence so they can climb.
2. Lettuce, spinach, and other leafy greens. These are dead easy to plant and grow and can thrive in a patio pot, too. Michelle picked arugula, but kids might like some of the White House's other options better. Check out red and green lettuces, kale, cilantro, and dill. Sprinkle a new line of seeds every two weeks, and you'll have homegrown salad all season.
3. Radishes. They grow like superheroes, ready to eat in a month. Try an Easter-egg blend with pinks, whites and purples. Josh Kirschenbaum, product development director for Territorial Seed in Cottage Grove, Ore., says that if you plant radishes in the cool weather of spring and fall, they won't get fiercely spicy. The kids can give them to Mom for Mother's Day.
4. Carrots. Another quick-grower. The tiny seeds need to be sprinkled carefully, but soon you'll have real baby carrots, sweet enough for Peter Rabbit. The green tops attract swallowtail butterflies.
5. Potatoes. Cut in pieces, bury now, and you're eating new potatoes in June. "When you harvest, you just dig in the side of the little hill, and leave the mom plant there so she can grow more, bigger potatoes," says George Ball, chairman and CEO of W. Atlee Burpee & Co. in Warminster, Pa. You can buy seed potatoes, which haven't been treated with growth-retarding chemicals like some supermarket potatoes. But a potato sprouting in the kitchen cupboard should work just fine, too.
6. Green beans. It's fun to plant the big seeds, and beans are delicious raw or cooked. Bush beans are simplest, but pole beans, which grow up a teepee made of sticks, make a great secret hiding place come July. Scarlet runner beans have a stronger bean flavor that some kids don't like, but they attract hummingbirds.
7. Sungold cherry tomato. Buy a small plant at the local garden store, and you'll be picking supersweet orange orbs off these prolific vines until frost. If you've got the space, plant a red grape tomato, too.
8. Pumpkins. They take a bit more space, and you'll have to wait until fall to harvest, but the vines are enchanting. Grow your own jack-o-lanterns for Halloween, or pick one of the adorable minipumpkins like Jack Be Little.
9. Sunflowers. Taller than Dad, or elf-sized mini versions. If you've got a big yard, plant a bunch and make a maze. In the fall, dry and eat the seeds, or leave them in the garden for the birds.
10. Broccoli. You might be surprised to see what kids like when they've planted and harvested the crop themselves. Garden broccoli is sweet and tender. Buy plants at the local garden store to speed up harvest.
Where to plant? Pretty much any piece of ground will do, as long as it gets sunshine most of the day. "Rule No. 1: Don't have a children's garden," says Ball. "Have a family garden. Kids want to be with Mom and Dad."
Dig in a bag of compost or cow manure to enrich the soil. Organic is the way to go; kids and pesticides don't mix. In a home garden, "you can control most pests by just picking them off," says Lou Zambello, director of sales and marketing for Johnny's Selected Seeds in Winslow, Maine. "The kids can learn the difference between a beneficial insect like a ladybug and a Japanese beetle."
Gardening with kids can bring delicious surprises for parents, too. I will cherish the memory of seeing my daughter poke her 3-year-old nose into a broccoli plant in our garden, then munch away like a happy little cow. Last year, she spotted celery starts at the local garden store and asked to buy them. Celery has a reputation for being hard to grow, but I'm a sucker for a 5-year-old who digs plants. That celery flourished, giving us with an abundance of crunchy, dark-green stalks with a flavor that shamed the watery supermarket product. I bet this year's crop will be even better than the Obamas'.