By Stephen Muff
From the Hanging Gardens of Babylon to the Beer Gardens of Deutschland, humans have been trying to perfect cultivation since the beginning of time. Yet, many of us parents have lost our green thumbs during the process of preparing snacks, doing laundry, reading books, and the like. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just get out in the sun and grow some delicious fruits and vegetables for the little people in our lives? I’m here to tell you that you can and you should, but do yourself and everyone else a favor: involve your kids.
Kids make great gardeners! While it’s true that they’ll pick unripe tomatoes, think carrots are weeds, and find mud to be the most fascinating part of the process, they can become your greatest allies. One of the best ways to engage them with gardening is to meet them at their level. Meaning, find something that they can relate to, and give them ownership over it.
To do this, block off a small section of the garden and make it the pizza garden (or other end-product that your kid loves). You can grow tomatoes, herbs, bell peppers, onions–whatever you and your kids like on your pizzas! It will immediately pique your kid’s interest since it’s no longer a chore. It’s dinner.
Make sure you have partitioned enough space, but not too much. Remember that this will be their section to maintain. Making it too big will turn them off, but making it too small will not be enough space for things to grow well. It might be easier to keep some items, like herbs, in pots. However, putting it all in one location will help your child stay focused.
For the tomatoes, keep in mind that the Sacramento area and the Foothills have climate that closely resembles the Mediterranean, so you’re in luck. SteakHouse tomatoes grow well in this area and can average more than three pounds per tomato! This is great for making lots of sauce.
Get some pots and fill them with basil, oregano, thyme, garlic–you name it! It all grows well here. Make the sauce to your liking, and don’t worry about the quantity. You can always use your leftovers for some delicious spaghetti. Ah, but that’s for another day.
If you’re not into 4-H, you can still get some local grass-fed, organic, free-range, sausage from a local farm. Sacramento is the America’s farm-to-fork capital, by the way. Or, if you prefer, there is plenty of pepperoni and sausage at any major grocery store. Don’t lose sight of all the that we have available in the area. It can be life-changing. Bishop’s Pumpkin Farm in Wheatland becomes The Hamburger Farm from April 25th to May 18th. This teaches kids about grinding flour into wheat (required for pizza crust of course), and milking cows to make cheese (which holds your toppings in place, and tastes delicious).
From the Garden to the Oven
- Pizza dough really isn’t hard to make and is easy to involve your kids. Yes, it makes a mess, but that’s part of the fun. It only requires a few ingredients. Get a package of active dry yeast and mix it with a a cup of warm water. After a few minutes, add in a couple tablespoons of olive oil, a teaspoon of sugar, and a teaspoon of salt, and a cup and a quarter of cold water. Mix it up with around five cups of flour, give or take, until you reach the right consistency. Stir that, preferably with a mixer. When it looks like dough, let it rest for a few minutes, and then mix until it’s smooth.
- For the sauce, pick a bunch of your ripe tomatoes, add a little bit of water and sugar, some herbs, and olive oil, and blend into a puree. Put it in a pot and bring to a boil, and then reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until it thickens. It might take an hour or two. Stir occasionally to make sure it isn’t burning or sticking to the sides.
- Now, you have your dough, your sauce, and whatever toppings you have grown and/or purchased. Roll out your dough on a big counter space. Some prefer to do this over sprinkled flour and some prefer corn meal. They both help. Roll it out, but don’t mess with it too much . If you’re feeling daring, go ahead and twirl it around. It’s cathartic and your kids will laugh.
- Once you have it the size and shape you want, heat your oven to 450 degrees, spread some of your sauce over it, sprinkle some cheese, and add your toppings. If you don’t have a pizza stone, you can use a baking sheet (some prefer to place parchment paper down so it doesn’t stick).
At the end of the day, you and your kids will have some of the best pizza you have ever had, not because it was made in a wood stove overlooking the rolling hills of Tuscany, but because you made it. You all planted the seeds, tended the garden, harvested the goods, and assembled and baked your pizza. Oh yeah, and your kids will learn to love gardening in the process!
If you want to add a special flare to your garden and involve everyone in the family, consider a pizza garden. Do your homework and figure out what you can grow with the space you have, and go for it. Careful, because this might start a lifelong love for gardening in your family at all levels, but every minute of it is worth it.
And don’t worry if it the end result doesn’t turn out exactly the way you planned. You can always order a pizza. If you and your kids don’t finish all of your food, it’s the perfect time to teach them about composting. Now that they have gardening experience, they will have a greater appreciation. This can lead to all sorts of discussions about taking care of the world we live in, from recycling to clean-ups, like the American River Parkway Foundation’s Spring Clean Up on April 7th-9th, which is a great family-friendly event.
The Sacramento area is a beautiful place, and a pizza garden is a fantastic way to build appreciation at a young age.
Stephen Muff is a travel writer and a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors. He lives in Auburn with his wife and two daughters.