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So you're ready to plant

Gardening at your CACFP site, pt. 2

May 11, 2022

planting 4 × 3 in)

This is part two of a multi-part series on gardening in the CACFP. Community gardens, childcare gardens, school gardens and farm to table are increasingly popular in our community. And for good reason! When children garden, they’re known to eat more fruits and vegetables, have a better understanding of nutrition, improve science achievement, improve social skills, and improve their attitude on the environment. This segment is all about planting. In the previous segment we explored questions to ask before you begin, and in future installations we’ll talk about, maintenance, harvesting and keeping children engaged. Stay tuned! 

Before you plant 

Planting isn’t step one, though most of us wish it was! Planting is fun, and it can feel a lot more like what we think gardening is supposed to be than testing soil or assembling raised beds. However, there are so many questions to ask and answer before planting. We covered them in our first post in this series if you need to catch up before continuing. At this point, you should know if your garden is inside or outside, in the ground, in raised beds or in containers. You should know what kind of crops you’re planting, and who is doing the work.  

Seeds or transplants 

Most garden crops will be annual, meaning they complete their entire lifecycle in a year and must be replanted every year. Some fruits and berries are perennial, meaning that the plant lives on for several seasons, producing year after year. In either case, you can start with seeds or transplants.  

Seeds are less expensive and give CACFP providers the opportunity to begin garden programming much earlier in the year. Each seed packet will indicate if the plant performs better when started in small cells inside or directly sown in the garden outside, and when to begin. Since seed packets are more affordable, providers can experiment with different types of produce or subvarieties. Even better, starting with seeds also gives children the opportunity to learn more about the lifecycle of the plant.   

Transplants are young, healthy plants that you can purchase at a garden center or farmers market, and immediately plant them out in your garden. Planting your garden with transplants is a good option when time is short or when you don’t have the available staff, time or interest to begin with seeds. Beginning with transplants is also a viable option for a first-time gardener who doesn’t feel confident starting from seeds. Each transplant can cost as much as a single packet of 50 to 100 seeds, so take care to plan accordingly.  

Beginning with seeds 

The wonderful thing about seed packets is that the back of the packet offers all the information you need to make growing a success. Each seed packet should include a photo and description, instructions to plant, specifications for depth, spacing and size, and a map of what zones the plant will thrive in.  The instructions to plant will indicate whether it’s necessary to start seeds indoors and later transplant outside or if the seeds cans imply be directly sown in the garden.  Some seed packets will indicate that the seeds must be started inside a certain number of weeks before the last frost. Starting seeds inside will require some equipment: 

  • Seed starting mix (not to be confused with potting soil or compost) 
  • Lights 
  • Containers, such as egg cartons, non-Styrofoam take out containers, juice and milk cartons, etc. One fun way to keep children engaged with the early stages of the gardening project is to enlist their help finding seed-starting containers.  
  • Plastic wrap and rubber bands 


1. Sowing 

When it’s time to start the seeds (usually between 6 and 12 weeks before last frost date, according to seed packet instructions), you’ll begin by moistening your seed-starting mix. Loosely fill the containers with the mix and then tap them gently against a hard surface to be sure there are no large air pockets. Generously sprinkle the seeds over the moist potting mix and cover them with more potting mix according to seed packet instructions. If there are no instructions about how much cover the seeds need, a good rule of thumb is to only cover them to a depth of two times the width of the seed. Drape plastic wrap over the top of the containers and seal the edges with rubber bands. Place sealed the seed containers directly under any broad-spectrum LED light.  

2. Thinning & transplanting 

When most of the seeds have germinated, remove the rubber band and plastic wrap. Once they’re not sealed anymore, you must be careful that the seed starting medium doesn’t dry out. As they grow, they’ll likely look crowded. This is fine until they’ve developed their first set of true leaves. Once plants have their first set of true leaves, thin them (this means plucking them out) until there’s no more than one every one to two inches. At the same time, you can transplant your seedlings to deeper containers that have drainage and more space to grow and expand their roots.  

3. Hardening off 

Hardening off refers to the process of getting your seedling babies ready to transition to the great outdoors. Harden off your plants when they have several sets of leaves or when your last frost date is upon you. Up until now, they’ve been carefully nurtured in your climate-controlled building, but there must come a time for them to step out and face the sun. Begin by moving the plants into a protected outdoor area, out of direct wind or sunlight or fluctuating temperatures, for several days. If the temperature in your area is drastically colder at night, you will need to bring the plants in at night for the first few days of this. After the first few days, adjust their positioning so that they have more exposure to sun and wind, but still no direct afternoon sun. Continue this process until the plants are fully acclimated to the space in the garden you intend to plant them.  

4. Planting  

Once the plants are hardened off, it will be time to plant them out in the garden. This can be quite a shock for their roots, which have likely grown comfortable in their smaller containers. The best time of day to transplant is earlier in the morning or when it’s cloudy outside. Dig a hole that’s twice as large as the root ball of the plant before gently placing it inside and loosely filling in soil around it. Water generously. If it’s particularly sunny or hot the day you transplant them, you may contrive to set up shade over that area for a few hours to mitigate their shock.  


Beginning with transplants 

Starting out right with transplants means starting out with great plants. Big box hardware stores and garden centers will have many fruit and vegetable plugs to choose from, but so do farmers markets. Check plants for signs of poor hydration—are the leaves curling and shriveled? Check under the leaves for signs of pests, including eggs. Lastly, investigate the growing practices of the company to be sure you don’t have any concerns about unsafe sprays or chemicals that may have been used on the plants. 

Once you’ve selected your plants, be sure to carefully read the accompanying planting instructions and plant accordingly. Transplants should already be hardened off and ready to go outside, but still be mindful of shock when they go into the garden.  


There are several opportunities to engage children in this phase of your CACFP garden: they can help gather seed starting containers, they can moisten the seed starting mix, they can document when the seeds sprout and when they develop leaves. This is a fun time to talk about plant life cycles and incorporate science lessons while waiting for more heavy-duty gardening action to begin. That’s all for now! Next up we’ll talk about every day gardening and maintenance. For an in-depth gardening guide, take a look at this resource from Team Nutrition