Planting a backyard garden is a joy for children and moms alike, and spring is the time to get started.

Growing your own vegetables can be a family activity, providing an opportunity to bond with your children and teach them about nature. With a successful garden, children can plant the seeds, nurse the seedlings, and watch a tomato go from green to red right on the vine.

Children want to see – and eat – the end results of their hard work. That’s why it’s important to make sure you take steps to keep your plants free of disease.

Plants Can Get Sick, Too

Lots of children love gardening, from digging the hole to watering the newly planted seedlings. If your kids are old enough, consider explaining to them that there are things we can’t see called pathogens, which are germs that can kill a healthy plant. Pathogens can be transferred from the contaminated pots and garden tools to the plants.

How to Avoid Plant Disease

If you reuse plastic or clay containers, as many people do to start seeds indoors, you could unknowingly contaminate your plants. Spores and bacteria — which cause mold, fungus and root rot — can lurk unseen in the containers.

To avoid these pitfalls, sanitize pots for reuse. Here are some tips from the Philadelphia County Master Gardeners website:

  • Soak pots in warm, soapy water and scrub off dirt, debris or salt & mineral deposits.
  • Use steel wool for the toughest stains and rinse until water runs clear.
  • Make a bleach solution of 1 part regular strength bleach to 9 parts water. If you’re using concentrated bleach, mix 1 cup concentrated bleach with 14 cups water.
  • Let pots and containers soak submerged in the bleach solution for 10-15 minutes.
  • Rinse with warm water.
  • Scrub lightly with soapy water, using unscented dish soap and rinse well. You might have to repeat this step or discard pots if stains or residue remain.
  • Let containers dry for 24 hours before using. Put them in the sun because sunlight can help kill off certain bacteria.

Sanitize Tools, Too

Sanitize garden tools using bleach as described above, while keeping in mind that prolonged contact of the metal parts with bleach can corrode metal.

To avoid rust, make sure to thoroughly rinse all bleach from tools after they soak. Dry tools thoroughly and apply oil to metal parts, especially in areas around hinges or where water collects.

Ready, Set, Plant

Your kids may ask “Can we plant now?” after all the necessary preparations are done. Most children are thrilled to finally dig a hole, gently loosen roots from container plants and pack down the soil after placing the plant in the garden.

Here are more tips for healthy gardening from Cornell University:

Start with healthy: Begin with seeds from a reputable seed company or seedlings that look healthy and strong.

Keep leaves dry: Water plants in the morning so leaves dry quickly. Use drip irrigation to avoid wetting leaves and splashing pathogens from soil to plants.

Remove diseased material: Get rid of diseased plant material as soon as possible. Work when the garden is dry because moisture on plants aids the spread of disease. Don’t allow diseased material to stay in the garden over the winter, as it could affect new plants.

Rotate crops: Rotate plants of the same crop family to other areas of the garden from one season to the next. For example, the tomato family includes tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant and peppers.

If you follow these guidelines, you’ll have a better chance of your hard work paying off – with healthy food for your family to harvest and enjoy together.