Tonight I’m off to talk to families at my local childcare centre about what we do in the garden there – and why. When I started helping families to plan and create their food gardens a couple of years ago, it was still a pretty new line of work and many (including me) wondered whether it was viable. I am learning that many, many families just like mine are now seeing it as vital to their future and their children’s future.
My top 10 reasons for getting kids out amongst dirt, bugs and plants.
1. It’s a great way to learn. Children are switched on, enthusiastic, observant and creative in the garden. Those who don’t learn as readily in formal settings often take off in leaps and bounds when their senses are engaged in the garden. Playing in natural settings stimulates their physical development in areas like balance, their cognitive development, their ability to concentrate and problem-solve and many, many other skills that are stunted if they are cooped up in artificial environments all the time.
2. It’s good for their health. Being in nature – and especially having contact with soil – stimulates children’s immune systems. Home-grown organic vegetables have far higher levels of antioxidants and minerals than shop-bought produce…they are nutrient-packed because of the way they are grown, with natural inputs instead of chemicals, and because of their freshness. So put super-food together with super immune boosting and you should get super healthy kids.
3. It’s fun. Children enjoy it so much that it often rubs off on their parents.
4. It saves money. It’s cheaper fun than electronic games and gadgets, plastic toys that wear out, or going to the movies. And then when you actually start harvesting your own herbs, fruit and vegies, you don’t have to go out and buy them any more! Bonus!!
5. It’s good for the planet. Let me list just a few of the ways that organic food gardening benefits the Earth:
- recycling food scraps and paper waste into compost that feeds soil and plants, instead of sending it to landfill where it creates methane, a potent greenhouse gas
- reducing dependence on food that is trucked, flown and shipped thousands of km, losing freshness and pumping out carbon dioxide emissions all the way
- eliminating the use of chemical fertilisers which are made from fossil fuels;
- avoiding chemical pesticides and herbicides which poison soil, kill beneficial insects and fungi, and reduce soil fertility
- building the soil’s ability to absorb and retain water, which is becoming ever more precious
- For these and many other reasons, growing our own food is far more environmentally responsible than getting it from a shop.
6. It builds environmental awareness. We can be pretty sure now that as a planet we are on track for some of the more severe impacts of climate change. Effects are already being felt in low-lying countries like the Solomons where villages now get inundated due to sea level rise; we are experiencing more and more extreme heatwaves and bushfires in Australia and America; more extreme storms in northern Australia and reductions and changing patterns of rainfall in southern Australia; warmer winter nights where many of our fruit crops fail to set fruit…These are just a few examples. So, as a society, and as families, we need to be adapting now for an unpredictable and resource-constrained future – and our children will need to be ready to adapt very rapidly to social and environmental changes throughout their lives. This is the new normal.
Within the past 40 years – in my lifetime – half of the animal population of our planet has already been lost. Mammals, fish, reptiles etc – half of all vertebrate life. This ought to be a wake-up call to all of us that the natural environment that is our life-support system needs all of us to take urgent action now, by reducing our footprint in every way possible… our water use, our transport emissions, choosing where our food comes from, and our consumption of everything that’s made from non-renewable resources. Our children need this awareness now.
7. It builds resilience – for individuals and communities. When we know we can meet our own basic survival needs, we have a kind of self-confidence that runs really deep and supports us in having a go at anything else we need to learn. When we have an abundance of healthy produce we can also share and exchange with our families, friends, neighbours and local groups. In this way we can take care of each other and strengthen our communities to manage in tough times as well as celebrating great times.
8. It creates a better place to live. In 6 years our small front yard has been transformed from an unused lawn to a lush food forest that includes a native garden with a pond, an elevated cubby house, fragrant herbs and flowers, stylish curved raised garden beds, and the beautiful dappled summer shade of fruit trees and vines ranging from cool climate varieties like apples, pears and cherries through to subtropical mango, lime and passionfruit. There’s nowhere I’d rather be, and nowhere I’d rather raise a child.
9. It tastes good! Need I say more?
10. It’s contagious. Children’s centres are full of snotty noses. Like most families, as soon as our son was in care, our whole family would get sick more often than ever before because he’d bring home every bug that was going around. Well, if your kids are going to bring home something green and contagious, let’s just hope that it’s a lifelong love of edible gardening.
What do we DO in the Learning Garden?
I’d like to share with you some of the little things that have happened in the Learning Garden that you might like to try some time in your own garden. And what permaculture design does is to put these “little things” together in a way that works, where each part of the design supports the rest, and where ultimately we create a food-producing ecosystem that mimics a natural ecosystem, that requires less and less input from us, and gives us more and more back.
We have had a lot of fun creating:
- A no-dig garden bed – this uses lightweight materials and you can make it on lawn, bare dirt, awful hard soil, even concrete. We’ve grown potatoes, pumpkins, melons and broad beans in it
- A potato tower – this is a more space-efficient way of growing potatoes, so contained that you could do it on a balcony.
- Succulent sculpture – children’s living artwork made from scraps of plants and salvaged wood.
- New plants from old – for example we’ve sold strawberry plants that were runners from plants that the children grew in the garden. We’ve also saved vegetable seed, had many seed-planting sessions, grown herbs and flowers from cuttings…
- We’re making an orchard and we’ve harvested the first fruit. Trees and fruit plants here include apple, plum, peacharine, peach or nectarine, apricot, mandarin, orange, lemon, fig, passionfruit, strawberries galore, and this week we added feijoa and loquat…
- We have grown vegetables including tomatoes, potatoes, pumpkins, peas, snowpeas, beans, cucumbers, lots of lettuces and silverbeet, sweetcorn, and a whole lot of herbs…mint, Vietnamese mint, rosemary, forests of parsley, thyme, coriander and more.
- We make compost, we keep worms to make fertiliser…(well we did, but they need more TLC!)
- The children go exploring for earthworms, ladybirds, honeybees, aphids, millipedes, snails, slugs, slaters and anything else creepy crawly they can find, and in the process they learn that the Earth is a living planet and that the growing conditions for our food plants require us to keep all other species thriving too!
- We are making better and better soil, with mulch, compost, manure and managing where the many feet go in the garden!
- It’s not always tidy – in fact it’s rarely tidy, like most spaces where children play and learn – because we often let vegetable plants flower to attract beneficial insects, and go to seed so that we can replant the seeds.
- Children are sometimes thought of as having a short attention span, but they certainly remember what they have learnt in the garden over many months and they investigate it like little scientists to build on their knowledge with each visit.
- And I enjoy watching the children discover, talking with staff and parents, answering their garden questions, sharing the produce around…
Here’s what I’d like to see happen in the garden in the coming year:
- Parents, grandparents or friends come on board as volunteers – even for 10 or 15 minutes!
- Children spend more time in the learning garden and have access to it every day
- A roster for feeding and watering the worm farm!
- Staff have the opportunity for garden workshops, where they can bring their gardening questions, enthusiasm and love of learning – and then the children catch it from them
- Families visit the garden and take home produce – pick a bunch of herbs for dinner, try a yellow passionfruit, grab a couple of thistles for your chooks, pick a salad – and also bring in favourite plants from home – cuttings, seeds, seedlings, so that the garden reflects children’s cultures and home experiences.
- Children at the centre compile their own saved seed collection and garden resources in their rooms, and as a group, plan what they will grow in THEIR learning garden.
Now imagine for a minute the kind of world that these children, with more and more of these learning opportunities, would create – a world of low energy use, fresh healthy produce, respect for the natural world, co-operation within communities – and let’s start making this world with them now, because we don’t have time to wait till they grow up.