Garden of Eating

Credit: Terry Guscott

Michael Campbell grew up on the east side of Vancouver, surrounded by ethnically diverse food gardens. He trained as an archaeologist and just can’t keep his hands out of the dirt! With sponsorship from West Coast Seeds where he works, and in collaboration with Plant a Row, with whom he volunteers, Michael created this 3- by 3.7-metre (10- by 12-ft.) garden to see what could be grown in a relatively small space. “The garden produced enough to supplement a family’s food budget for a few months with extra for neighbours and Plant a Row, which collects fresh vegetables for those in need,” he explains. It features an assortment of veggies suitable for beginners, with a bright backdrop of sunflowers to add whimsy and attract birds. “This was an opportunity to plan a small, easily maintainable garden – something parents can plant with their children. Gardening is living science and kids love it, plus it teaches them how sweet and tasty vegetables can really be.”

It’s true. Even passionately vegetable-averse kids develop a love for vegetables they’ve grown and harvested themselves. Through direct experience they learn that “to everything, there is a season”; that you simply can’t plant beans in November. When kids harvest carrots they’ve planted, they are more likely to be interested in learning that carrots are named for the plant pigment carotene and that they contain vitamin A, which helps prevents blindness.

A child’s love of folklore and magic might lead to experimentation with lunar planting, or perhaps making a journal to record planting and harvest times, temperatures, rainy or sunny days. Kids love min/max thermometers, too…and haven’t you always wanted one?

There are as many possibilities with kids and gardening as there are plants to grow – endless. Rudolph Steiner, creator of the Waldorf School, considered gardening, including growing food, to be basic to a child’s education and crucial to the development of their “humanness.” Donating part of the season’s bounty to those less fortunate is social responsibility in action.

Gardening seems natural enough, but we must be taught to water low (on the soil, not the leaves) and long (no fairy sprinkle but a long slow drink for a thirsty plant), preferably in the morning and never at midday when droplets magnify sunlight – steamed lettuce, anyone? Watering at night is like putting on a pair of wet pyjamas and climbing into bed – you’d have mildew, too. Without sun, the plants stop pulling water up to the leaves. It’s wasteful too, as the water falls past the roots and into the water table.

Planting tiny carrot seed requires the patience of Job and should be done by a calm older child. A demonstration of correct spacing and planting depth is critical. Soil needs to be kept lightly moist until the seed germinates, which can take a few weeks.

Beets and chard have compound seed: provide a magnifying glass for kids to discover the tiny clump of three to six smaller seeds “glued” together. Presoak seed for one hour in very warm water, then plant about 2.5 cm (1 in.) apart; multiple seedlings will emerge in about a week. Not only do children enjoy freshly picked beets steamed with a bit of butter and a squeeze of lemon, beet juice can be used to dye fabric – fun and learning abounds.

Finickiness pays off when root vegetables like carrots and beets must be carefully thinned out in order to produce good-size roots. Children do well at this task when taught how: One hand holds seedlings in place, the other hand extracts the “unwanted” seedling. Toss thinnings into a salad or eat on the spot. Children become excited at harvest time. Teach them to be careful lest they pull the whole plant out by the roots accidentally. Kids appreciate using good-quality professional garden tools for this and other jobs, under supervision. Tiny flower snips are fine for harvesting beans and other delicate crops.

Cucumbers, squash, beans, tomatoes and others require regular picking to keep producing, so teach kids to look and see when veggies are ready. They will love keeping an eye out for a sneaky cucumber lurking under the leaves, growing fat and full of seeds! Don’t let them get that far before picking. Generally, most veggies are better when picked small.

Gardens need feeding. It’s fun to introduce youngsters to compost “tea” – a snap to make and mildly scatological, creating endless giggles and hilarious remarks. You can buy compost tea bags with pictures of cows on the box, or steep your own, placing compost into a “tea bag” such as an old nylon stocking or a plastic mesh bag and suspending it into a plastic garbage can or half barrel filled halfway with water. Let steep for a few days, stirring often. Use it to water plants every seven to 10 days, avoiding the leaves and never in direct sunlight.

After harvest in late summer/fall, consider trying your hand at a few veggies that will live through winter on the coast or with some protection in cooler spots. Kale is easy, nutritious, and can be direct-sown August through September. Grow colourful Swiss chard from transplants started in July. Asian veggies and leeks are a snap, too.

The West Coast Seeds catalogue is a reliable, thoroughly researched resource – so much so that the Master Gardener training course considers it the “bible” of vegetable growing. Requirements for each vegetable including planting times are clearly explained. Pick up a copy at most nurseries or request one: or 604-952-8820.

For information on donating veggies (or fruit), contact your local food bank or soup kitchen. In the Lower Mainland you can also call 604-526-4914 for Plant a Row Grow a Row or consider attending their annual party on March 31.

Sharon Hanna is a writer and garden educator. She directs the gardening program at Queen Alexandra Elementary, an inner-city school in Vancouver.