by Heather Jo Flores
By no means an exhaustive selection of great plants for children to grow, the following twelve plants can all be direct-sown, grow quickly and easily, and are fun to harvest for food, cut flowers, or seeds.
Popcorn is always a hit with children, and many varieties grow quite well in a home garden. There is also a vast array of inter- esting Indian corns available, in a rainbow of beautiful colors. Sweet corn is another option, and nothing compares to a fresh ear right out of the garden as a refreshing snack on a September day.
Small gourds grow fast and dry easily to make rattles or small bottles and containers. Large gourds need a longer growing season but make a magnificent addition to the garden; they can be dried and made into birdhouses, bowls, and musical instruments.
The leaves, flowers, and immature seeds of nastur- tiums are edible and also repel certain insect pests, making them great companion plants. Trailing varieties are a nice addition to a bean tepee or sunflower house, and the bright flowers are a delight to children and adults alike.
Because potatoes can be grown by just throwing them on the ground and tossing some straw on top, they are great fun to raise with children. Also try planting them in a bag or crate: Just fill it one- third of the way with soil, toss in some spuds, and cover with leaves or straw. As the shoots emerge, add more mulch, and in a few months you will have a bagful of fresh sweet spuds to eat.
Large or small, pumpkins and other squash are a favorite for children of all ages. Giant varieties, such as ‘Dill’s Atlantic Giant’, can grow to up to two hundred pounds and make excellent jack-o’- lanterns. Smaller types are more manageable for small hands and can also be carved or used to make pie, stew, or bread. Some varieties are grown primarily for their seeds, which are a healthy snack and have been known to prevent intestinal worms.
Try making pumpkin tattoos: Use a nail to scratch children’s names or little drawings into the skin of immature pumpkin fruits. Be careful not to go too deep—just scratch the surface. When the fruit is mature, the name will appear as a healed scar on the surface, and the finished product will last months longer than a carved pumpkin.
Radishes are great for children because they grow very fast and can be planted in just about any space, even a small container. The brightly colored roots are ready to eat in just over a month and can be carved into rosettes or other designs.
Scarlet Runner Beans.
Jack and his beanstalk are legendary to many children, and while there are no boy-eating giants at the top of most beanpoles, runner beans are fast growing and produce brilliant red and orange flowers. The seeds are large and speckled purple and can be eaten, replanted, or used for a variety of craft projects, like beads or mosaics.
Strawberries, Raspberries, Blueberries . . .
Need I say more? Children love to hunt through the berry patch for a juicy snack, and when they’ve planted it themselves they feel a sense of pride and accomplishment with every bite.
They come in many colors, from yellow to orange, white, red, and even tiger-striped. Tall or short, large or small, sun- flowers are easy to grow and are a must for any children’s garden. The cut flowers last several days, and seeds provide protein and amino acids for young bodies and wild birds alike.
Give a child a small shovel and a bagful of tulip bulbs, and when spring comes you will have a yard full of surprises. Tulip flowers are edible and quite delicious, and they help attract beneficial insects into the garden. The general rule for planting bulbs is to bury them twice as deep as they are long, with the pointy end up.
Maybe it doesn’t seem like turnips would be a hot item in the children’s garden, but many varieties grow to be quite large and can be carved and stuffed for a delicious baked meal. John Sundquist grows lots of turnips at his farm, and the children who come out for tours love to see the giant purple, orange, and white roots jutting out of the ground. Fresh turnips smell wonderful, are an excellent source of fiber, and are known to reduce cholesterol.
Last but far from least, zinnias come in every color of the rainbow and are one of my personal favorite plants of all time. They bloom when they reach about three feet in height, just the right height for young eyes and noses to enjoy. One of the many beautiful gifts from Mexico to our gardens, zinnias make excellent cut flowers and can last weeks if you change the water every few days.
by Heather Jo Flores
The number one reason I hear for why people aren't growing food is that they don't have access to garden space.
For people who have their own yard, starting a garden is easy. But for those who don’t have easy access to land, starting a garden takes a little more effort.
In this article we’ll look at how to find places to grow gardens, and how to make the most out of the spaces you find. (This is just the first in several installments on this topic, so subscribe if you don't want to miss anything!)
1. Use the Neighbor’s Lawn
It may seem odd in our modern American culture, but in other places around the world people frequently share yard and garden space with their neighbors. If you’ve been eyeing that nice sunny lawn next door, dreaming of filling it with fig trees and big red tomatoes, what could it hurt to ask? Go on, go over there, bring some seeds and a smile, and ask!
I have seen spectacular gardens come together when a group of neighbors with adjacent yards take down the fences between their lots and share the land communally. All the ideas in this book are most effective when done in community, with the people who live nearby. This doesn’t mean everyone can’t have their own space to do as they choose—only that the natural ecology is allowed to be more fully inter- connected, without plants, insects, animals, and natural flows having to overcome fences and other human-made obstructions.
2. Rent a Plot in a Community Garden
Many cities have some sort of community garden program. Ask at the local university, Agricultural Extension Service, or gardening store, or just google it!
Most of these programs lease ground from the city and rent out small plots to local gardeners on a seasonal basis. If you can’t find a program locally, consider starting one!
3. Volunteer at a Local Farm or Help Friends with Their Gardens
Most organic farms offer free produce to volunteers, and some will lease you a small plot of your own. This gives you an opportunity to learn from the farmer and access to the farm infrastructure, which includes important resources such as irrigation, seeds, surplus starts, et cetera. Some farms also hire seasonal workers, which can be a great opportunity to spend your summer learning, exercising, and eating fresh produce.
If you can’t find a local farm to work with, volunteer to help your neighbors with their small garden. More options usually reveal themselves as new relationships mature, so build community through voluntary interaction and you won’t be without a garden for long.
4. Garden in Pots and Containers
Most annual vegetables are well suited for container gardening. Even a small patio can hold a few planters—get pots out of a garden center dumpster or use other recycled containers such as sinks, bathtubs, wine barrels, and plastic buckets with holes drilled in the bottom. Try strawberries, car- rots, beets, tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, herbs, and salad greens.
Try a self-contained potato garden: Take some chicken wire and make a round cage. Put a layer of thick straw in the bottom and toss some potatoes in. Cover with straw, leaves, or soil, water often, and keep adding more mulch on top as the shoots emerge. Soon you will have a basket full of fresh potatoes.
5. Use the Roof
If you lack patio or yard space but have a flat, accessible roof, consider building raised beds or planter boxes on the roof. There are fabulous rooftop gardens in big cities all over the world, with everything from small containers of herbs and salad greens to large planter boxes filled with trees and perennials. Get creative with the space you have now and better options will unfold later.
6. De-pave Your Sidewalk or Driveway
Rent a concrete cutter or just get together some friends with crowbars and rip out the pavement around your house. It doesn’t take that much work to convert a driveway or parking area into a garden. I have seen several wonderful examples, and the residents didn’t regret the lost pavement for a second. The broken-up pieces—aptly called “urbanite”—work great as stepping- stones or patio pavers or for building raised beds and terraces. Park on the street and enjoy the extra exercise while walking home through your new garden.
You may even want to tear down a whole building, such as a garage full of junk; recycle the junk and building materials, and grow plants instead. I would much rather have a living, edible garden next to my house than a dirty old box full of consumer crap. Think about it—you probably wouldn’t pave over an orchard to build a driveway, so why choose the pavement over the trees just because it’s there now?
7. Grow Food in the Existing Landscape
You don’t have to turn over a big area or even disrupt existing plantings to integrate some food plants. We once rode bikes around town with a big bag of zucchini seeds, planting them wherever we saw a gap in the landscaping. Later we saw big plants in some of the spots and harvested some delicious zucchini! I have also planted fruit trees into existing beds in front of local businesses or at the edge of a park.
This strategy works well, because the city or property owner main- tains the landscape, and your plants get watered—sometimes even weeded and fertilized—right along with the plants that were already there! The downfall is that whoever is in charge of the site may notice your plant and pull it out or may spray it with toxins. Still, this is a good option for generating more food around town, and it can be great fun.
Also look for good spots in alleyways, along back fences. Often there is a garden on the other side of the fence, and you can plant small beds along the outside that benefit from the surplus water and fertility.
8. Start a Garden in a Vacant Lot
You can do this with or without permission (aka guerrilla gardening!) . Sometimes property owners will let you plant vegetables and fruit trees in a sunny, under- used corner. Others may say no if you ask but won’t notice for a long while if you just do it without telling them.
When the Food Not Lawns collective started our first garden, in an overgrown section of the park, the city didn’t know we were there for almost a year. We got the combination to the gate from a neighbor, cleared out all the trash and debris, and started gardening. By the time folks from the city came along to ask questions, we had a beautiful garden established, and they let us continue to use the space. They even sent park workers to drop off chip mulch once in a while!
There are countless examples like this, where people took over an area, grew food, and maintained access for many years. Some of these squatted gardens eventually gained ownership of the land. Sadly, there are just as many examples of gardens that were eventually bulldozed and paved over. In my opinion it is usually worth a try, and you will probably get at least a season’s reward for your audacity.
As you look for places to grow, ask yourself some important, practical questions:
Will you actually go there to garden?
Will you be inspired by the surrounding space?
Will the plants have an opportunity to reach maturity?
Will you want to eat the produce?
Grow what you love, what you eat, and what you want to look at, in a space that makes you feel healthy and empowered. Good luck, and let us know how it goes.
As we integrate into living, working farm communities, it’s important to remember that permaculture is not a new idea.
It seems to have become popular recently to use the label “permaculture farm.”
I’m a farmer, and I’m also a permaculture practitioner, but I don’t call my farm a permaculture farm. There are a number of reasons why I don’t follow this trend.
First and foremost, permaculture doesn’t teach you how to farm.
Permaculture can teach you how to look at things from different angles and see different perspectives, but it doesn’t teach you how to deal with footrot or liver fluke, or how to lamb. It doesn’t teach you how to lay hedges, repair dry stone walls or put up a fence. I learnt how to farm, and am still learning how to farm, because neighbours and friends have been generous in sharing their knowledge and skills. All sorts of different people have helped and advised me over the years, including women and men who are farmers, smallholders, foresters, engineers, local history experts, vets, cooks, cider-makers, geologists, soil ecologists, conservationists, spinners and weavers…the list goes on and on.
Labelling farms as “permaculture farms” seems to me to be an attempt to set them apart. It’s not the same as calling a farm a “dairy farm” or an “arable farm,” or even an “organic farm.”
The implication seems to be that a “permaculture farm” is superior in some way, which in turn implies criticism of neighbouring farms. Is this perhaps a result of the poor image of farming in media? That people new to farming don’t want to be tarred with the same brush? If so, it demonstrates a lack of understanding that there are many different types of farms and farming, and in particular a lack of understanding that smallholdings, small farms, family farms and hill farms are all very different from large arable farms and from intensive farms.
The second reason I don’t call my farm a permaculture farm is because I can’t help noticing that, with a few exceptions, the label is often aspirational; there’s often not much to see on the ground, and often the people involved haven’t yet built up a wealth of experience.
Farming is a long game. It takes many years to get to know your patch of land. Eventually, you’ll know it like the back of your hand, but initially there are probably neighbours who know it better than you do, who remember where springs have appeared after heavy rain, who know which field is better for lambing and calving. And, when you’re first starting out, those neighbors will be your most valuable resource. Alienating them in the first year by trying to set your farm above theirs, based on ideology rather than action, isn’t wise. And it isn’t sustainable.
It also takes years to build up your reputation, because it takes years to develop a healthy flock or herd, to select healthy seed, to build up fertile soil, to grow or restore hedges, to grow orchards. Farmers gain respect (or not) from others seeing their healthy animals, crops and fields, year in, year out.
In rural areas, people depend on each other much more than in urban areas. Being a good neighbour and having good neighbours, being part of the local community, these all make a big difference to your well-being and to your resilience. Being on hand and offering practical help when there’s a local event, or when a neighbour has an accident or is taken ill, these are all a crucial part of being part of a rural community. Finding shared values and common ground is far more important than setting flags in the ground and highlighting differences. However good your permaculture design, being snowed in still means going out to check, and save, livestock.
And, if you consider the second and third ethics, all of the above considerations are permaculture. And they should be just as important to your design as where to put the pond.
As we integrate into living, working farm communities, it is crucial to remember that permaculture is not a new idea.
It’s a collection of traditional and Indigenous knowledge, from across the world, that has, in many cases, been repackaged for an urban generation that has become disconnected from nature and from each other. Because it is from rural people that the knowledge has been gathered, this means that it is part of the shared common knowledge of rural people. Yes, even in industrialised nations, and yes, still today.
Those of us who grew up in rural areas often grew up with a close connection to our habitat, our square mile, because we need to understand how the natural world works and how we fit in it so that we can thrive in our local landscape. This means that permaculture may not have much to add to the land-based skills of those already immersed in land management. Unless you incorporate the social stuff into your design. Then, permaculture becomes a powerful tool for deeply connecting you to the community in which you live.
Although permaculture is often thought of as being about gardening and farming, it actually applies to any aspect of life.
The three ethics underlying permaculture (earth care, people care and fair shares, plus a recently suggested additional one: future care) mean it is deeply relevant to social issues and to social justice. In rural areas, we face similar problems to urban areas, including homelessness and gentrification, but the problems are often hidden and so get ignored. Pressure on land is also an issue, but instead of being for office blocks or luxury flats, it can be for resource extraction (eg mining, quarrying, forestry plantations, dams for water, wind farms), for investment, for a nice place to retire to and lately, for rewilding. Few realise how fragile rural communities are, and how seemingly small changes can result in loss of resilience, loss of knowledge, loss of key people from the community. Language, dialect and culture hold within them generations of knowledge about how to thrive in often harsh landscapes. When young people move away, the thread is broken and can be hard to repair, and especially if incomers see only a blank canvas.
No land is a “blank canvas.”
There is a tendency for those who have completed permaculture courses to think they now need to move to the countryside and buy some land. Sometimes doing this is great and good things happen. But not always. Sometimes however good our intentions, our actions can have negative impacts. It’s important to be aware of the privileges being able to move freely and buy land entail, and also to be aware of the differences in power and privilege of your chosen location.
Taking all three ethics seriously means asking ourselves some uncomfortable questions:
As an incomer, are you a settler? A new colonialist?
Could your arrival have a negative impact on a minority culture or language?
Although the land may be cheap to you, is it unaffordable to others, such as local young people? Is there some way of helping to address this?
Some years ago, Nesta Wyn Jones, a North Wales farmer and poet, realised that the increasing number of people moving to the area was eroding the local culture and changing the main language of communication. She started holding language classes where students also learnt about the local culture and customs. Nowadays, many incomers across Wales learn Welsh, and the challenge now is to help them move on from being learners to using the language in their daily lives. Part of this is lifting the blinkers so people realise there is a rich diversity of cultures around them, especially as these are often rooted in the landscape, and often reflect much that people moving to the countryside are keen to create.
As is often the case with permaculture, it all comes back to observation: noticing what is already there, rather than what we want it to look like, or think it ‘should’ look like. But it’s important to remember that observation isn’t only about looking: listening is a big part of it too. Observation means taking time to listen to people who are already there, and who know the land and whose lives and stories are an integral part of the landscape. It means realising that traditional knowledge is not static, that rural communities are not homogenous, and that conventions have developed for a reason, which will, no doubt, change again.
Most of all, observation means being open to learn from people with different perspectives, different experiences, different ways of holding and sharing knowledge. Because more often than not, when you take time to observe, to listen, and to learn about what was there before you (and will perhaps be there long after you’ve gone,) then you find unexpected connections and shared values that prove the sum to be so much greater than the parts.
Marit Parker is on both the faculty and editorial collective of the Permaculture Women’s Guild and she teaches the module on Social Justice and Decolonisation in the online Permaculture Design Course.
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