Written by London-based permaculture expert Jessica Roder, this article was first published in EcoParent, a new magazine that caters to environmentally minded parents.
There is food all around us. Whether you live in the city or the country, in a house or an apartment, you have access to way more fresh healthy food than you think.
I divide this into two categories: A) food you grow with foresight, and B) food that grows voluntarily or on public land. For category A you might be picturing tomatoes, lettuce or herbs. For category B you may not have a clue, or maybe you think of raspberries or Saskatoon berries. This is a good start but there are so many more possibilities!
Have you noticed the word locavore being thrown around in the last few years? It refers to people who prefer to purchase food that was grown close to home. They do this for a number of reasons including greater nutritional value and taste, reduced environmental footprint, support for the local economy, and the sense of community that comes with a direct connection to the producer. You can cultivate your inner locavore by shopping at farmer’s markets, making farm gate purchases, becoming a member of a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) venture, or growing more of your own food. How much more local can it get than from your own backyard or community garden? How much fresher than when it was picked minutes ago? The nutritional value of food diminishes rapidly once it is picked, as does the flavour.
With most of the food in grocery stores being shipped 2400 km and sitting for weeks from picking time to eating time there are enormous benefits to growing it yourself or foraging from the wilds around your home. Let’s talk first about growing your own, then we’ll delve into wild crafting.
Growing food with your children is lots of fun. At 34 I still get all giddy with excitement every time a seed I planted pushes up through the soil. It is magical, and even though the seed did all the hard work I still get an enormous sense of accomplishment like I helped somehow. Having a role in creating life teaches children care and respect for the natural world. Gardening is an easy activity in which to involve children of all ages. And the bonus of letting them pick which fruits and vegetables to grow is that they are often more likely to want to eat them come harvest time.
My friend Monica had her daughter Alexa out in the garden with her before she was a year old. She was helping pick asparagus, beans, raspberries and blueberries. That fall she helped remove the dead plants. In her second year she helped with the planting. This year for Christmas, she got a ‘green’ doll house and insisted that all the carrots had to be planted before she could go to bed. They taught her about composting with the book The Little Composter and she knows where the compost goes in the garden.
Get pint sized tools for your kids. They love to help out. Mini watering cans. Mini shovels and trowels. Give them tasks such as counting how many tomatoes are red, harvesting 6 beans or 10 strawberries, planting seeds and watering them, and as they get a little older, weeding. There will be some trial and error with this and they may pull up a carrot instead of a dandelion but with guidance they will eventually get it right and you can use it as a teachable moment, letting them know that dandelions are edible too (more on that in the ‘expert’ section). Children can readily learn to identify plants and it is important to teach them what is NOT edible as well. A friend who had an entirely edible garden was shocked when his daughter just started eating random things in a friend’s backyard. As far as she knew, all plants were edible and safe because that was all she had known munching her way through her own yard. They had to explain that you always have to check with an adult before eating something unfamiliar. This leads us to our next topic — foraging for wild foods.
Many native plants are edible and many “invasive” species were actually brought over by settlers as food stock when they first came to the Americas. For some reason they have fallen out of favour and we are suspicious of anything that isn’t pre-packaged from a grocery store. Berries are the obvious and delicious place to start with your kids. Here it is very important to stress that you ONLY eat berries you are positive are safe. If you don’t know, don’t touch it. There are poisonous ones out there. In an urban area you should be able to find raspberries, blackberries, Saskatoon or serviceberries, and depending on your whereabouts, mulberries, blueberries, and highbush cranberry. Look along riverside trails, the scruffy edges of parks, and even in the landscaped frontages of businesses. I pick an abundance of Saskatoon berries on the grounds of the sports stadium in my city. Leafy greens are also not hard to find.
There are many spring delicacies that can be found in settled areas. Some of these get bitter as the season warms so get out early and chase away that cabin fever with some vigourous foraging. Examples include dandelions, purslane and garlic mustard. Get a good guide book for your local area and start slowly by learning 1 or 2 new plants a year with your kids. You don’t have to be an expert. You can do plant ID together with your field guide and the internet. Soon your kids may be teaching you! One word of caution is to consider what may have been sprayed on the plants. Avoid manicured areas that are highly maintained and former industrial lands where there may be contaminants.
- Make the germination process visible for children by starting your seeds in damp paper towels.
- Show kids pictures of the fully grown plant so they can look forward to seeing it (or even better, with something like a tomato, cut one open and show them the seeds).
- Let kids create labels to identify the seeds and the plants once they have been moved to the garden or windowsill.
- Set up experiments with older kids. Germinate some in paper towels and seed others directly into soil. Keep the plants in the same area of the house or garden and compare how well they do.
Easy Crops to Start With
- Lettuce, swiss chard, cherry tomatoes, radishes, sunflowers, calendula (edible leaves and flowers)
- If you start your seeds indoors ensure you ‘harden off’ your plants before moving them to the garden for the summer. Carry the pots in and out each day, exposing them to full sun and wind a little more each day. After about a week you should be able to transplant them into their new home
Low Maintenance Perennials — Why Replant Every Year?
- Rhubarb is a favorite and a good teaching tool for a discussion around ‘edibility.’ The nice red stalks are delicious and nutritious, the leaves are toxic. Make it clear to children that even if a plant is ‘edible,’ not all parts of it necessarily are.
- Mint is great for munching on while working in the garden or for crushing into drinks. It can take over a space so you may want to plant it in a pot to keep it contained.
To see the print version of this story, and to read more stories like it, check out EcoParent magazine.