Published by CELA on 3 May, 2018

Setting up an edible garden in your children’s service can encourage sustainable practices and connect children to the earth. Start small, plan ahead, involve children and your community to explore food from plot to plate. Reap the harvest and benefits.

You might think autumn isn’t a particularly good time to kick off your service’s edible garden project, but with the tail end of summer still upon us, it’s perfect to get going now. And in making a ‘food forest’ at your service, involving the children, you are certainly working with the National Quality Framework’s aims of building sustainable practices and connecting children to the earth.

Deterrents, myths, and risks

First let’s look at why some people don’t plant edible food.

Weeds can be described as any plant not wanted in a space – and weeding can be a particular deterrent to maintaining your edible garden. Many food producing plants are known for their tendency to send out unwanted offspring from seeds or suckers. For example, plant some types of grafted passionfruit and soon you’ll see unproductive suckers in all sorts of places from the feisty rootstock.  Cherry tomatoes are another culprit that enters a rebirth cycle of ‘bird food, bird poop, instant tomato vine’.

Myths about edible gardening are it’s a lot of work including digging, needs much space or can’t be done year round. The internet is full of great resources to help you with no-dig gardening, patio or balcony gardening, vertical gardens, or nature strip gardening (check for council’s position on the last one). All of these gardens can provide food to share.

As for growing seasons, don’t be hamstrung by your local climate. Seasoned gardeners, so to speak, explore microclimates in their patch that suit some plants more than others – such as on the cooler southern side of a building, or against a wall that gets winter sun and stays warm.

And of course when you encourage children to eat produce from the garden you do need to be extra vigilant about what is and isn’t edible and to take care what products you use to deal with snails or slugs (crushed egg shells around plants is one great trick, and a few friendly chooks is another!)

Beauty in the vege patch
Beauty in the vege patch

Why bother?

Growing food is an ethical as well as a pleasurable choice. It’s not the easiest path, but it’s more meaningful and enriching as a practice in your service.

You’re nurturing the children’s lifelong skills including team building, problem solving, healthy eating, communication and physical activity. ‘Real’ food makes it easy to promote healthy food choices, hopefully for life and exploring from ‘plot to plate’ gives children an insight into something they may take for granted.

Benefits

  • Care of the earth and living things
  • Education in science literacy
  • Encouraging nature play
  • Opportunities for spontaneous and intentional learning
  • Understanding of life cycles – plants and creatures
  • Learning where food comes from
  • Developing life skills in growing and cooking food
  • Learning about seasonal food
  • Promote healthy eating
  • Food choice – based on knowledge and experience
  • Local growing – sustainability, reducing food miles, freshness of food – better health
  • Biodiversity – creating habitat and food to build strong food web
  • Health and wellbeing – outdoors learning, hands in soil is a good thing it enhances a healthy immune system and our overall wellbeing.

How to start or rekindle your edible garden

Start small. Sprout seeds in jars, grow peas in windowsill pots, or work with a single square metre of raised garden bed. Visit a community garden in your neighbourhood with the children for advice, cuttings and hands-on activities to help with ideas for your set up. Make a booking with your local government parks and gardens team to visit their nursery, or ask if they will come to you.

Maybe your service has a larger but neglected garden – the resources may well be there just waiting to be dusted off and we showed you how to revive your soil in our last issue of Rattler. Maybe you have healthy soil but filled with inedible plants – pot up what you can and sell them to families, then replace the decorative items with beautiful, tasty alternatives.

Aspect, location, layout

When planning your garden, consider the ideal location for most edible gardening. In Australian gardens a north-facing aspect works well to give you at least six hours of sunshine for fruiting plants (such as tomatoes, eggplant, capsicums), while leafy greens need four to six hours.

Aim for about 1.2m wide pathways around your garden bed so young children and people moving in wheelchairs can access it as well as those pushing wheelbarrows. Can educators easily supervise children at the plot? Is there a water source such as tank or tap nearby to make watering easier?

One approach to edible gardening is permaculture, which uses well-honed design principles, such as gardening by zones, companion planting, using minimal external inputs and more. It’s an Aussie-developed system, too, with plenty of online resources that will help you make your garden even more sustainable and productive.

If you like getting into the maths of how much space you need to harvest food to feed a whole family for a year, check out GrowVeg. According to Ecology Action Organisation, you’d need 370 square metres of growing space to feed a vegetarian for a year.

Sharing the joy

That’s what edible gardening is about – sharing the fun, wonder and harvest with children, staff, families and communities. Feature updates about your gardening project in your newsletter, encourage your community share their recipes for the ingredients you grow, and urge families to get involved.

Help get families talking at home about sustainability and edible gardening. You can’t go too wrong with edible gardening – just start out easy, plan your way through the seasons, and keep risks and weed issues in your sights.

Resources:

About CELA

Community Early Learning Australia is a not for profit organisation with a focus on amplifying the value of early learning for every child across Australia - representing our members and uniting our sector as a force for quality education and care.

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