The Next Generation: Doing Permaculture with Children

Here's a list of ways to design permaculture gardens and more with kids!

“The best skill of a good leader is to bring out the leadership qualities in others. For we are all leaders. Every parent is a leader, and every child can become one.” 
—Graham Bell(1)

planting trees with children

Integrating Sector C

Conventional design is predominantly anti-child. Sharp edges, hard surfaces, high windows, toxic environments: These are just a few examples of the exclusion of children from our surroundings. Even if you don’t have any children, if you want to build an ecological community you must include the special needs of young people in your observations and planning. Still, many would be ecological gardens and homesites fail to consider the factors and influences in “Sector C.”

The best way to ensure that our projects and designs meet the needs of children is to include them in every level of our work, from goal setting to design and implementation. Even if you are not a parent and have no plans of becoming one, chances are you know someone with children who would appreciate some help, and you might benefit from diversifying the age group of your peers.

All types of projects, in the garden and in the community, benefit greatly from the inclusion of children. Children can contribute fresh ideas and comic relief and add new dimensions to any project. In addition, including children opens up projects to a much wider diversity of participants. Many adults are parents and are much more likely to attend an event to which they can bring their children. Often single parents find it difficult or impossible to attend workshops or community events that exclude children, and by making the extra effort to provide opportunities for children you may double or even triple the attendance.

Not only do projects benefit from having children participate, but the children themselves reap lasting rewards from the inclusion. These rewards include learning about plants, nature, and food, getting more exercise, and developing a stronger work ethic. Children feel empowered through contributing meaningful work and learn to be lifelong learners through witnessing adults sharing skills.​

Often children who are included in community projects grow up to initiate projects of their own, and this exponential effect spreads ideas and resources into future generations. Whether you are hosting a community event or just looking for ways to include your own children, here are some effective ways to integrate children into your projects. These range from simply offering child care at community events to organizing projects specifically for younger people. 

permaculture for children
Every ecological home and garden should consider the needs and virtues of “Sector C.”

How to Include Families

Schedule with Children in Mind. Schedule meetings and events earlier in the day so that people who have to go to bed early, like children and parents, can attend. Also, plan things for weekends and during school vacations, rather than when children are busy with school. You can also go into the schools to do gardens and other projects; I’ll get to that in a minute. 

Reach Out to Families. Go back through your outreach tools and strategies and see how you can make them more welcoming to families. Advertise a child-inclusive policy in flyers, websites, and press releases. Just a few words inviting parents to bring their children can clear up any doubts a wary participant might have about coming. When you build it, they will come, so follow through and be ready for the explosion of youthful energy, not to mention the potential distractions that come with having children around. Which brings me to the next item.

Provide Child Care. When organizing workshops, seed swaps, and especially multiple day events, such as a course or conference, be sure to include some sort of plan for child care. Most existing projects assume that the parents will provide their own child care. If you choose to go this route, it’s okay, but with a little extra effort you can provide or help organize child care. The simplest alternative would be to bring a big blanket, a box of toys, books, and art supplies, and pile them up in a soft corner somewhere. The next level would be to hire someone or ask a qualified volunteer to come to staff that space, with the special intention of playing with children at the event. A little more effort can spark a child care cooperative, where parents take turns providing care during an ongoing series of events.

A simple child care co-op might work like this: All of the parents have a short meeting in which people choose a safe, central location where the children can hang out and sign up for child care shifts during an upcoming workshop or event. Sometimes shifts will rotate several times during an event. It is a good idea to keep the children close by, in case something comes up and a parent is needed.​

Setting up child care that is a part of, but a bit removed from, the workshop or event is usually the best option when very small children who might not be physically able to participate in the project itself are involved. However, this still creates a situation where the children are kept separate from everyone else, and I think the next strategy makes much more sense.

Setting up child care that is a part of, but a bit removed from, the workshop or event is usually the best option when very small children who might not be physically able to participate in the project itself are involved. However, this still creates a situation where the children are kept separate from everyone else, and I think the next strategy makes much more sense. 

​Suggest Meaningful Work for Children(2). Many communities deny children the opportunity to contribute to the necessary work of their community. They are supposed to be little sponges, soaking up what we choose to teach them and playing sports until they grow up, at which point we expect them to immerse them- selves in a useful role and contribute to society. To this end school and work are separated into two distinct activities, and some of the most necessary jobs, such as mothering and gardening, are not considered work at all because they do not generate money.

In my experience, children want to participate. If they can talk, they can contribute ideas. If they can think, they can work. Don’t assume a seven-year-old can’t engage fully in a garden or community project. Indeed, children can hold leadership positions, make executive decisions, and raise most of the money. Ask young people (not the parents) what they want to do, what they are interested in, how they feel they can contribute, and what they need to learn to do so. Then help them in whatever way makes sense for you.

That’s not to say we should burden our children with hard physical labor as soon as they’re out of the cradle! But we should harvest their abundance of creative energy, respectfully, for the good of the whole. The quickest way to repel children from gardening or anything else is to strap them into a steady regimen of rules, regulations, and drudgery. Find something fun and useful for them to do, and ask whether it interests them.

A great way to empower children is by letting them design and execute their own projects. Provide guidance, but do not supervise. Let them envision and manifest their own ideas, regardless of whether they seem valuable or useful to adults. Give them as much freedom as safety will allow; teach them ways to make decisions and collaborate with other children, but try not to influence their choices. This last concept can be very difficult for many adults to master, but I think you will find that your relationship with children will truly blossom when you invite them to bring their own ideas to fruition.

Allowing children to choose and engage in meaningful tasks teaches them that their contribution is useful and necessary and empowers them to create roles for themselves in the community. Which brings me to my next and most heartfelt suggestion.

Treat Children as Peers. Parents (especially mothers) are usually held responsible for the actions of their children. If a child is rude, violent, or unruly, the parents are blamed. When a parent lives in fear of being judged according to her child’s behavior, she is forced into a position of authority and control.

If children grow up around authority and control, they learn to be controlling authoritarians. And while it is parents who choose to make children and care for them—or sadly, sometimes not—it is the responsibility of the entire community to create an environment that will encourage children to grow into happy, creative adults. When we see children as peers, not inferior or superior to anyone else because of their age or size but simply occupying their own individual niches in the cycle, then we come closer to an egalitarian, ecological community.When you interact with a child, pay careful attention to how those interactions are different from those with adults.

For example, do you find yourself ignoring the child, changing the tone of your voice, or telling the child what to do—behavior that would be considered very rude if done to an adult? If you do these things, stop. The children I’ve worked with resent being treated differently just because they are younger. They want to feel comfortable asking questions if they need to and trusted that they can learn and understand anything just as well as you or me.

When children can count on only other children to treat them as equals, they learn to distrust adults and to feel inferior. While it may be necessary to choose vocabulary words that a child can understand, she will respond with more enthusiasm to questions posed in a mature and egalitarian manner. Treat her as a person of less experience, not of less intelligence. Some cultures believe that each new child is wiser than the last, and that children in general are wiser than older people, because they were more recently in contact with the ethereal, cosmic whole.

There will inevitably be times when children exhibit extreme behavior, in the form of a tantrum or by being verbally or physically abusive to others. As discussed in the preceding chapter, adults also sometimes act out in these ways. The natural inclination, in either case, is to shut them down, either by asking them to leave or by forcing the parents to handle the situation. However, if we can see these extreme acts as a call for support rather than a cause for expulsion, and if we can address them as a group rather than isolating the individual, then we will be well on our way to building stronger communities and better lives for everyone, of all ages.

Designing with Children

Children can participate in all aspects of a project design, whether it is a home system or a community project. I’ll use the Gobradime design process from chapter 7 to illustrate this point. Every stage of the design process has a spot for children:

Goals: The needs of children absolutely must be included in this phase. If you have children, or if children will ever visit your home or garden, you will need to consider their needs and potential ways of using the site. It is much easier to design with everyone’s needs in mind than to change people’s behavior to conform to a design that did not address their concerns.

Observation: Children often see much more than adults do. Their minds are not clouded by the logic and pragmatism of adulthood, and they can see potential that we may dismiss as unrealistic or impossible. Also, children are at a different eye level and see many things that we literally overlook. Let them look, smell, and listen for details, and encourage them to write down or draw what they discover.

Boundaries: Children fit into small places, and their ideas about boundaries, whether physical or otherwise, can help shape a design. A small, seemingly useless corner of the yard could be a fort or secret garden. Children can also help with mapping and measuring a site. In addition, they often help expand the cultural boundaries of a project, because they are less prone to preconceived notions about race, class, gender, or similar issues.

Resources: Just as one person’s trash can be another’s treasure, resources that you may not see as useful could be a gold mine to your children. Tiny pieces of scrap lumber make great building blocks; discarded books and magazines can be turned into a plethora of fun projects, such as mosaics, beads, origami, or papier-mâché birdhouses. In addition, the children themselves are a wonderful resource of help and ideas, and other parents often make excellent volunteers.

Analysis: Asking children their opinion is key to a holistic design. They will provide you with a range of ideas based on their own needs and perceptions, and these ideas will greatly increase the diversity and resilience of your projects. Their young minds can be surprisingly analytical, and they can help develop new methods and criteria for analyzing your data and resources.

Design: Children can be asked to draw sample designs, and groups of children, if empowered to collaborate on a design project, will learn to work with others toward a common goal. They can also provide fresh insight into patterns and combinations. Children love to do overlay designs with tracing paper and colored pencils, and you may be amazed at the accuracy with which they can create a workable model. It also seems important to note that children often use different paths and engage in different patterns than the adult users of a site; if you have children around, it is prudent and indeed necessary to include these paths and patterns in your design.

Implementation: Children can help implement a project in a multitude of good ways. Work should be age-appropriate, for safety reasons, but give them ample opportunities to challenge themselves. Look at your own list of tasks and ask yourself what you need help with. Ask children what they want to do rather than simply assigning tasks and chores. Tasks that are easily accomplished by children include taking pictures, building compost, sowing and collecting seeds, rooting cuttings, watering, organizing tools, painting signs, feeding chickens, making pottery, and spreading mulch, to name but a few.

Maintenance/monitoring: Send the children around the garden with a checklist to monitor the progress of young plants or document fruit production. Children will often notice if something needs to be changed or adjusted before adults do. Ask them to note and suggest improvements, and listen earnestly to their advice.

​Evaluation: Bringing children of all ages into your garden or home and asking them to evaluate it is an excellent way to come up with a diverse set of opinions on how well your system works. Children are usually brutally honest and will often take the path of least resistance. Even just letting a group of children run amok for a few hours is an excellent way to find the natural paths on your site, and their input will undoubtedly inspire your own evaluative process. 

Doing Permaculture with Children

One of the best places to connect with children is in the garden. Gardens are full of wonder, and wonder is what leads to knowledge. I remember the first time I gardened with my friend Jasper, who was two at the time. He was sitting next to me, playing in the warm, spongy soil while I weeded a thick patch of overwintered carrots. It was a warm day in early May, and I noticed the edge of a plump young carrot bulging out of the ground. I asked Jasper to watch, and I yanked on the stem. ​

The brilliant orange root burst from the soil, and Jasper’s eyes nearly burst out of his little face as he exclaimed, “Carrot!” The next ten times I saw him he wanted to eat carrots, and by the time he was four he was working in the garden by my side, planting and weeding carrots of his own.

The first time a child eats vegetables fresh from the garden, her connection with food changes forever. Even a small garden can be a mini adventure park to children, where their imaginations can run wild. In my experience children who visit and participate in farms and gardens are much more willing to eat a wider variety of fruits and vegetables, and of course this improved diet leads to a whole lifetime of better physical and mental health.

When children are included in ongoing garden projects, they blossom right along with the flowers and are soon contributing new ideas and garden designs of their own. Children are often more open to a deep connection with nature than adults are, and you may find that your children are teaching you far more than you are teaching them.Children can help bridge the gap between adults and nature. They can be the ambassadors of the plant world, helping us renew our connection with nature and reminding us of the childlike mind we once enjoyed.

Obviously, while children take great joy in eating directly from the garden, you must educate them about potentially toxic plants. First of all, no garden that may have children in it should ever be sprayed with pesticides, herbicides, or chemical fertilizers. These poisons leave residues for years, and children’s small bodies are highly susceptible to such toxins. Second, many edible plants have poisonous parts, such as the leaves of tomatoes and potatoes. These wonderful plants should not be excluded from the garden, but children should be taught always to ask an adult before eating anything new.

Here are some fun and educational ways to share nature with children of all ages. Some of these projects can occur in space of any size; others assume you can find a small plot of land on which to garden.

gardening with children
Gardening with children helps teach them a lifelong ecological ethic.

Make a Discovery Kit

In my favorite children’s gardening book, Roots, Shoots, Buckets & Boots(3) author Sharon Lovejoy recommends putting together an “explorer’s kit” for children that includes an assortment of tools for learning about the garden. What follows is my expanded version, based on my own favorite tools. This simple kit can be made up of mostly recycled materials and will fit into a shoe box or a lunch box. Gardeners of all ages can take their discovery kit anywhere: on a farm visit, to summer camp, or just into the backyard to help them discover and learn about the wonders of the natural world.

Here are some things to include: ​

  • A magnifying glass or hand lens, for looking deep into flowers and getting a close-up view of bugs and other garden finds
  • A flashlight, for peeking down gopher holes and for night time adventures
  • A ruler or measuring tape, for comparing sizes and monitoring the growth of young plants
  • Paper bags and small jars with lids, for collecting specimens
  • A supply of small envelopes, for collecting seeds
  • A pencil, for labeling seed envelopes and other specimens with the date and location
  • A handful of garden markers, for labeling new discoveries in the field
  • A journal, for recording observations and inspirations
  • A stethoscope (if available), for listening to trees (hear them drink!) and underground critters 
make a discovery kit
Make a discovery kit for yourself and your children.

Make a Garden Coloring Book or Children’s ’Zine 

If you don’t have a space to garden with children, they can still learn about the plants that provide our food by making a food plants coloring book or informative children’s gardening ’zine. ​

Try this example: Next time you go to the grocery store, have the children make a list of as many different types of food plants as they can find.

Read ingredients lists, look in the ethnic food aisle; there are twenty-five thousand edible plants known to humans—how many can you think of? Next, get the children to draw pictures of the plants and write captions about where they come from, how to use them, and anything else that seems relevant. Have them draw the pictures in black ink, then photocopy the pictures and assemble them into coloring books, one for each child. Make extra copies to give to friends or send to family members.

Make a Plant Press

Make a simple plant press with two small wooden boards, cardboard, waxed paper, four wing-nut bolts (each five-eighths of an inch), and some ribbon.

Cut the boards to make the outside ends of the press. It doesn’t matter if they are five by seven inches or eight by ten, but they need to be the same size as each other.

Decorate these ends with paint, crayons, or pressed flowers under tape. Drill holes in each corner, and insert the wing-nut bolts. The length of your bolts will determine the maximum thickness of your press. Cut several pieces of cardboard to make dividers, and label one for each new plant family or genus you collect.

​Now cut several sheets of waxed paper to double the size of the dividers, and fold them over to make flat envelopes for the leaves, flowers, and sprigs you collect. Attach ribbons to the sides to wrap around and hold everything in, and tighten down the wing nuts as needed to press the plants. Attach a pencil to a string so you can label each new specimen. 

how to make a plant press
Save your favorite specimens in a plant press.

Start a Bug Farm

An old aquarium tank can be turned into an educational display by filling it with organic compost and adding assorted bugs and worms from the garden and compost. Start by filling a medium-sized tank two- thirds full with moist compost that is about half finished. Cover the compost with a thin layer of regular garden dirt.

This project doesn’t work very well with store bought compost or potting soil, so if you don’t have a compost pile or a yard, perhaps you can get a small amount of compost and dirt from a neighbor or community garden nearby. It is a good idea to put a ventilated cover over the bug farm to keep the critters from escaping and keep out cats and birds. Many tanks come with lids, but you can also make a good cover with some cheesecloth and an elastic cord.

Next, cut holes in the lids of several small jars and go out and collect as many different types of worms and bugs as you can find. An old spoon works great as a tool to pick up the little critters if you or the children are squeamish. Put the bugs in the tank and place it in a cool, shady spot. Now the most important thing is to mist it daily with fresh water.

Over the next few days and nights the critters will begin organizing themselves into a living, interactive community. Worms will burrow into the soil, beetles will munch happily away at tiny pieces of debris, and hidden seeds will sprout on the surface of the soil. Watch as the critters decompose the organic matter and interact with one another to build soil and perpetuate life. Unless you drilled drainage holes in the bottom of your tank, your bug farm will last only a short time before it starts to smell bad and become imbalanced. At this point return the soil and critters to the compost pile and start a new bug farm.

Make a Legume Nodule Box

A great way to learn about how legumes fix nitrogen in the soil is to make an observation box. The children’s garden at the University of California–Santa Cruz has one of these, and visitors of all ages love to peek at the knobby, nitrogen-fixing bacteria colonies while they grow. Use scrap wood and an old window to build a planter box with one side that you can see through. The box should be at least twelve inches deep and should have plenty of drain holes in the bottom. 

Using plywood and hinges, make a door to cover the window side so that it opens up or downward, like a bread box. Mount the box a few feet up, at a child’s eye level. Fill it with soil and plant fava beans, clover, lupine, and other legumes.

As the plants grow you can open the door and peek at the nitrogen fixing bacteria nodules growing on the roots of the legumes you planted. Notice how different types of legumes produce different sizes or shapes of nodules. Be sure to close the door when you’re not observing, because too much light will kill off the roots and beneficial bacteria. 

soil food web observation box
A living observation box like this legume nodule display allows us to witness the living soil.

Visit Local Farms

A single field trip to an organic farm or garden will help instill a natural ethic, which will encourage the child to live a more responsible, environmentally aware lifestyle. Children and adults alike will benefit from seeing firsthand where their fruits, vegetables, eggs, meat, and dairy products are grown and processed. A few hours on a farm can generate memories that the child will recall for many years and may provide the inspiration for the child to pursue a career in science, agriculture, land conservation, or ecological living. To organize a farm visit, go to a local farmer’s market or organic food cooperative and ask for contacts at local organic farms. Then call the farmers and ask whether there is a good time to bring a group of children out for a tour. Many farmers are quite open to this sort of thing, and some may already be hosting school or church groups. Tours usu-ally last one to three hours; some farms ask for a nominal per-person donation to help defray the costs of showing you around and letting the children harvest produce to take home.

You may find that you have several farms to choose from. Consider going to all of them, because each place will have something different to offer. One farm may have long rows of vegetables and greenhouses full of salad greens or flowers, while another might host free-range cows and chickens or a few acres of yummy raspberries. Wherever you go, be sure to bring snacks, sunscreen, mud boots, drinking water, and a camera, and be prepared to bring home a plethora of new ideas.

It is also very interesting to visit commercial food production facilities. Giving yourselves an opportunity to compare commercial practices with organic ones will help solidify your goals and may strengthen your resolve to eat and grow organic food. However, industrial farms can be extremely toxic, and many practices, especially those at dairy and meat facilities, can be quite horrible to witness, so please take these things into serious consideration before exposing your children to them.

farming with children
A few hours on an organic farm can change a child’s life forever.

Plant a Living Playhouse

Just after the last spring frost, mulch or till a small area, from five feet by five feet to six by eight. Scratch in either a square or circular furrow and fill it with the seeds of sunflowers, runner beans, and annual morning glories. Be sure to leave an opening for a door, and scatter white clover seeds all around the rest of the mulched area. 

Soon you will see the sunflowers and other plants emerge. Thin the sunflowers to about one every eight inches, and keep a few bean and morning glory plants between. These will climb up the sunnies and eventually will meet at the top, forming a ceiling for the playhouse, which will by then have a carpet of clover and walls made of sunflower stalks. This makes a great shady hideout for children and adults alike, and the multicolored flowers make a brilliant contribution to the landscape, attract beneficial insects, and produce food. 

Plant a living playhouse with sunflowers and annual morning glories.

Get Lost in a Living Maze

You may be able to find a good maze on a local farm, especially during the fall when many small towns boast a haunted corn maze. With a little planning, you can also plant your own corn or flower maze. An age-old tradition, living mazes and garden labyrinths provide a delightful diver- sion from regular garden work and give people of all ages a chance to literally get lost in the plants. You can find hundreds of maze designs in books at your local library, or you can design your own on a sheet of graph paper. A multiple-ring design is relatively easy to create, and it adds an alluring circular focal point to the garden.

Once you have a basic design, stake it out in the garden using small rebar pegs or bamboo poles, with string between them to simulate the walls. Don’t forget to make lots of dead ends and leave plenty of open- ings to make the maze extra confusing! Now till or mulch the beds (the walls of the maze). The beds should be eighteen to twenty-four inches wide, with two- to three-foot-wide paths between.

You can grow the “walls” with any combination of plants, but those with straight stalks such as corn, sunflowers, and sorghum usually work best. To grow a permanent maze, try planting boxwood, bamboo, or rasp- berries. Alternatively, plant Jerusalem artichokes for a seasonal maze that grows all summer and provides tasty tubers through the winter.

garden labyrinth
Two layouts for simple maze gardens

Grow a Scratch-and-Sniff Garden

Growing food and sharing surplus with the community are important educational experiences for children. Children love to learn about bugs and plants, to eat fresh food from the garden, and to see beautiful flowers. They also like to touch soft, fuzzy leaves and smell sweet or pungent plants.

Many people are kinesthetic learners, and touching things helps stimulate their minds. So why not plant a garden that caters to the senses of touch and smell? Rose campion, lamb’s ears, mullein, and comfrey all have wonderful fuzzy leaves, and children will spend hours touching the tiny hairs and comparing textures. Sensitive plant (Mimosa pudica) is also a great choice for a kinesthetic garden because the leaves fold up when touched. Be careful of the tiny thorns! 

For the sniffing garden, plant lavender, lemon verbena, thyme, rose- mary, peppermint, lemon balm, and pennyroyal. Many of these plants release their wonderful pungent aroma in full force when you scratch the surface of the leaf. In fact, most plants in the mint family (Lamiaceae) have either fuzzy leaves or strong fragrances, or both. And be sure to add sweet-smelling classics from other families such as geranium, jasmine, lilies, gardenia, and hyacinth.

Open a Butterfly Buffet

Children love butterflies, and what better way to learn about pollination than to grow a butterfly garden? Even a small container garden can provide shelter and food for a wide range of butterflies and other important pollinators, and a two-thousand-square-foot space can hold enough plants to provide nectar to thousands of butterflies and other beneficial insects.

Plants that butterflies love include lavender, lantana, buddleia, willow trees, thistle, zinnias, daylilies, coreopsis, cinquefoil, dogbane, and black- eyed Susans.(4) And of course no butterfly garden would be complete without milkweed, which provides essential food for endangered monarch butterflies. There are many species of milkweed; most are relatively easy to grow from seed and have exceptionally beautiful flowers.

Plant a Birthday Tree

As a child I received a cherry tree for my birthday, and we planted it in the front yard. We moved away shortly after, but many years later I drove past the house and the tree was still there; it had grown to about thirty feet in height and was loaded with juicy red fruit! Tree planting is a good way to teach children about ecology and about the longevity of the forest. Some people get a live Christmas tree every year, then plant it out.

Whether you choose fruit trees or conifers, you can enhance the landscape while giving gifts that are an excellent alternative to other options such as plastic toys and video games. Trees last much longer than any child’s attention span for toys, and they will provide shade, food, and habitat for humans and other animals for many years.

Start a School Garden Project

Many people recognize the benefits of gardening with children, and as a result many elementary and high schools are starting garden projects. 

These gardens are usually created by a group of volunteers, often parents, who set up the garden and sometimes train teachers to use gardening to enhance their regular curriculum. Free seeds, plants, and tools can be found by reaching out to parents for donations. In addition, private and federal grant funding for ecological education is often available.

Many schools have a green space that would make an excellent garden, and even very urban schools can usually host a container garden on a section of the blacktop outside. Students gain valuable insight into nature by interacting with the plants and soil; they also learn how to grow food and can provide fresh organic fruits and vegetables to the school cafeteria.

Some schools have large garden programs, while others have just a few planter boxes. Schools in Australia are “learnscaping” school grounds: planting food forests, increasing shade, and developing soft, child friendly play spaces. Sharing nature with children can be as small or as large a project as you like, depending on the available resources.

​In Eugene, organic farmer John Sundquist has installed nine gardens for Head Start of Lane County, a low income public preschool program. He hosts school visits to his farm, River’s Turn, in Coburg, Oregon, where he tends thirty-three acres, including ten acres of seed crops, extensive fruit and nut orchards, and more than fifty kinds of bamboo. 

Educational Gardens

Modern food and fiber production depends on large inputs of oil and natural gas. We must begin now to prepare for the inevitable time when these resources are depleted. We try to design our gardens to be fun and attractive, enduring, and low maintenance.The rewards of our gardens include food, flowers, exploring our senses, having fun with tools, acquiring life skills, and learning about nature. We learn about the connections among people, plants, wildlife, and microbes. The goal of our efforts is to start children down the path of biological literacy.

The major themes in the garden ideas listed below are biological literacy and landscape design for sustainability. Sustainability could be defined as activities that allow people and wildlife to coexist and flourish indefinitely into the future. Children, parents, teachers, and everyone else gain knowledge and skills through hands-on tours, demonstrations, maps and handouts, explanatory signs, and electronic media. Each garden and component would need its own design, but here are some general ideas:

Fun gardens: Landscaped areas allow preschoolers to explore and play on their own terms, observed but not instructed. A variation could be an assessment area where the kids’ performance on stepping blocks, balance beams, et cetera could be recorded for evaluation.

Science gardens: How sunlight, climate, soil, and water generate the basic building blocks of life. Understanding the soil food web; photosynthesis; how plants produce our essential oxygen, food, clothing, and shelter; the origins of the proteins, carbohydrates, minerals, and vitamins our bodies need; complementary foods and essential amino acids.

Kinship gardens: Explains the relationships of the plant families, introducing botany and scientific names.

Nature gardens: Interspersed among the other gardens, demonstrating landscaping and construction to support wildlife.

Subsistence gardens: Essential food and fiber production, emphasizing plant guilds and polycultures.

Native gardens: The plants people and wildlife in the area relied on before Europeans arrived.

Ancient food gardens: The crops that nourished previous civilizations around the world.

Unusual gardens: New and different crops, future foods.

Healing gardens: Herbs and flowers grown for health and medicine.

Fiber gardens: Cotton, flax, mulberries (for silk- worms), bamboo, and so on.

Aquaculture gardens: Raising water plants and fish.

Fungal gardens: Growing edible and medicinal mushrooms.

Weed gardens: Examples of plants that cause problems through invasiveness, toxicity, et cetera, and keys to identifying these weeds.

Waste treatment gardens: Constructed wetlands that clean human and livestock waste.

Phytoremediation/bioremediation gardens: Plant–fungal–microbial assemblages that detoxify pesticides and industrial waste.

Market gardens: Growing flowers, ornamentals, and food for cash.

​We can also organize demonstrations and workshops for necessary skills in topics such as food preparation, preservation, and storage; composting; plant propagation, including seed saving; construction of simple human, animal, bird, and insect shelters; livestock; microbes, worms, chickens; greenhouse and year-round gardening; urban gardening and forestry; and permaculture concepts. 

Favorite Plants for Children’s Gardens

No treatise on gardening with children would be complete without a short list of good plants to start with. 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.

Corn. Popcorn is always a hit with children, and many varieties grow quite well in a home garden. There is also a vast array of interesting 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. 

Gourds. 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.

Nasturtiums. The leaves, flowers, and immature seeds of nasturtiums 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.

Potatoes. 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.

Pumpkins. 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.(5)  

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. 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.

Sunflowers. They come in many colors, from yellow to orange, white, red, and even tiger striped. Tall or short, large or small, sunflowers 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.

Tulips. 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.

Turnips. 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.(6)

Zinnias. 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.

decorative gourds
Gourds are easy to grow and can be made into an assortment of useful items like bowls, jars, and musical instruments.

Notes for Chapter 12

1. Graham Bell, The Permaculture Way (London: Thorsons, 1992), 43.

2. Thoughts on meaningful work inspired by Lee Mackay and Mary Wallace, Children and Feminism (Vancouver, BC: LAFMPAG, 1987).

3. Sharon Lovejoy, Roots, Shoots, Buckets & Boots (New York: Workman, 1999), 137.

4. Louise Riotte, Sleeping with a Sunflower (Pownal, VT: Storey Books, 1987), 87–91.

5. John Heinerman, The New Encylopedia of Fruits and Vegetables (Paramus, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1995), 390.

6. Ibid., 409.

7. Printed with permission from John Sundquist, River’s Turn Farm, Coburg, OR, December 2005.