The great farmer-poet Wendell Berry once wrote: “A garden gives the body the dignity of working in its own support. It is a way of rejoining the human race. Our Children no longer learn how to read the great book of Nature from their own direct experience, or how to interact creatively with the seasonal transformations of the planet.” As a gardener, priest, parent, and permaculturalist who once wrote a book on Wendell Berry’s work, this challenge is personal. I want my own daughters to experience the hands-on reality of growth, to get their hands dirty in the soil, and creatively interact with the seasons of our small patch of nature. So last Spring, I double dug a garden bed, mixed compost and manure with the help of my daughters, and offered a small plot for them cultivate.
With some guidance I let each daughter choose her own plants and purpose for her plot. Their choices, both easy to grow and hard to kill, represented the best of what any child’s garden should be — full of forgiving plants that provide ongoing opportunities for harvest and exploration.
My youngest is a voracious eater of berries of all kinds. Her garden, she decided, would be a place to grow them along with some favorite herb flavors. That was fortunate because over the years I’ve been tending my own planting in the direction of perennials — species that remain or return year after year without replanting. Perennials have many advantages — they often require less water, they capture carbon, and they build and maintain soil.
My oldest daughter, a lover of wildlife, decided to plant a garden for animals. She had recently attended a seminar at our local Audubon Society that taught her the importance of native plants. These plants are well adapted for the local weather and provide food particularly appropriate for the local fauna, not least of which are the caterpillars for various moths and butterflies, many of which can only eat the leaves of a small variety of native plants.
Finally, we had a shared space in the garden where we planted a few annual plants of the more conventional vegetable garden variety. As with all of the plants in the garden, I let my daughters pick things to grow that were not poisonous — in case our neighbor’s daughter wandered over and happened to ingest a leaf or two — and that the girls would promise to eat. Both ended up eating foods they would never have tried if they hadn’t grown them themselves. All in all, it worked out to a nice garden scheme: a third for annual vegetables, a third for perennial fruits and herbs, and a third for wildlife supporting plants. Such a layout wouldn’t be a bad plan for a whole property.
With that in mind, here are some hearty, non-toxic plants that are fun to plant with kids from each of these categories.
Sweet Potatoes: My family is a fan of sweet potato oven fries, so it made sense for us to try this southern classic. A bit to our surprise, the small plants (slips) grew immense tendrils of beautiful vines that spread throughout the yard in a lush carpet. Though they are often underutilized, the leaves of these vines are edible and can be cooked like spinach with a similar nutrient punch. I would collect several leaves for my lunchtime smoothie. When they’re ready to harvest most kids enjoy the messy process of digging up the tubers. There are a variety of sweet potato slips on the market, but Southern Exposure Seed Exchange offers some great heirloom varieties in a variety of colors.
Radishes: I can’t promise success in getting my children to eat them, but there is no more rapidly growing vegetable than radishes. Plant some seeds and you have a harvest in a couple of weeks. Use them as garnish for a salad, pickle them, or dip them in saltwater and eat them French style with buttered bread. Even without venturing a taste, most kids are happy to have something to harvest while they’re waiting on their other plants to grow.
Three Sisters (Corn, Beans, and Squash): The Three Sisters is a classic, developed by the first Americans long before Europeans arrived. It is what is known as a polyculture — plants that grow together and provide assistance to one another. At the center is corn. It could be sweet corn, but you may also want to try popcorn for a fun alternative. Alongside the corn plant a pole variety of green bean such as Rattlesnake or Kentucky Wonder. Finally, include a squash or pumpkin. Together these three plants work to provide the best conditions for the whole. The corn provides a trellis for the beans, the beans provide nitrogen fertilizer for the corn and squash, and the squash provides grass suppressing vines to keep away competing vegetation. You may also want to experiment with watermelon in place of the squash. It provides similar vine suppressing weeds and a sweet harvest.
Strawberries: Strawberries are the center of my daughter’s berry garden. They are a perennial vining plant that will slowly spread with time. Plant them in the fall for a spring harvest and mulch with hay. When they are ready to harvest each plant will provide ripe red strawberries for a few weeks. Each May, my daughter loves to go searching among the leaves for new fruit to eat. Strawberries can also easily be grown in a pot, so they could be a good option for folks with limited space.
Blackberries: There are a number of thorn-less blackberry varieties that can provide a great summer harvest, as well as flowers and vines that provide food and haven for wildlife. Bumblebees, a docile and threatened class of native bee seem particularly fond of the white flowers.
Mint: Like many herbs, mint can verge on being a weed. Nonetheless, it grows easily and is completely edible. My youngest daughter loves to chew the leaves like a natural breath freshener. Because of its invasive nature, mint may be a good choice for a large pot. It can grow well in one and won’t escape with its rhizomes into the rest of the garden.
Each place will have its own native plants for wildlife so it would be good to check with your local Audubon Society or Nature Conservancy chapter. That said, the following plants have fairly wide ranges across the United States. You’ll notice that many are directly beneficial to people as well.
Coneflower: There are a variety of coneflowers, all in the genus Echinacea, an herb known for its immune-boosting properties. The flower can be a beautiful addition to any garden in the Eastern and Central part of the United States. Though it will die back after the summer it should return again in the spring.
Elderberry: Another wild medicinal, elderberry has a wide range across the united states. More shrub or small tree, they grow quickly and yield fragrant flowers that attract pollinators. Their berries, a favorite food of many birds, can be mixed with honey and used to make a syrup that goes well on pancakes.
Yarrow: This herb is a native plant with many medicinal uses by cultures both across the globe and throughout history. Birds that nest in cavities use the plant to line their nests. Some evidence shows that it helps the birds suppress parasites.