Kids in the Garden

One spring, my youngest daughter, perhaps four or five at the time, meandered up to me squatting in the garden, planting bulbs.

“Eeeeew,” she said, examining one. “It’s growing witches’ fingers.”

I glanced over to see what she was seeing. Sure enough. Witches’ fingers. The bulb had flaky brown skin that gave way to snow-white flesh, with a creepy green fingernail peeping up, crooked, perfectly filed. As if it were beckoning.

She carefully laid the bulb into the hole I had just dug for it. Later she explained with furrowed brow and great seriousness to her friends that if you bury witches’ fingers you’ll get dahlias in the fall.

She was right. We did. Orange, red and yellow flowers that brightened our yard just before Halloween.

“Children love the magic of gardens,” says Karin Roth, a farmer’s daughter who now is a professional gardener and permaculture landscape designer who also leads a “Garten Kinder” workshop each summer.

Roth ticks off the myriad reasons to involve children in gardening. “It’s fun. They are naturally curious and there’s always something to discover.” In a garden, she adds, children are allowed – encouraged, even – to get dirty.

Children between the ages of four and 11 are usually enthusiastic gardeners. Anything younger and you worry about pulling worms from their mouths. Anything older requires more diplomacy than most parents care to exert.

A family garden is worth the effort, even if it is only on a balcony or terrace, Roth says. She encourages parents to turn their balconies into vertical urban jungles. Not only are they beautiful, they cool down the temperature on a hot August day. And they can provide fun and food for the family.

Depending on what and how you plant, an urban garden can attract butterflies and wild bees; birds may also show up in the early morning. Along the way, children – and adults learn about the cycles of nature and the connections between the animals and plant world – and become aware of the role we humans play in their nurture or destruction.

Importantly, any food you produce yourself tastes better.  By tending their own vegetables, children gain a connection to their food.

I remember the August when my oldest had just turned two. Nearly every morning, she’d toddle down to the tomato bushes, pick a bright red fruit and delight not just in eating it but watching the tomato juice and seeds run down her pink belly. Fussy eaters become eager ones when they are free to eat the vegetables that they themselves have grown.

Roth suggests starting small. Each child gets their own plant or pot to tend to. But, she adds, make sure the pots are big. Plants in small pots are fussier to tend to. That is, they are easier to kill.

Roth is also a big believer in not spending huge amounts of money buying fancy things. She likes repurposing items around the house. “Be creative,” she says. “Find fun things to re-use.”

For example: Fill up a PVC shopping sack with dirt and turn it into a potato patch. Or line an old laundry basket with garden vlies, a type of waterproof fleece, sprinkle some gravel or broken chards of garden pots for drainage and fill it with dirt. In both cases make sure you poke a few small holes in the bottom so there will be no standing water.

What to plant? Easiest are beans and lettuces, but Roth encourages creativity: “The garden is an experiment. Have fun with it.”

Roth has a diploma in permaculture, or regenerative gardening, which views gardens as their own eco-systems. It’s not necessary to buy fertilizers or weed killers. Instead, regenerative gardeners understand better the life cycles of gardens and use that knowledge to help plants grow.

For instance: Roth uses kitchen waste to make compost to fertilize her garden. While that’s easy in the summer, her compost pile usually is buried under a meter of snow in winter. So for the snowy months, she uses this worm composter in her kitchen. The worms eat up her kitchen waste and create a rich fertilizer for her houseplants in the winter. And the kids love the squirming worms, natch.

She says even if you garden on a balcony, it’s necessary to encourage a healthy home for the thousands of tiny creatures, creepy crawlies and mini beasts that live in the earth. Even balcony dirt needs life.

Once they have their own containers and healthy environments, kids can plant their seeds.

Runner beans or fire beans are easy first crops. On your next hike in the woods, gather three like-sized sticks. Hazelnut wood is best, but really, anything sturdy will do. Stick them into the corners of your pot. Tie the tops together with string.

Then, with a child’s pinky, poke four holes – north, south, east and west – into the soil around each stick. Don’t let the hole get too deep, though. Then drop in a bean into each hole.

And this is where kids learn how to care for these living things “respectfully.” That is, water them, but not too much. Give them shade – like we wear hats – so they don’t get sunburn.

Treat them well and they will provide you with…OK, no beanstalks tall enough to reach giants, but they will at least be thick enough to delight you with delicious organic food.

By Alison Langley

Alison Langley is a journalist living on and off in Switzerland for the past 33 years, she lives now in a 300-year old farmhouse in Graubünden.

Illustration by Aleksandra Koroleva

Aleksandra, originally from Moscow, Russia, now lives in Adliswil with her husband and 6 year-old son. She specializes in clinical psychology and started studying illustration after her son’s birth. In her free time Aleksandra likes sleeping, just like all mothers do.

The Three Sisters

The French called them Iroquois, but really, they were comprised of six different Native tribes: Mohawks, Oneida, Onadaga, Cayuga, Senega and Tuscarora. All have their own version of the same story:

Once upon a time very long ago, there were three sisters who lived together in a field. They each looked different but they loved each other very much.

The youngest always wore green and, at first, could only crawl. As she grew older, she learned to climb.

The second wore a frock of yellow or orange and she had a way of running off by herself when the sun shone.

The oldest sister stood tall and proud, guarding her siblings. She wore a pale green shawl, and had long, yellow silky hair that tossed about in the breeze.

Their names were Bean, Squash and Corn.

Native peoples learned that when these three sisters were planted in a large mound, they grew stronger together. Theirs was a symbiotic relationship. They nurtured each other’s roots and protected each other from enemies that wanted to nibble on their fruit or leaves.

Sometimes, they were even guarded by Sunflowers, which are only placed in the north, so as not to interfere with the sunlight.

If you have a plot or balcony that is big enough, the three sisters are a beautiful complement in a small space.

If you are planting with kids, Karin Roth recommends using popcorn seeds, fire beans and summer squash. This site, by Cornell University, explains the history behind this complementary planting and offers step-by-step instructions in how to do it.

By Alison Langley

Illustration by Laura Munteanu 
Laura is a Zurich based illustrator and mother of a teenage daughter. She enjoys writing poetry and short stories, and often asks her husband to proofread them. You can see her going for her daily walks in the nearby forest, though she would sometimes prefer the colourful streets of District 4. You can find Laura on Instagram here: @inthecompanyofhumans