[Ed. note: this article is part of our series of weekly family activities called Family Fun, published on Fridays]
Gardening for food and wildlife helps bring us close to God by observing and working directly with things he has made: soils, plants and animals. It’s a hands-on lesson in God’s incredible design for meeting our daily needs – both food production and the greater ecological system on which food production depends. The more we learn the more amazed, grateful and attentive we become!
Growing food saves you money and has zero food miles! Eating what we grow helps us relate to stories and struggles of peasant farmers worldwide, as well as our own predecessors who grew their own provisions. The majority of the world’s poor are families growing crops and raising livestock on tiny, often harsh, landholdings. Start a family thought experiment with a question like “What if we had to live only off what we grow?”
The last post was about creating “before” and “after” garden maps. This post starts with your “after” map and focuses on food; next week we’ll focus on wildlife.
This map is a long range planning tool. It helps you assess your yard and reflect on what your family would eventually like to add. Consider how much time you have. Add your ideas to your plan, then decide what you can realistically do this year. Maybe just a raised vegetable bed, or a butterfly garden.
Instructions for each project are not included in this post; this is just a planning activity. Your ideas will change year by year, so return to the plan and modify it when you get new inspirations. Cutting out movable shapes (instead of drawing them) allows you to try things out and change your mind. You might measure and draw the shapes and let the children cut them out. Get out your pencil, scissors and a handy removeable, restickable glue stick!
1. Determine Orientation
Children often enjoy figuring out the points of the compass. Mark an arrow pointing North on your drawing. This is important for light and temperatures.
2. Map Your Assets
Look at your drawing and identify where you have the following assets already; you may need to go look outside too. Ask your children first if they can think of places in the yard where these things are located.
a. Area for growing fruits and vegetables:
- Sunshine energy – gets at least 6 hours sun per day (preferably eight)
- Good drainage – doesn’t puddle after rain
- Convenience – close to the house for veggies (for ease of maintenance); fruit trees and bushes can be further away
- Water source (near a spigot or rain barrel – see below)
b. Area for building soil: a compost pile:
- Shade: so it doesn’t overheat and kill your little decomposer friends
- Screen: you might want it behind a bush or shed for aesthetic reasons
c. Area for collecting water
- Downspout from roof gutters with space to stand a rain barrel
3. Add Fruits & Veggies!
Ask your children for suggestions on what they’d like to grow. Cut out squares of paper or card which represent 4’x4’ on the ground, to scale with your drawing plan. These are your raised beds, following the Square Foot Gardening method, which we heartily recommend. How many? For year one, plan no more than 1 4′x4′ raised bed per person in the household, and anticipate each bed requiring 1 hour of maintenance per week! Place the raised bed shape(s) on the planting area you identified on your map. If you’re doing more than one raised bed, leave 12” walking space between them so you don’t compact the soil by stepping on it.
Cut out circles representing edible fruit trees and bushes and place them in sunny areas with good drainage. Your orchard! Allow 4’ diameter for bushes, 8 – 10’ for trees. This is just a placeholder: tree size varies a lot from species to species. A later step will be learnng what fruit grows well in your area and making selections: tangerines, apples, cherries, blueberries, raspberries, apples…yum.
Consider adding a herb garden to your plan. Cut out a square (representing about 4’x4’) or a circle (4-5’ diameter) and place it in a sunny spot on the map. Visualize rosemary, oregano, sage, thyme…children love to pick the leaves and smell them.
4. Add Soil and Water Conservation
Chat with your children about plants needing water and good soil to grow. Draw or cut out a circle to represent a 2′ diameter rain barrel and place it where you mapped a suitable downspout. Cut out an additional square representing 4′x4′ to determine where your compost pile will go. Place it in a discreet shady spot on your plan.
Arrangement of features makes a big difference in how much your family enjoys the yard, and is the subject of thousands of books, websites and articles. Browse your library’s garden section. We’ve focused here on what components help you begin tending your garden for food and wildlife, rather than how to arrange them, but here are a few rudimentary layout ideas:
- Food plants are beautiful and can be mixed in with ornamentals in your existing layout. Check out Rosalind Creasy’s Edible Landscaping ideas.
- Plan “rooms” in your garden for specific purposes and activities, with boundaries (planted or built) and paths or gateways to other “rooms”. Think about how the components you add for watching wildlife and tending veggies can also define spaces for play, contemplation, conversation, grilling, reading. Just pick what is important for your family.
- If an open area is a square, try drawing a circle in the middle and plant around the edges. Bisect it with a path.
- Play with circles – overlapping circles, half circles, quarter circles.
- Picture the view from the street – what will neighbors enjoy seeing and smelling? Blueberry bushes on the property line make sharing fun!
- Copy: walk around neighborhoods with beautiful yards, visit botanical gardens, and note or sketch how things are arranged.
- Expertise: garden-loving friends, neighbors and folks at church will jump at the chance to share their ideas and knowledge with you!
- Web: PlantNative has some simple ideas for layout.
Remember that gardening magazines, websites, TV shows and commercials have a way of encouraging us to spend way too much money on everything. “Join the joyful revolt against the propaganda machine”, says Richard Foster about resisting advertising. Ordinary people have been creating beautiful gardens on low budgets forever. Create a budget but keep it modest, bearing in mind that all we have belongs to God, and stewardship is being responsible with it. Save money by repurposing materials, building a compost pile, collecting rainwater, making friends with gardeners, and learning how to make cuttings.
Don’t forget that home food production doesn’t stop with plants; many urban and suburban dwellers are successfully raising chickens and beekeeping; put it on your 5 year plan! On the other hand if you’re feeling overwhelmed, be reassured that you don’t have to do everything at once, or ever. To start small, or if you just have room for a pot, many fruits and vegetables can be grown beautifully in patio containers.
Next week: evaluate your current wildlife habitat and learn about butterfly gardens, bog gardens, meadows, water features, nesting boxes and more.
Mel Bartholomew, Square Foot Gardening (Emmaus, PA: Rodale 1981)