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How to: Start a Kitchen Garden-Alternative Education Programs

Tending to a kitchen garden and producing family meals from them, can be a great way for children to understand and enjoy healthy eating, says Robyn Cook.

The schools-based Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Program is designed to be implemented with a school’s curriculum, in which students across Years 3 to 7 learn everything they need to know to grow, harvest and prepare fresh, seasonal produce as well as creating meals by maintaining organic vegetable gardens that are located on school grounds. There are 267 participating schools across Australia.

As a chef, Stephanie Alexander developed the program believing that when children are involved with the food-production process from start to finish they have a better understanding of how to make and appreciate nutritious food.

Outside of school, gardening is also an ideal activity for families, allowing children to learn about the outdoors, helping save money on grocery bills and establishing positive lifelong food habits. Here are some tips on how your family can start a kitchen garden at home:

Find A Space

Gardens come in all shapes and sizes, from a windowsill to a backyard filled with garden beds – so don’t be put off by size. If you’re new to gardening, start small. Growing sprouts on the kitchen windowsill is easy: within days you get crunchy, juicy sprouts to add to salads and sandwiches. Then try a few pots of herbs outside the back door – try parsley, chives and mint for starters, and basil during the warmer months. Fresh herbs in your meals will provide inspiration for growing more.

In the backyard, you’ll need to first consider sunlight and access. Your plants will need sunlight, so watch the sky over the day and see where the sun hits the most – you’ll want to put your vegie patch there. Keep the garden as close to the house as possible so it’s easy to get to, and make sure children will be able to access all parts of it. If you have space, create a few beds. A bed no wider than 1.5m that can be accessed from both sides is ideal. A bed between 30cm and 60cm high will take less filling and is easy to reach into. Both are important considerations for a child’s garden.

If you’re low on space or accessibility, try pots (even for small fruit trees) and no-dig beds (apple crates filled with compost lasagne make instant planters, for example). Try mushrooms in readily available kits; hanging baskets full of herbs, berries, Asian greens and nasturtiums; and old-fashioned pot stands to make the most of available space. You can create ‘pots’ from old colanders, boots, bathtubs, wheelbarrows, drawers and baskets – just steer clear of anything that once held toxic chemicals.

When planting straight into the ground, look at your soil type and drainage – you want the soil to be dark, crumbly and full of worms, and dense enough to hold some water, but not too much (not too sandy, not too full of clay).

Gather Your Supplies

Preparing your soil with good compost, manure and mulch will fix a multitude of problems. Composting introduces the necessary microbes, carbon and nitrogen, and keep in mind that it’s the microbes in the compost that do all the hard work– so make sure you put them in. Microbes are everywhere, especially in molasses, yoghurt, fallen timber that is spongy and algae from dam edges. You can introduce carbon through ‘brown’ items such as dried leaves, straw and shredded newspaper, and nitrogen through ‘green’ items such as vegie scraps. Check the web for a good ‘compost lasagne’ recipe.

Forking some good compost and manure through your soil, then mulching thickly with straw or lucerne, will give your soil the best start and lead to strong, healthy and fruitful crops.

Finally, invest in gardening gloves in the right size for each member of the family, a few trowels and buckets, a watering can, a wheelbarrow and secateurs for harvesting.

Plant With Purpose

Start with easy growers such as pumpkins, potatoes, beans, zucchinis and lots of different lettuces – whatever is in season (just check with your local nursery or farmers’ market and make them your new best friends).

When preparing for planting, only buy what you can plant that day – you can always go back next week. Only buy a few of each vegetable, then continue to plant every week or so. This will ensure you have a ready harvest over the season, and avoid a glut. bando maps However, you might want some gluts too: tomatoes, basil, parsley, eggplant and plenty of other vegetables and herbs can be turned into delicious soups, sauces and pickles, extending the harvest and providing another wonderful family activity, this time in the kitchen. Children love to see their produce being used, so plant things you know will be used in a meal (you may be surprised at what children want to eat when they’ve grown and cooked it themselves).

Manage The Upkeep

Remember that gardens need to be maintained. This should only take a short amount of time each day, and enlist the whole family to help. Children love a job that has a clear outcome, so get them looking for the good, the bad and the beautiful – unfriendly bugs and weeds, but also flowers and shoots – and they’ll soon become protective of their growing crops.

Be sure to keep up the water according to the needs of the plants, which at times may also need protection from wind, very hot sun and frosts.

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