Growing Green, A Family Gardening Series: Week 5

The Backyard Garden, your Connection to Nature

Already in my social media feeds, I’m seeing friends’ pictures of their first harvests or first meals featuring their garden produce. Not just the early perennial fruits – rhubarb, strawberries, haskap – but annual crops as well: lettuce, kale, radishes, spinach. The first taste of the garden is often the most exciting part of gardening, for kids. Planning a garden for harvests throughout the season can help keep kids motivated.

Author Barbara Kingsolver created an imaginary plant, the “vegetannual” for learning the parts of a plant and helping people eat in season.

Parents & Kids can check out Generation Genius: Parts of a Plant for full lessons and a video, but the best learning is done outside!

Here’s a diagram that can help them identify parts: 

(Photo credit: RHS Campaign for School Gardening) 

Almost all of the vegetables we eat are flowering plants (angiosperms) and go through the same stages of growth, and at each stage there are some vegetables whose parts are edible. The vegetannual goes like this in order (mostly) of growth and readiness to be eaten: Sprouts, leaves, mature leaves, flowers, young fruit, mature colourful fruit, hard-shelled fruits, seeds, roots.

Plants whose leaves we eat include lettuce, spinach, and kale. Lettuce and spinach often flower quickly in hot weather and go to seed; their eating season can be short unless you plant them a few times during the season. Mature leaves include cabbages – although you can also leave these to the end of the season as they sweeten after a light frost.

Broccoli and cauliflower don’t look like the colourful flowers we plant for beauty or insects, but they are. Other edible flowers include nasturtium, calendula, and squash flowers (delicious stuffed and fried).

Once the young fruit are ready, you may be in for an avalanche of vegetables. These include peas, zucchini, cucumbers, and bush/pole beans. These often overlap with red and yellow peppers (green are an unripe form of these peppers, but still tasty), and tomatoes. Hard-shelled fruits include winter squash and pumpkin.

At the end of the season come dried beans – pole or bush beans left on the vine until the pods and seeds are dry - like kidney or black beans. I often leave root vegetables such as carrots and parsnips in the ground until after a light frost because the cold stimulates them to convert starch to sugars, sweetening them. Potatoes and beets are another root that can be harvested quite late, depending on the size that you like.

Unlike industrial farming of commodities like wheat, canola, chickens, or potatoes, your garden harvest happens throughout the year instead of all at once, and you get to know plants intimately. This knowledge is a form of connection to nature. I talk to farmers a lot in my research, and many of them talk about how people today are distanced from their food. Some farmers mean that people don’t appreciate the hard work that goes into growing food for people. Others see a disconnect from the land as one reason why prairie ecosystems are threatened; for example, native prairie is disappearing at an alarming rate and many urban people don’t seem to notice or care. Growing a garden can be a step towards understanding, and perhaps more. Robin Wall Kimmerer, a botanist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, meditates in her book Braiding Sweetgrass:  

I wonder if much that ails our society stems from the fact that we have allowed ourselves to be cut off from that love of, and from, the land. It is medicine for broken land and empty hearts.

I hope you find peace and pleasure in your garden this week.

Naomi Beingessner has lived and gardened in the Prairies for most of her life. She has two children, an enthusiastic gardener and an enthusiastic eater. She was a high school teacher and is now back in university studying food sovereignty. Her favourite vegetable is green beans but she finds that the most significant taste difference between store-bought and home-grown is in tomatoes.