We are headlong into the planting season, and for busy families with small children, that means creating a “kitchen garden.” Drawing from our rich French heritage, a French “potager” kitchen garden would consist of flowers, vegetables and herbs mixed artfully together just outside the kitchen door. For St. Louis families, the winning formula for maximum success mixed with minimum effort = zinnias mixed with herbs.
Be sure to plant parsley, and here’s how I did it when I was a nature teacher at a public pre-school: Plant the parsley in a terracotta pot, and sink the pot into the ground, where it won’t dry out easily. Yes bunnies will eat parsley, so you may have to cage the pot, or elevate it and thus commit to watering it twice daily during the heat of the summer. Square foot gardening also works nicely, as baby bunnies can’t/won't hop into the raised beds.
Come September, and the start of school, your parsley plant will be filled with about a dozen baby black swallowtail caterpillars. Pop the pot out of the ground, dust it off and put it on your kitchen table, or your preschool table. Have kids touch the caterpillars and watch their crazy yellow “alarm” antennae pop out. It’s wildly exciting to have living creatures enjoy lunch with you, and the caterpillars won’t leave the parsley pot for any reason whatsoever. (Until they are about two or three weeks old, when they want to wander off to form a chrysalis.)
When the caterpillars magically start to double in size every day, put the pot into a breathing terrarium, with a few sticks, and the caterpillars will soon each form a chrysalis. Put the terrarium against a cold wall in the basement and forget about it until Spring Break. Before Spring Break, remember to put the terrarium in your refrigerator: it is so sad to come home from Spring Break to discover dead butterflies, and the refrigerator technique averts this unfortunate circumstance.
After Spring Break, bring the terrarium out of the refrigerator and into the classroom to warm up the butterflies and see what unfolds. If you are lucky, you will discover a brand new droopy butterfly one morning; or you may get super-lucky and get to witness the butterfly actually hatching out. There is nothing more thrilling than setting a brand new butterfly free on a beautiful spring day, and it often inspires the children to burst into spontaneous song; so have your recording device at the ready.
Planting a “potager” garden demonstrates the “Land Ethic” that Aldo Leopold espoused, the idea that our community is comprised of not just people, but also the creepy crawlies, the plants, the animals and the land. It is an old indigenous idea that the creatures are our brothers and sisters, and we are in harmony when we plant a kitchen garden not only for ourselves, but for our brothers and sisters as well. Children must be taught directly how to care for the earth and each other, and a kitchen garden is a simple way to do it that works easily within the confines of our busy modern lives.
So that’s it! Plant parsley, and you have already made the world a better place.