'A food playground for kids': Urban farming for Seattle families
McNichols and his family with homegrown tomatoes in their Ballard backyard.
Journalist and co-author of The Urban Farm Handbook: City-Slicker Resources for Growing, Raising, Sourcing, Trading and Preparing What You Eat published by Mountaineer Books, Joshua McNichols began gardening with a P-Patch back in 1996. When he and his wife bought their Ballard-area home in 2006, they knew they wanted to convert part of the yard into a garden.
When the recession hit a few years later, their love of gardening took on new meaning. McNichols decided that he needed to turn what had been a hobby into a way for their growing family to produce enough good, healthy and affordable food to replace a significant part of their traditional grocery shopping and the cost that came with it.
For Joshua, his wife and their two children, now 9 and 6 years old, the benefits of backyard farming eventually went beyond the financial: forging strong friendships with a local community of fellow urban farmers — many by joining Seattle Farm Co-op (www.seattlefarmcoop.com) — and introducing their children to the joy of homegrown foods.
"We basically turned our garden into a food playground for kids," he says. "We wanted to create hands-on opportunities for them, like a petting zoo, but for food." To do this, his family grows fruits and veggies that are easy for kids to pick and snack on, including blueberries, everbearing strawberries, and smaller varieties of tomatoes, like cherry tomatoes, which ripen quickly and grow well in the Pacific Northwest.
"One of the best things you can do for your kids is to plant a tree with something sweet on it, as an investment for the years when they are less likely to go out and garden with you, but they are open to going out and harvesting their own snack," McNichols says. His family now has a few different fruit-bearing plum trees that his children love. "It's healthy, and it's a snack they can get for themselves right off the tree, which frees us up to make dinner."
"The great thing about urban farming is how scalable it is," he says. For families looking to try urban farming, McNichols advises starting small, by buying a large outdoor pot and planting some salad greens. "Take the time to test it out before you rip up your yard and realize you don't have the time to maintain it," he says. "Just pop it outside the front door or on your deck in a slightly shady spot." Just the act of having the pot outside your door will keep it at the top of your mind and remind you to use it, he says.
While there are limits to what you can plant in the fall in the Pacific Northwest, McNichols says that this is one of the best times to plant fruit trees and blueberry bushes, as well as kale, which will overwinter and then grow like crazy come springtime. You can also use this time to research and plan with your children what you will plant next spring!
You might also enjoy:
"Tips and Tricks for Creating an Urban Family Farm" from Lisa Taylor, former author, gardener and former manager of the children's gardening program at Seattle Tilth.
"Urban Farm Organizations are Taking Root" about local non-profits supporting the urban farm movement in our community.