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Getting Kids Into Gardening, Part III: Creating a Resilience Garden

Hands-on experience in getting the most out of a garden is going to be an invaluable skill in the challenging times ahead and getting kids enthusiastically involved, in their early years, is important for their future resilience. Giving your garden (or part of it) a theme can help inspire children and this particular garden theme — a Resilience Garden — may particularly appeal to boys, which is not to say girls won’t enjoy it also, of course!

A Resilience Garden helps provide some of the things you may need, that can be grown rather than obtained from an outside source, if necessary, thereby making your family more self-sufficient. The following are some ideas you might like to have your children try in your Resilience Garden. Some of them only take a short time to grow to a useable state, other things are more long term projects… but you’ve got to start somewhere!

Obtaining Water from Plants

Plants, like us, contain a large amount of water — and we can access that water to drink, if water is scarce. It is mostly an emergency measure, as it’s difficult to produce huge quantities, but it’s a good skill for children to understand. Help your children choose plants to grow for this purpose, or search your garden for likely candidates. Basically, the more water the leaves contain, the more water you will get out. Succulents are ideal.

The plants should also be non-toxic, just in case! You possibly already have quite a few useful plants growing, but it’s fun to plant some especially for the purpose, so the kids get to be involved with the process the whole way through.

Your kids will find extracting water from plants a fun thing to try, so why not experiment and get the hang of it, even if it is unlikely you will ever need it. This is also a useful survival technique for ventures out into the bush, as long as you have the basic equipment with you. However, unless it really is an emergency, make sure that you are in an area where harvesting of vegetation is allowed, and you know that the plants are non-toxic, before trying this out.

At home, or away, you can make your own solar still, which operates on the principle of evaporation and condensation. Drinkable water is obtained from vegetation, using the heat of the sun to evaporate the liquid from the plant matter and condense it on a cooler surface. This water is then drinkable.

There are a couple of ways to create the effect you want, one very simple and the other a little more work, but still relatively easy. A sunny day will naturally be best for both of these methods.

Easy Bag Method

Just grab a plastic bag and tie it over a big clump of leaves and let the sun do its work. Water will come out of the leaves and condense on the plastic bag. You probably won’t get a lot of water this way, but it shows how the process works.

Solar Still

For this method, dig a hole in the ground in a location which will get sun for an extended period of time. The size will depend on how much water you want to distil and therefore how much plant matter you need to be able to fit in the hole. You may need some trial and error, but that’s good practice for the kids. I would suggest about 30cm x 30cm and 50cm deep for a first trial. You can make them quite large if you really want to collect a decent amount of water.

In the bottom of the hole, place a container, such as a plastic jug or ice cream tub, which will be your water collector. Lay your plant leaves- with as many juicy succulent leaves as possible- in the bottom of the hole, around the container.

Lay a piece of plastic over the top of the hole and secure with rocks. Allow the plastic to dip down in the centre of the hole, over your container, using a small rock or other heavy object to hold it in this lowered position. Make sure the weight is located directly above the container.

The sun’s heat will now cause water to evaporate out of the vegetation, and then condense onto the plastic. The condensed water will run down to the lowest point (which should be where your plastic is weighted down) and then drip down into your container. Leave the still for a few hours in the sun to do its work, then go back and harvest your very own solar distilled water!

Medicinal Plants

A good Resilience Garden should contain plants which provide natural remedies for simple medical problems. This should be approached with common sense, however, keeping in mind that not everything suits everyone — some natural remedies may interfere with prescription medication and certain conditions need professional medical care and should not be dealt with at home unless there is no option. Always consult a health professional if you are at all concerned.

Also, make sure you know how each plant is used for specific conditions, as not all are consumed! A substance that might have wonderful results when applied to a skin condition can be toxic if swallowed. It is important that your children understand these principles too.

Also, do not use any medicinal plant on an animal without asking your vet if it is safe, as they may lick it off themselves and risk poisoning, or even absorption through the skin can have toxic effects. Also, just because it’s safe for one type of animal doesn’t mean it’s ok for another. Sensitivity to potential toxins varies greatly between species.

Help your children research and choose some plants to grow which they think might be useful. Below are some suggestions:

  • Tea Tree — a very potent antiseptic and antifungal, and can be used to treat acne, but definitely not to be swallowed!
  • Eucalyptus — another good antiseptic can be made from the oil, as well as being useful as a decongestant.
  • Aloe Vera — wonderfully soothing and healing on burns and skin irritations. It can also be taken to help relieve digestive problems, but there are certain restrictions on who should take it and in what amount.
  • Calendula — good for skin conditions.
  • Thyme — not only a good cooking herb but a disinfectant too.
  • Nasturtiums — antifungal and antibacterial… and edible too, including leaves, seeds and flowers.
  • Chamomile — good for using on acne, and great for your hair too, plus you can make chamomile tea, which is a naturally soothing drink.
  • Garlic — a good antiseptic and antifungal, both for external and internal uses.
  • Lavender — the oil is a great natural antiseptic and inhaling the scent can help relieve stress and headaches.
  • Jasmine, lavender and rose oils are great for dry skin.
  • Sphagnum Moss — this one will probably fascinate children! It holds up to 16 times its weight in liquid and can be used for absorbent wound dressings as well as in your own home-made nappies or other absorption needing purposes.
  • Echinacea — This attractive and useful plant helps stimulate the immune system and is antiviral, antifungal and antibacterial.

You can make both an Echinacea root tincture and a flower tincture from home-grown Echinacea. It can be used both internally and on the skin. Research to find out recommended quantities for your particular requirement is recommended. Also, if you are pregnant, taking any medication, have a serious condition, or are intending to give it to your children, please consult your medical practitioner first.

Root Tincture

Add one cup of chopped Echinacea root to one cup of good quality vodka in a large glass jar with a screw-top lid. Store in a cool dark place and shake daily for about 6 weeks. Strain into a sterilised jar and throw the strained root matter onto your compost heap.

Flower Tincture

Put the Echinacea flowers in a glass jar with a screw-top lid until about 2/3rds full. Add good quality vodka until the jar is full. Shake daily for 2-3 weeks. Strain into a sterilised jar.
Your Echinacea tinctures can be put into smaller sterilised bottles for use and can be kept for 2 years or even longer.
To use the tincture without taking in the alcohol, add it to a hot cup of tea and allow the alcohol to evaporate before drinking.

These are just a few suggestions. There are many more useful medicinal plants. It’s often good to plant things which have multiple uses, such as for medicinal purposes and cooking and household cleaning, so find those plants which suit your needs best.

Edible Plants and Flowers

As a bit of an offshoot from the traditional veggie garden, your kids might find it interesting to grow things that aren’t commonly thought of as traditional food plants, but are edible nonetheless, and could be a useful part of a Resilience Garden.

Many plants, for instance, have edible nectar which, apart from being yummy, can be a valuable source of energy. Honeysuckle is probably one of the most well-known of these. Columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris) is also rich in nectar, and while the flowers are safe to eat the rest of the plant is mildly toxic. Pleurisy Root (Asclepias tuberosa) is fascinating. It produces so much nectar that it crystallises into sugary lumps which you can eat. You can also boil down the flower heads to make sugary syrup.

As mentioned in the medicinal plants section, nasturtiums are edible. The leaves add a spicy touch to salads, or can be used to roll up other ingredients as a wrap. The flowers are a beautiful edible addition to top a salad. The seeds can be used like capers. An added bonus is that nasturtiums help repel aphids, so plant them around other plants you want to keep aphid free.

Rose petals, violets and daylilies are edible and can be added to desserts or salads.

Grape vines don’t only produce grapes… the leaves are edible too and can be used to wrap and bake other ingredients.

Weeds such as dandelions and chickweed are edible. Watercress is another good one. Just add these to a salad or sandwich.

Warning: Please make very sure that you can identify, with certainty, what you are eating as you don’t want to misidentify and eat something toxic. Also, make sure that all the plants you eat are clean and have not had toxic chemicals used on them. Once again, make sure your children are also aware of these points.

Furniture and Household Uses

Children might find it fun to grow some things that can be turned into furniture or other household items, especially to furnish their cubby house or ‘fort’.

Bamboo is good for making lightweight furniture, or dolls furniture… however, make sure you keep it under control as it can spread and become a pest plant.
Strong smaller branches from trees can also be used to make furniture.

Baskets, place mats, coasters and even floor mats can be woven from plants such as hedge bamboo, palm leaves, broom and sage brush. Have a look at this site if you are interested in further information on making baskets from natural gathered materials.

Plant broom, heather and other similar brushy plants to make your own brooms. You may even find the kids have more enthusiasm to sweep the floors if it involves using their own hand-made broom!

If you have any large trees which drop branches or need to be cut back, plates, bowls, spoons, chopping boards etc. can be carved from big enough pieces of wood. Make sure the wood is non-toxic. A coating of food-safe varnish can be added. Decorative items can also be created.

Plant some gourds! These weird yet marvellous vegetables can be cut to use as all kinds of things, such as containers, bowls and cups, as well as decorative items, once dried.

Grow lemons to use in household cleaners. Lemon has a natural anti-bacterial quality, and the acid helps lift grease and stains. Mix with bicarbonate of soda to make quite a versatile cleaner for all kinds of home applications, including the kitchen and bathroom. It is non-toxic and therefore completely safe to use on food preparation areas. When using it on surfaces you haven’t tried before, it is advisable to do a surface test spot in an inconspicuous place before applying to the whole area, just in case an unwanted reaction occurs.

Plant a variety of fragrant plants such as jasmine, lavender, rose, carnations, sweet pea, wallflowers, frangipani, lemon-scented verbena, scented pelargonium, citrus (for its zest and flowers) along with herbs, from which scented oils can be made. These can then be used as room fragrances. The petals can also be used for making pot pourri.

Handyman Plants

Plants can help supply materials for various handyman jobs, so your children might like to try their hands at using some of these.

Onion juice can be used to prevent rust and even to remove rust.

The seeds from the flax plant can be used to make oil (linseed oil) which can then be used for waterproofing and mixing with dyes to make paint. Paint it on the wood of your garden benches or cubby house to give it a nice colour and protective coating.

Grow red cabbages to make your own pH indicator liquid. There are a couple of simple ways to make this:

  1. Finely grate your red cabbage, then place in a glass bowl. Add enough boiling water to cover the cabbage. Leave mixture to steep until the water cools to room temperature. Strain. It is now ready to use.
  2. Using a blender, blend chopped red cabbage with water that’s almost boiling. Be careful not to overfill and to use common-sense as you are dealing with very hot water which could cause serious burns if it sprayed out of your blender. This process is probably best carried out by an adult or teenage child, not little ones. Also, check that your blender can cope with very hot water. Strain ready for use.

Other plants can also be made into a pH indicator, such as red onion, blueberries, plums and red grapes.

You can turn your indicator liquid into indicator strips by soaking strips of coffee filter in the liquid for a few hours, then allowing to dry. These can then be dipped into the substances you wish to test.

With both the liquid and strips, the change of colour will allow you to get an indication of the pH level of your substance, as follows:

pH Colour
2 Red-Orange
4 Purple
6 Violet
8 Blue
10 Blue-Green
12 Greenish-Yellow

Have fun testing some substances such as lemon juice, vinegar, bicarbonate of soda, and bleach (with caution!). What else can you find that produces a good reaction?

String and rope can be made from strong plant fibres, such as reeds, flax, western balsam poplar and heather. For some useful tips on making home-made ropes, visit this site.

Bamboo and small branches can be used for garden stakes. Living stakes can be created by growing sweet corn and allowing climbing plants, such as beans, to grow up them. You get the beans and corn too!

Let the kids make their own water pipes from bamboo, especially giant bamboo, and see if they can run water to their paddle pool or sandpit.

Insect Repellents

Many plants have a natural ability to repel insects and we can grow these for our own advantage. By planting these in locations which need protection from certain pests, we can lessen their impact. Some can also be harvested and applied in the garden or the home to repel insects.

Onions and garlic can be turned into a spray for repelling insects and as a fungicide. Soak them in water then put that water into a spray bottle. To make it even more potent, add water and onion or garlic to a blender, blend, then strain. Pour this into your spray bottle, adding more water if it is too thick.

Pyrethrum daisies are a great natural pesticide, which is basically harmless to humans and animals but quite effective on insects. Keep in mind, however, that it will not only harm pests, but beneficial insects as well, so shouldn’t be used unless really needed. Usually, a healthy well balanced garden will be able to effectively balance its insect population, so you shouldn’t have to rely on external measures too often, but if you do have a bad infestation that you can’t seem to get under control pyrethrum might be your answer.

To make your own pyrethrum pesticide, harvest the flowers when in full bloom and hang in a dry, dark place and allow them to dry. Once dry, crush them with a mortar and pestle, or in your blender. The finer you can get it, the more effective it will be. You can use this powder directly as an insecticidal dusting powder. Alternatively, you can turn it into a spray by soaking about 5g of the powder in 3 litres of warm water for approximately 3 hours. Add about 1 ½ teaspoons of sesame oil and place in a spray bottle. Shake well before use.

Pyrethrum is much more effective in cooler temperatures and deteriorates faster in heat and light, so spray in the evening. Coat both the upper and under side of the leaves, and in any nooks and crannies, as the Pyrethrum needs to come into direct contact with the insect to work. You will need to apply at least once a day during your pest outbreak, and after rain or watering. Store any remaining powder in an airtight container in your freezer for up to 6 months.

Sage, spearmint and pennyroyal help repel ants.

Mint may help repel mice.

Plant nasturtiums, garlic and chives to repel aphids. Remember, aphids are food for ladybugs, so you don’t want to destroy your colony, so planting these natural repellents around specific plants you want to protect is a non-harmful way to control them.

Herbs such as rosemary, thyme and sage help repel cabbage moths.

You also want to attract beneficial insects and other creatures to your garden, which in turn helps control the pest population, so provide suitable habitat for them by planting a wide variety of flowers including lavender, lilacs, butterfly bush and bottlebrushes. For some information about attracting butterflies see my article ‘Creating a Butterfly Garden.’

Hopefully these suggestions have given you some ideas about getting your kids started on their very own Resilience Garden. Naturally, it is important to talk to your children about why you are creating this garden and the benefits it may have for you in the future, in an age-appropriate way. Allow them to be involved every step of the way, from the planning and deciding what you are trying to achieve, the planting and care of the plants, to the harvesting and eventual creation of the product or item you are making. They need to understand the purpose and process of what they are doing, along with the all-important hands-on experience. It will serve them well in the future, in more ways than will be apparent at the time.

Gardens teach us so much more than just how to grow plants… they allow us to grow ourselves too. Give your children the opportunity to develop and grow with a connection to nature… alongside their garden.


  1. What an amazing series of incredibly helpful ideas for getting kids into gardening. I must be a big kid because it has most certainly got me wanting to grow more bamboo, get some red cabbages planted (those pH testers are expensive…) and have some fun isolating some water filled plants. It just goes to show, a different slant on gardening can open up a whole new world of excitement. You just think you are starting to get a bit jaded and suddenly BAM you get a new insight. Cheers for these amazing articles and please keep writing!

  2. Excellent article- so many great ideas, and it goes way beyond a basic gardening piece. I love the mention of medicinals. These are an important part of our garden here and always have been. I teach the children how to make their own medicine from when they are very young. You’ve given me some new ideas, though, like the solar still and the household/furniture ideas. My mind is already coming up with some plans- thank you!

  3. Hi Anthea,

    Really enjoyed your article, the suggestions were excellent. Plus the photos were really good and captured the magic of a diverse garden. My grandfather introduced me to growing vegetables as a child back in the 70’s and I owe him a debt of thanks.


  4. Thank you to those who have responded for their lovely comments. I really appreciate the feedback and the appreciation for my writing!

    I have home educated my son- he’s 17 now- so I have tried to be creative in coming up with ideas for learning some of the important concepts (to me) in enjoyable, practical hands-on ways.

    I hope that my ideas will be helpful to others. I love coming up with learning activities. There is the next article in this series awaiting publication, so look out for it! I also have some other kinds of activities for teaching kids about environmental issues (plus grown-up articles)on our website if anyone is interested.

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