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Kid-friendly equals bug-friendly in the garden

Photo By: Tanya Kucak/Special to the Town Crier
Photo Tanya Kucak/Special To The Town Crier

Native mock orange, right, attracts butterflies and other beneficial insects. In the spring, the large shrub is covered with fragrant flowers.

Bugs, insects, creepy crawlers, birds, butterflies – any living organism children can relate to – are among the easiest ways to engage children in the garden, according to garden designer Alrie Middlebrook.

“(Children) like getting their hands dirty and wet” in worm bins, compost, ponds and the vegetable garden, and they like seeing “what’s alive in the soil,” she said.

Middlebrook heads the California Native Garden Foundation, which offers garden-based classes for children in grades 2-8 at its outdoor learning laboratory in San Jose’s Willow Glen neighborhood through its Environmental Laboratory for Sustainability and Ecological Education (ELSEE) project.

The goals and hands-on approach of ELSEE are similar to those of the Los Altos School District’s Living Classroom Program, said Living Classroom founder Vicki Moore.

Both ELSEE and the Living Classroom teach about plants not as individual, interchangeable entities, but as part of an ecosystem and in relation to the animals that depend on it.

To teach pollinator relationships, for example, ELSEE starts with a butterfly. Following its life cycle, the children learn about the butterfly’s host plants during its larval phase (caterpillar). They then explore that same butterfly’s nectar plants in its adult phase.

“The butterfly wouldn’t be there without the plant,” Middlebrook said, so a discussion of pollination leads back to the importance of plants in the ecosystem.

Students learn about the parallel evolution of the butterfly and those critical host and nectar plants.

For those planting a butterfly garden, it’s important to realize that caterpillars eat host plants. If you want butterflies, expect plants to get munched.

To design kid-friendly gardens, Middlebrook focuses on protecting ecosystem services before choosing specific plants. Healthy ecosystems provide such services as pollination, nutrient cycling, water purification and climate regulation. A good garden design allows the natural cycles and processes to operate. In practical terms, the design challenge is to avoid disrupting the natural systems, Middlebrook added.

Following are some design elements that help preserve ecosystem services.

• Don’t use impervious surfaces. Instead, choose pervious concrete or decomposed granite where a hard, uniform surface is needed. Or use stepping stones, gravel or some other surface that allows water to be absorbed into the soil rather than running off.

• Keep rainfall on site. Rain barrels and cisterns can hold a small percentage of annual rainfall, but a small pond, a dry well, grading or other techniques may also be needed to divert water from storm drains.

• Use locally native plants to attract native pollinators. Choose plants that occur together in the wild to more closely approximate a native ecosystem.

• Use local materials. It takes a large amount of energy to transport materials long distances. This energy is a factor in the “embedded cost” of the materials.

• Avoid pesticides and herbicides. Instead, encourage more life in the garden. Attract the bugs that prey on plant-eating bugs by planting native insectary plants from the appropriate ecosystem. Plants such as yarrow and globe gilia have tiny flowers that attract a wide range of pollinators and other beneficial insects. Let your population of aphids grow enough to attract the beneficial insects that eat them.

Tanya Kucak gardens organically. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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