It’s Okay To Play With Your Food

When planning your fall or spring garden, consider pint-size planters.

It’s the holy grail for many health-conscious parents: getting your children to eat vegetables. Many, like Jessica Seinfeld, have tried subterfuge. Others have tried pure force (“You can’t leave the table until your vegetables are gone!”) and paid for it down the line with therapy bills and rebellious teens who eat fast food. The room for play seems limited, since, from the dawn of time, parents have told children not to play with their food.

Playful Gardens, the Sag Harbor–based landscape design firm, has taken that advice and turned it on its head, creating play spaces where vegetables are the focus of fun. Once all the garden veggies have been eaten, a new cycle begins. Eat all of the spring shucking beans? Fine, now we can have fun planting the summer tomatoes. Like a modern day Willy Wonka minus the sugar and the funny hat, Sam Panton, designer at Playful Gardens, has set a goal of making each of his landscapes 30 percent edible. The pint-size, four-by-four-foot planters are the staple of the children’s gardens, but blueberry bushes, raspberries, gooseberries and blackberries are also on the menu. Just watch out for the thorns.

Sarah Drew, a self-proclaimed “food activist,” is responsible for much of the actual play that occurs at the planters. “The four-by- four planter is a good size for the kids to work with,” she says. “It will provide food for the family, but it’s also small enough to manage. We’ve also created cucumber tepees. The idea is to make it fun and educational. We install the planters and then we come back on a weekly or bi-weekly basis to work with the kids and teach them the whole cycle, from seed to fork.”

Other cycles are at work as well. Through sequential planting, children learn about eating with the seasons. Forget that mealy January tomato that has been shipped from Mexico. Your children’s hands and feet are all that’s needed to import tonight’s fall or winter salad. And the planters even come with an interesting backstory that can teach children about recycling: they’re constructed from wood reclaimed from old New York City water towers.

Playful Gardens is the sister company of landscape design firm Terra Designs, so they have an interest in aesthetics as well. “We always try to incorporate art into our gardens,” says Kenna Mackay, resident artist. “Often, we’ll turn one side of the planter into a chalkboard so that chil- dren can write what has been planted in- side. We even use old-fashioned cast-iron pumps as water features. They’re decora- tive and the children enjoy using their elbow grease to help water the garden.”

But in the end, play and aesthetics aside, it’s about getting the kids to eat healthy. Drew explains, “The children grow their own vegetables, take ownership and can even get somewhat militant about them. But then they eat them! They make the essential connection between the food in their garden and what’s on their plate.”

My Playful Gardens urges parents to “think past the slide.” Note to slide manufacturers everywhere: consider developing an edible slide. You have some new competition.