Life Lab Toolkit: My Edible Garden | Civil Eats

Life Lab Toolkit: My Edible Garden

In my neck of the woods of California, namely the Santa Cruz Mountains, there are a few things that put us on the map.  As with any locale, there are the natural landmarks, the historical facts of significance, and the cultural legacies that bring a sense of pride to the place residents call home.  And more often than not, regional foods bring acclaim to an area, especially when famous restaurants incorporate them into their menus. For us, one of those places is Manresa.

I’m not going to dive into a long description of why this eating destination is amazing, nor will I talk about Chef David Kinch much at all. The restaurant’s close relationship with a specific food source, namely Love Apple Farm, explains the success of its seed to fork philosophy. (Recently, fellow Civil Eats editor, Naomi Starkman, described a similar example in Sonoma County.)

The ultimate, most literal way that Manresa promotes its food philosophy is in its signature dish entitled “Into the Vegetable Garden.” Here is Joyce Goldstein’s description from a 2009 article in Saveur:

“Kinch offers a simple starter called Into the Vegetable Garden: a selection of seasonal vegetables served raw or cooked gently in their own juices and presented on the plate with a dusting of dehydrated chicory “dirt” that tastes earthy and bright at the same time. In another cook’s hands this dish might come across as precious, but with each bite you sense Kinch’s reverence for the garden and his passion for keeping the vegetables as alive as possible.”

What a delicious way to highlight and experience a garden’s bounty, and hooray for elevating the importance of real food. But it doesn’t take a chef to assemble a beautiful canvas of just harvested, homegrown goodies. In fact, little kids can do it too. Why not teach this reverence for the garden at an early age, so that a plateful of vegetables is an exciting sight to behold?

On the forefront of that movement is an organization just a stone’s throw over the mountain from Manresa. Life Lab Science Program in Santa Cruz has developed ways to encourage environmental education by spearheading lesson plans, programs, workshops, and widespread projects that provide methods for the natural world to remain linked in our modern lives. The following activity is adapted from “Sowing the Seeds of Wonder,” one of many books and curriculum that Life Lab has created to broaden garden-based learning for generations to come. This specific activity is practically a kids’ version of Kinch’s dish, to help them appreciate, participate in, and savor the wonders of the growing food around them.


Description: Children use their imaginations to create miniature “gardens” of vegetables and herbs on a cracker.

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Background: Children are far more likely to try new foods, and like them, if they have a hand in growing, harvesting, or preparing the foods. Children are especially likely to sample new foods if they are presented in a spirit of fun, creativity, and adventure.


  • A variety of edible herbs from the garden
  • A variety of colorful vegetables
  • Edible flowers and seeds (sesame, sunflower, poppy)
  • An edible spread (cream cheese, hummus, etc.)
  • Large crackers
  • A sharp knife to chop vegetables (for adult use)
  • Cutting board
  • Bowls
  • Spoons
  • Butter knife

Preparation: Ask the children to help harvest the produce ahead of time. Wash and slice, chop or grate as needed, then place each variety into its own small bowl with spoons for serving. Place bowls on table, making sure they are easily accessible to all the children seated at the table. Prepare the crackers with chosen spread and hand out one per child.

Activity: Take children on a walk through the garden and ask them to describe what they see there. What are the parts of a garden? (Plants, rocks, pathways, trees, soil, etc.) Tell the children they are going to use their imaginations to create their own miniature gardens today…and then they get to eat them!  Make sure everyone washes their hands, then gather at the table and show the children a cracker with spread. Tell them, “In my imaginary little garden, this will be the soil covering the ground.” Now demonstrate how to stick bits of vegetables, herbs, flowers and seeds to create a pretend garden. For example, a small broccoli floret might represent an apple tree, shredded beets might become a pathway, etc. Dole out the prepared crackers, and as the children are creating their edible gardens, ask questions to encourage them to describe what they see and what is growing in it.  Before eating the crackers, ask for volunteers to show and describe their edible gardens to the class. Once everyone has had a chance to share, dig in!

Tying it Together:  After eating, take a walk around the garden again. Ask, “How is this garden like your pretend edible garden? How is it different? What would you like to add or change in our outdoor garden?”

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Digging Deeper:  Teach the children about the six plant parts—roots, stems, leaves, flowers, fruits, and seeds. Collect a sample of each from the garden or a farmer’s market and have the children create a cracker for each plant part. Or, make edible rainbows using fruits and vegetables of every color on crackers spread with cream cheese.

Amber Turpin is a freelance food and travel writer living in the Santa Cruz Mountains. A long time Good Food advocate, she has owned, operated and helped launch several food businesses. She is a regular contributor to Civil Eats, various Edible magazines, and the San Jose Mercury News. Read more >

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  1. The edible garden activity mentioned above is documented in the following video where parents are shown leading children in a variety school garden activity stations.

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