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Teaching My Child How to Garden: Summer Progress

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Inch by inch, row by row… Can the quiet growth of plants hold a kid’s interest for the long weeks of watering, weeding, and waiting?

By Robin Jacobs Posted Jul 7, 2014

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Much of the energy and excitement of gardening center around the initial tilling, planting, and sprouting. Just look at any garden picture book: in the simplified stories, we bury the seeds, sprinkle a little water, and wake up a few days later to reap our full-grown pumpkins and potatoes. In between, there’s a less glamorous stretch of day-to-day maintenance, and even many of us so-called grownups lose focus and let the dandelions flourish. It’s not surprising that kids too get distracted by summer fun and can be reluctant gardeners during the early summer months. They aren’t wired for the long waiting, or the repetitive tasks that fill the weeks until the tomatoes turn red.

When Alice and I were just getting started, the garden was a fantasy, sowing seeds a magical spell. She raced out each morning to see if the beet seeds had suddenly transformed into her favorite vegetable. As the weeks wore on, the bloom was off the cucumber blossoms, and the new trampoline held more allure than the growing tangle of green stuff we had called into being. Here are a few approaches we’ve used to keep the dream alive as the lettuce bolts and the tomato vines droop.

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Let it be their idea.

In our case, when I ask “Will you help me plant the bean seedlings?” (to replace the ones slugs ate), Alice always says no, because it sounds like a chore. But if I simply announce where I’m going, I may suddenly have an eager helper struggling to pull on her own boots and follow me. When that happens, I try to make it gratifying. Skipping the fussy prep work I might do by myself, I put a trowel in her hand and show her where to dig the hole. If I delay, the moment slips away. Having two of every tool becomes crucial, since I don’t want to stand around impatiently while she uses the only trowel to move her worms around to various new homes.

Don’t lose your own sense of wonder — it’s contagious.

There’s no shortage of “wow” moments in the garden. With a philosophical attitude, even the challenges can be fascinating: “Wow, look at that seething mass of tent caterpillars on the apple tree!” Then we take the time to really look, discuss, and even touch, up close and personal. That tiny green spider on the chard is at the center of its own story, its own fascinating tiny world. Sometimes, to generate those wow moments, we need to be a little crafty: stage a tea party next to the strawberry bed so your little one just happens to discover the first glowing-red nugget. Which brings me to:

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Mingle the “chores” with the rewards.

Weeding has more appeal when there are ripe peas on the vine overhead. Standing on a milk crate to thin the small green apples is full of laughs when we make a game out of tossing them into a bucket, or playing catch. And no one needs to teach a child how to have fun while watering with the spray hose. Alice and I like to make up silly songs about what we’re doing — kids are great at rhyming “kale” with “pail” and “squirt” with “dirt.”

Let excited kids be a little wild.

I try to have a sense of humor when caught in the path of that spray hose. By all means, model gentle and nurturing ways of touching the plants, and narrate what you’re doing and why. But if I follow her around with too many “careful!”s, or sharp tones of voice when she steps on a young parsley, Alice starts to feel like gardening is just like having tea on fragile china in Aunt Edna’s fancy parlor: she just wants to wiggle away. Thankfully, the midsummer garden is more resilient than spring’s freshly-planted neat rows, and abundant enough to tolerate some weed-pulling mistakes.

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Use “failures” as learning opportunities.

Why did one row of our sugar snap peas flourish, while the other looked stunted, then got slowly eaten by mysterious unseen pests? Most of the time, it’s the soil, and it can be an engaging detective game to piece together what we’ve done differently with the two beds, or how their respective locations vary. In our case, the poorly performing bed was too close to some big fir trees at the northern edge of the garden. Their well-established roots were sucking up all the nourishment and water, so the peas didn’t have a fighting chance. It’s not just Alice who’s learning every day. We had another disappointment when our much-anticipated currants were munched by hungry robins before sweetening. Oops, time to find some netting for the cherry tree before it’s too late! It turns out that a netted dwarf cherry tree is the most perfect summer playhouse.

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What’s for dinner? Let the kids decide.

While I’m prepping the main course, I hand Alice a colander and ask her to fill it up with greens. We make a clear agreement that she will leave certain plants alone which need more time to grow: the tiny carrots and green tomatoes, for instance. She glows with pride and responsibility as she bustles in with her findings, and sets to work arranging her “salad monster” (with olive eyes and celery legs) on a large plate, which she gleefully passes around the dinner table.

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Can I pick the flowers?

Can I hide in the pole bean tripod? Can I climb the apple tree? Say yes whenever you can. If you have some precious blooms you want to preserve in place (in our garden, glorious squash blossoms are tempting but forbidden), make sure your kids know exactly what is off-limits. Then show them plenty of “yes” flowers and plants that can be gathered with impunity, fed to stuffed animals, added to sand castles, or woven into flower-crowns. Same goes for tree climbing: we leave an overturned bucket under the sturdiest apple tree in the garden to encourage little feet to scramble up.

Keep the big picture in sight.

What is this gardening thing all about, anyway? When we go to the grocery store, we point out all the produce we don’t need to buy because we can just pluck it for free from our yard. We talk about where the supermarket vegetables come from and what it takes to get them to us — workers, water reservoirs, long-haul trucks, refrigeration, tanks of nitrogen gas, et cetera. At home, we witness our place in the ecosystem, and how we share some of our harvest and compost with the ravens, aphids, bees, red wrigglers, and field mice. Each of those creatures in turn supports many other forms of life in the web.

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By early July, the brightly colored planter that Alice and I filled with starters and seeds is literally overflowing: a picture of chaotic summer bounty. Did we over-fill it? Absolutely. But it’s a wonderful forest-labyrinth for small fingers and plastic dinosaurs to get lost in. She has been thrilled to offer flower arrangements “from my own garden” as gifts for her preschool teacher and a special friend’s birthday. The right to say “mine” brings her so much pleasure, that I try to set aside my preaching about sharing and family cooperation: she’ll get there. For now, she wants to email a picture of her favorite potato bug sitting on her petunias to Grandpa in Maine. And yes, “I want to hold the camera by myself!” thank you very much.

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Robin Jacobs grew up in the “back to the land” movement in rural Maine, and then made her way to the west coast where she now practices some of the same values of simplicity and sustainability with her husband and daughter. She holds a master’s degree in counseling psychology, with special interests in holistic nutrition and community systems.

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  • http://www.epicpassiveincome.com/ Elvis Michael

    Nice article, Robin. I used to live in The Dominican Republic as a kid, so being in the “countryside” i was learning a lot about gardening. Then i moved to the US and have lived in the city ever since. All my awesome skills are now a thing of the past, lol. Anyway, thanks for the great article..

    • Robin Jacobs

      Thanks for the feedback! You can always put a little planter on your balcony, roof, or windowsill to bring back those old skills — it’s great to have a little something growing even in the city.

  • Kelly Nicola

    I don’t have kids but I totally enjoyed this article. :) I think I’m a kid at heart so I might use some of these tips on myself, haha!

    • Robin Jacobs

      Believe me, the roles often get reversed in our household! I think we can all use some more “kid-energy” to keep things fresh.

  • http://www.facebook.com/MyHorta Angela Minetto

    I have 2 young grandchildren and I’ve been gardening with them all summer. It’s a great experience that I’m passing on to them as I did for my children. A great article.

    • Robin Jacobs

      What a beautiful way to continue the age-old tradition of hands-on knowledge passing down, generation to generation. Wonderful memories for your grandkids!

  • http://www.facebook.com/MyHorta Angela Minetto

    I loved this article. I made a small kitchen garden this summer just so my grandkids could help me and learn about where our food comes from. The only problem I have is that they taste/eat almost everything.

    • Robin Jacobs

      Their parents must be happy about that “problem” – though I can understand as a gardener that sometimes we want some of the produce to make it into the kitchen before eating! Sounds like a great togetherness activity for you and your grandkids.

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