Growing up in Michigan, my mom had a vegetable garden that she grew just adjacent to our back porch. I remember her excitement at bringing in lettuce leaves, making rhubarb bread, and trying to recover from spying the occasional slithering garden snake.
I don’t remember getting involved in the gardening process much, other than eating (and probably complaining about eating) the vegetables and fruits that were grown there, but now – deep into parenthood myself – I appreciate much more the effort involved in raising young children and trying to keep plants alive and growing, too.
I started a garden in our California backyard when my first child was nearly one year old with the simple intention of trying to save a little money by growing some of our own food. As we added another child to our family, my commitment to gardening waned because, well, children. But we are finally coming to the surface for air again this growing season with a 3-and-a-half-year-old and a one-and-a-half-year-old, and I’m trying to approach it with new intentions as I get my children involved.
Here’s what I hope to show them without directly telling them:
1 | Good things take time.
It’s been roughly 80 days since our first tomato plants were planted earlier this spring. We have harvested four tomatoes so far, each on separate days, two of which were bite-size cherry tomatoes. The anticipation of a ripened tomato has been hard for my daughter when I tell her they aren’t quite ready yet, especially when I’ve enticed her outside with, “Let’s check and see if the tomatoes are ready!”
However, the few times we have taken a ripe one off the vine, sliced it, sprinkled it with a little salt, and bitten into it have been moments worth the wait. We’ve even convinced her to categorize tomatoes as a “dessert” item. (Relax… she’s known about chocolate for years.)
2 | You don’t have to be an expert at something to start doing it.
My in-laws, who live in the heart of farm country in Ohio, farmed for many years while my husband and his sister were young. They had each grown up on farms, and while they transitioned later on to other work, they’ve always continued to grow plants of various kinds through the growing seasons in their sizable garden plot.
Occasionally, my father-in-law will email us pictures and videos of what they’re growing and the process involved. My current garden plot is about 64 square feet of raised beds from prefabricated materials that I bought at Home Depot. Needless to say, I sometimes feel a little self-induced pressure to make my puny little garden plot a success. But in the last couple years of growing, seeing failed growth in some plants (usually because I’ve failed to water properly), and abundance in others, I’ve still been glad to have started it. Failure is not the end – it’s a chance to learn what to do better the next time.
3 | Gratitude for water.
We live in drought-stricken California. Our own backyard is more green than it has a right to be living in a desert climate, so we try to be as conscious as possible about our water usage while still maintaining our sanity as parents of young children. We talk about what wasting water looks like, and for a while we tried to save rain water on the rare occasions that it would rain (I’d still love to do it, but it ended up creating new problems for us as breeding ground for flies).
I try to point out to my children when the leaves of the plants wither in the hot sun, and get my older one to guess what the plant might need. When the plant perks up a bit after being soaked, it’s a good opportunity to point out the power of water, and connect it back to our household use.
4 | Sharing food is a good way to meet neighbors.
I haven’t yet gotten to the point this summer where we have enough excess that we are trying to give it away, but I purposely planted more tomato plants than we could devour on our own. In a world where everyone and their brother is on some Paleo or Whole 30 diet, the one food I know is always safe to give is vegetables. When the vegetables you have are low-cost and delicious (hint: heirloom tomatoes will beat store-bought every time), it makes it easy to share the love.
Last summer, when we were gone for a period of time, I enticed friends to water our garden for us with the promise of delicious tomatoes in return. Several quickly volunteered, and I already have one friend asking if we need help again this summer.
5 | Dirt don’t hurt (and it isn’t dead).
We have a compost pile out back to which we add non-dairy kitchen scraps, grass clippings, and dead leaves. It’s taken about a year or two to get really good soil from it, but the other day I scooped some out into a box to prepare for planting tomato seedlings (the first time I’ll be starting them from seed!), and before I could get all of the materials prepared for the dirt, my kids were getting their hands dirty picking out worms, rolly-poly bugs, and baby grubs. It kept me from getting the seeds planted right away, but I loved watching what they were learning simply through using their hands to discover what kind of life was lurking in the dirt from the compost pile. They spent a good twenty minutes entertained by dirt while sitting outside in the sun (bonus: I got a good twenty minutes of no whining from boredom. Bliss.)
There are endless other little lessons that I hope my children pick up on through the process of our gardening journey. I’m looking forward to the ones they point out to me someday.