When I was a kid, we had a small plot in the back of our house, just big enough to grow a few various and sundry things in. I don't really remember what we grew, but I remember having it. As I got older I began to take part in the activities of gardening. Like many families, mine always had a garden and I learned how to grow all manner of delicious things—tomatoes, corn and basil were my favorites. Like my family, I plan to teach my children how to grow their own food as well, for a variety of reasons. For one, it's fun. It's work, sure, but it is fun. These days, however, it seems all the more more important to know where your food is coming from, and to eat as healthfully as possible. Having a garden, however big or small, is one step toward eating well and being in control of where your food is coming from.
The great thing about a garden (OK, one of the many great things) is that you can create one anywhere. Gardens can be in your backyard, in community areas, in the backs of trucks (I've seen them), in window boxes and in something as small as a used yogurt container. You can live in a mansion or an apartment or anything in between and still have some iteration of a garden. The smaller a garden or garden project, the easier it is for little hands to manage. And small hands can—and most certainly will want to—help with any sort of gardening. I mean, come on, it involves cool tools and mud. What's not to like?
Successfully growing things kids like to eat can be a little tricky. It is perhaps the most difficult part of gardening. Of course, many a family has opted to grow non-edible things like flowers and plants, but the challenge of growing those green things that only adults seem to eat can be one the whole family enjoys. Depending on the size, amount of sun and type of soil comprising the area of your plot—all of which, by the way, are worth explaining and discussing even if they go right over your youngster's head—you can grow things as varied as herbs, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers (probably NOT the hot kind), asparagus, eggplant, squash and pumpkins, and Brussels sprouts.
Yes, I said Brussels sprouts. These veggies get a bad rap, and I was thinking perhaps if the family grows them, and raising them is part of a family effort, perhaps said family will then eat them. Or at least try them. Maybe not. But, maybe. I know some pretty serious family bonding that occurred over a shared love of Brussels sprouts. Just sayin'.
Despite the decision on what to grow—to eat or not to eat, things that smell nice or look pretty or allegedly put extra oxygen into the air, whatever's easiest -- most of the fun comes from caring for whatever it is you've planted. And speaking of planting, that part seems to top kids' priority lists. They just love dirt, those kids, don't they? Actually, there's much to be said for getting down in the dirt or soil and working it. Give a kid a stick or a shovel and tell her to have at the ground? 'Nuff said.
Once that ground is worked—assuming you have actual ground to work with, as opposed to, say a window unit or the aforementioned yogurt container like the one in my kitchen—let your child hold the tiny seed that will be the fruits of your labor in his or her hand. Explain how something that small can grow into something robust. Explain how that process is possible through love, care, food, water and attention -- just like a child. Then explain about patience. It takes time as much as anything else to see a sprout or a bud, but it's well worth the wait.
Checking the plant daily for changes and growth helps with alleviate issues with patience. It also gives children the chance to observe life emerging and unfolding, and gives parents the opportunity to engage their children in creative conversation about what is happening. Better yet, imagine together what the plant will look like when fully grown. Your child can keep a log of drawings of the plant-to-be in its various stages of growth to help learn about the growing process as well as bide some time (unless you're growing Brussels sprouts, in which case there may be a preference to let the plant takes its sweet time).
Watering the plant, checking the soil, and feeding it if necessary are all activities well-suited for small hands. Trimming, tying and pruning are all things a parent should do, but kids can still enjoy by listening to the parent explain why such activities are sometimes necessary to help a plant along. If you're starting with yogurt containers, transferring the plants to larger pots can also be a fun project during which you can explain roots.
At the end of the season, which varies by both where you live and what you're growing, the family should have something to show for their collective efforts. For some of us, it's a fern or a spider plant or an African violet, as they tend to work really well in small places without a lot of natural, regular light. For others, it's a nice big salad made of home grown lettuce and tomatoes. For others it's the larger bounty of squash and melons. Regardless of what is grown, a gardening project is an ongoing opportunity to learn about product as well as process, and that there is a joy to be had in both.
For most, whatever herb, fruit or vegetable is grown tends to produce too much of a good thing. When excess accumulates, the opportunities for teaching are limitless. Pass some on to a neighbor or friend, and teach your child about sharing. Take part in the ages old tradition of canning and preserving, and teach the equally old adage of waste not want not -- indeed, one of the great things about growing your own fruits and veggies is the ability to use them in so many different ways, many of which last much longer than what's fresh from the vine. Still have leftovers? Teach about composting!
From start to finish, from seed to sprout to, well, compost, gardening with your child can be the most rewarding and tasty of experiences. Even if you don't eat what you grow -- spider plants or Brussels sprouts -- the opportunities to learn about the living world, our place in it and how we can both help it and benefit from it are essentially endless...especially if you plant something that returns every year.
The older your child gets, the more involved he can become with the gardening process. Hopefully, right along with the African violets, tomatoes and Brussels sprouts, you'll be cultivating a life-long relationship between your kids and the living world.
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