Last night, while the garden snoozed under blankets of snow, I placed a jar of our home-canned pickles on the dinner table. “Pickles,” mused my six year old son thoughtfully, “aren’t like food you grow. They come from another food.”
It could have been an answer from Jeopardy! The Kindergarten Round, as in: “I’ll take Food Preservation for $100, Mama.”
I could see Col flipping through his mental files, perhaps conjuring up the hot September day we plucked cucumbers from scratchy vines, or the corresponding night when cucumbers, garlic and dill seeds marched through the pickling assembly line of our kitchen.
“They’re from cucumbers!” Col remembered, and a chorus of angels blew trumpets in my garden-loving heart.
As a dedicated backyard farmer and food preservationist, I spend much of summer planting, weeding, watering and wading through the rich and tangled ecosystem of my garden. When my two children were babies I ran out to the garden, milk-stained and breathless, yanking ten weeds while they slept. Now that they’re four and six, we spend our days in the garden together, exclaiming over the first zucchini blossoms, monitoring the movements of garden insects and prying long, sweet carrots from the earth.
For me, gardening with my children is about connecting them to the food we eat and the land that nourishes us. For them, it’s about discovering a wilderness of life on our 1/8 acre city plot.
Ways to Connect Children to Gardening
Let children help to the best of their abilities.
When young children help, jobs often take longer and are messier. Adjust your expectations, knowing that along with vegetables you are nurturing competence, curiosity and knowledge of where food comes from. Even small children can place seeds in rows or scatter lettuce mix on a prepared bed of soil. Kids love to hand-water, either by hose or by scooping water out of large buckets and ferrying to plants. If during the course of “work,” a water fight breaks out or someone gets sidetracked by the sudden need to build a snail habitat, then all is right in the garden.
Plant a grazing garden.
I plant cherry tomatoes, green beans and snap peas in accessible, easy-to-reach areas so my children can partake of the grab-and-go, raw treats of the garden while they are outside playing. Children will take ownership of plants they’re allowed to harvest from, protecting a strawberry until it blushes red, and delighting in the tangible, delicious rewards of a summer’s work.
Explore the ecosystem.
Every garden contains life, death, predator, prey, excrement, disease, pollination, life cycles, mating and more. Last summer my children tracked the movements of our gooseberry-dwelling cat-faced spider like secret service. They made soap from soapwort flowers and “adobe” bricks from the claylike soil. See if your children can find five insects and learn their names. Dissect a flower (squash plants, which have male and female flowers, lend themselves well to this.) Look for worms in your soil. Track a tomato plant from seed to fruit. Measure the daily growth of a zucchini.
Give kids their own play/work spaces.
Please don’t think for a second that while I’m yanking bindweed from the broccoli patch, Col and Rose are systematically consulting their list of garden chores and checking off tasks. Often, as I zoom around the garden, the kids are swirling mint leaves into our chickens’ water bowl or dragging everything out of our shed. Someone usually is naked, the other mud-splattered. When I realized how magnetized Col was to the soil in our garden beds, I gave him his own dirt pile to mix and haul and turn into the gloppiest mud he desires. Rose is allowed to pick as much yarrow, mint and hawthorn berries as she wants, brewing “tea” for the chickens or an imaginary mouse family. The more outside spaces the kids have to make their own, the longer we’re all happy outside.
Cherish the lessons.
I am grateful for what my children learn through the backyard school of dirty fingernails. Never underestimate the simple truths available in a garden plot. My children know that carrots are roots, swiss chard are leaves, and squash are fruits. They understand that food comes from the magical synergy of seed, water, sun and soil. And they realize that it requires patience to wait for a grape to turn purple, or for a carrot to reach dig-size.
I love watching my kids find their way in our garden, nurturing the life that then nurtures them.
Rachel Turiel tends an urban homestead at 6512 feet in Colorado. Read more of her writing on her blog 6512 and Growing.