I have five kids, and to be honest, some years, theyâ€™ve been more of a hindrance than a help in our family gardening efforts. When they were all very little, as I’d plant something, theyâ€™d “helpâ€ť by “plantingâ€ť it again. Iâ€™d put down labels, only to have the current toddler rearrange them for me. And on it went.
When all is said and done, though, those gardens produced just fine, and more importantly, I was able to share my love of growing food with my children. A family that plants carrots together, stays together, I say. I should embroider that on a pillow.
Room to Grow
In our family garden, each child gets their very own garden bed to cultivate for the year. (If you have limited space, you can assign each child a generous-sized pot.) We practice biodiversity techniques, so the children are used to planting beets with chamomile and pumpkins with lettuce. By the middle of summer, the garden beds looks like crazy quilts.
Growing vegetables with children takes planning, though. The best season to plan the vegetable garden is early spring, especially if youâ€™d like to start some of those plants from seed indoors. Where we live, weâ€™re usually still covered in snow and biting cold come February, and the last thing the kids want to do is think about gardening. To inspire their green thumbs in the middle of a gray winter, I have to get creative.
As the seed catalogs start rolling, my kids like to cut them up and use the bright-colored photographs for various projects. One of my girls always seems to have a “flower journalâ€ť kicking around her room: a paper notebook with dozens of flower pictures glued inside. This is her garden. It inspires her. I decided to harness that inspiration and creativity to help us plan the vegetable garden for the coming spring. Iâ€™m convinced nothing can stand in the way of the genius produced by a child with a crayon, some scratch paper and some dirt.
Taking some scratch paper and crayons, I sat the kids down and told them to let their garden dreams loose. I plunked a casserole lid filled with dirt into the center of the table, broke it up into a grid with some bamboo skewers (aka, a square foot garden) and told them to fill it with pictures of whatever plants they wanted. Anything we want? Yes, anything they wanted. In this photo, youâ€™ll notice the peach tree in the raised garden bed.
The point of this exercise is not to accurately plan every minute detail of your vegetable garden. You can get specific later, when youâ€™re putting down mulch and compost and planting seeds. The point is to inspire your children with a sense of ownership of the coming yearâ€™s garden. At the same time, youâ€™ll be motivated by their enthusiasm. Youâ€™ll hear what they must have in their garden, watching them move over zukes to make room for zinnias. Youâ€™ll notice that three children cut out watermelon for the garden; looks like we really want watermelon this year, youâ€™ll note.
One of my daughters colored and cut out a watering can, which lead to a great discussion about how a garden is an everyday commitment. You have to make sure your plants have enough access to water, food and light. You have to take out the weeds. If you spend all day swimming and no time tending, you do not reap. This was a lesson we learned the hard way last year, when we lost an heirloom tomato to dehydration. And this, my friends, is what a childrenâ€™s garden is for.
A Teaching Tool
There are so many life lessons just outside our back doors disguised as dirt, bugs and plants. Connecting a child to those lessons by allowing and encouraging them to engage in gardening (and even to fail at it every now and then) is a blessing that will serve them well for the rest of their lives. Gardens are a lot of work. As G.B. Hinckley observed, “Without hard work, nothing grows but weeds.â€ť Isnâ€™t that true of every worthy endeavor we engage in as children or adults?
To get the children connected to the coming gardenâ€”to help them remember the “why” of all that workâ€”let them engage in a bit of creative, whimsical planning right now. Even though itâ€™s still cold and the equinox is far away, talk about the merits of a peach tree in the vegetable garden or growing zinnias to give to the fairies. A bit of whimsy now just might produce a watermelon later.