Life Lessons from the Garden
by Beth Davis
Whether it becomes an acre of bountiful harvest or just some cucumbers and tomatoes for your summertime salads, gardens offer an opportunity to teach your children valuable life skills. We all know the physical benefits of gardening – the sunshine, fresh air, exercise and healthy eating. Still, gardening offers more. As parents, we plant the seeds of who our children will become. Now is the time to get down in the dirt with your kids and grow those seeds.
Forward thinking is something we sometimes forget to teach our children. Planning a garden with your children will teach them to plan for the future. Right now, you plan for the garden layout and the necessary seed and plant purchases. Someday, too soon, your kids will be pouring over college course descriptions the way you teach them to pour over seed catalogs. Make the planning process fun. Take measurements of your ground space and decide whether you are going to use containers. If you’re in an urban area and green space is hard to come by, containers will be best. Many seed companies have developed hybrids that thrive in small containers and still produce prolifically. As you plan with your children, remember to let them choose their favorite fruits and vegetables. Having even a single watermelon that they will devour will be a great reward for a job well done and they will be more likely to try new foods they helped to cultivate.
Let your children help with the garden. Getting down into the soil and working with you and their siblings will teach your child cooperation. When our usually stingy 5-year-old started doling out even amounts of ripe tomatoes for everyone during last year’s harvest, we knew that gardening was teaching her lifelong values.
There will be more cooperation and less fighting if you assign each child a section of the garden or a specific task. One can be in charge of digging small holes, while another can be in charge of seeds, watering, etc.
Plants take time to grow. Your family garden will teach your child that good things are worth waiting for. Sure, you can always run to the farmer’s market for tomatoes, but waiting to make sauce from your own, home-grown variety is much more rewarding. When the first seedlings push through the soil and into the sunlight, your kids will begin to see the results of their labor. Every year when the blueberries start to ripen on the bushes in our side yard, my two middle kids monitor them daily. They have learned that eating a sour purple berry is not as tasty as waiting for that same berry to turn a deep, sweet blue. Teaching an appreciation for delayed gratification will pay off when it comes time for your teenager to plan a large purchase.
Diligence and Consistency
Just as practicing a musical instrument will become easier for your child over time, so too does gardening. When you first uncover the mucky mess of weeds and soil in the early spring, you will have to put in time and effort to prepare the garden for planting. If you leave the garden unattended for too long, the weeds will begin to take over once again. Like any skill worth learning, when your child learns to pay consistent attention to your garden, it becomes easy to manage. The same could be said for school work.
Dealing with Disappointment
Sometimes things don’t work out. Seeds refuse to germinate. Unwanted pests destroy a tomato plant. Deer and bunnies take their fill of your lettuce. Any number of things can go wrong, particularly if you are gardening for the first time. That’s okay. Share the lessons with your children. Next year, you’ll put the deer fencing up earlier and find a way to battle garden pests. You will research which plants do well in your area and realize that maybe a lemon tree was never a good idea for your growing zone. Gardening is like life in that way. There are so many big and little successes and failures. You learn lessons along the way and, as the years go by, you gain experience. If you handle the disappointments with grace, your children will learn to do the same.
Tips for Gardening with Kids
Composting is a fun, green aspect of gardening because kids get to toss “trash” into the garden (egg shells, coffee grounds, fruit and vegetable shavings and rinds, etc.). You can make the entire garden a compost pile in the off season, and if you like you can leave a section for composting year-round.
Consider planting most of the plot as a Family Garden, but save one section for your child’s own garden and make your child responsible for it. If she doesn’t fall in love with gardening, give her a small chore allowance for weed pulling and watering.
Help your child make the garden his own. Decorate plant markers with the kids. Make stepping stones using a kit. We have lattice screen to make a short fence to keep animals out of the garden, and the kids can paint it their own way.
Make sure you have kid-size tools available for your budding gardener. For Small Hands (ForSmallHands.com) offers child-size gardening tools like gloves, shovels, watering cans, kneeling pads, small buckets for weeds, small aprons and totes for tools and more.
Don’t tell the kids they are learning stuff, such as how much will it cost to buy enough tomato plants to fill half of our space? How many feet by how many feet is our garden, and how many different things can I plant in it? Which bugs are bad (Japanese beetles), and which are beneficial? Which plants attract butterflies (hint: wild plants)? Buy some ladybugs and let them loose and see how long they stay to eat up aphids.
Have a garden-to-table pizza party where the toppings come from your own garden. Learn how to can your goodies at FreshPreserving.com so you can save them for another day, and give some as holiday gifts. Sometimes you’ll have enough ripe bounty to share with friends.
Get the kids involved. Take them along to pick out seeds or plants at the garden store or spend an afternoon poring over a seed catalog before making final decisions on what to plant. Their faces will light up when they get to pick green beans for dinner or grab some mint for their lemonade. Soft lamb’s ear, fragrant lavender and basil make a great addition to a fruit and veggie garden.
– Kerrie McLoughlin
Great Gardening Books
Grow Your Own Pizza: Gardening Plans and Recipes for Kids by Constance Hardesty and Jeff McClung (Fulcrum Publishing, 2000)
The Ultimate Step-by-Step Kids’ First Gardening Book: Fantastic Gardening Ideas for 5-12 Year Olds, from Growing Fruit and Vegetables and Having Fun with Flowers to Indoor and Outdoor Nature Projects by Jenny Hendy (Anness Publishers, 2010)
walterreeves.com: The master gardener, host of “The Lawn and Garden Show with Walter Reeves” on WSB radio (6-9 a.m. Saturdays), and author of nine books on gardening has a Georgia gardening calendar on his website, answers gardening questions and provides links for gardening information.
extension.uga.edu: The website of the University of Georgia Extension Service has plenty of information on fruit and vegetable gardening and landscaping, plus a list of county extension offices that will test the quality of your soil.
garden.org and gardeningwithkids.org: These websites of the National Gardening Association offer ideas for gardening projects with kids and how-to-garden information, even kits for gardening projects.