Sharon February 5th, 2009
The Jewish Holiday of Tu B’Shevat, the New Year of the Trees (yup, Jews have a special holiday for trees – it is their birthday!) is coming up, and in homeschool this week, we read _Planting the Trees of Kenya: The Story of Wangari Maathai_. It tells the story of Maathai’s Green Belt movement, and its role in reclaim land from desertification in Kenya.
When we finished the story, Isaiah said, “I don’t want us to cut down too many trees for our stoves, because then the soil would wash away like it did in Kenya.” I assured him that we have enough firewood without taking down healthy trees, and that protecting our forest is very important to us. But I was secretly pleased that he grasped the reality of the role of trees not just in “the world” but was able to understand how it affected *his* world.
In _Depletion and Abundance_ I wrote about the acute need to get our children into relationship with nature – but not nature out somewhere in the distance, but the complex, sometimes damaged and grubby but very real nature that they are embedded in:
“…we have to preserve nature in our man-made landscapes. We must, in some literal and metaphorical way open up the boundaries of the enclosures and let our children out into their own world. We cannot expect our children to be attached to a nature that is majestic, transcendent, and “over there somewhere.” If they are to be invested in the preservation of their future, they must grasp that nature is them – it is their world, their lawn, their garden, their park, their food, their soulds. And they must get to know it in concrete, direct and real ways – both knowing about it and knowing it with hands and mouth and nose and body.”
For most of us, particularly those who don’t live as I do in rural settings, getting our kids out into our gardens may be one of the most urgent projects we can do. Gene Logsdon wrote about gardening in _The Contrary Farmer_ that the garden is the “proving ground” for the farm. He meant that gardeners try out many techniques that can be adapted to farm scale. But it is also the proving ground for the new generation of farmers – if we are to scale up from 2% of the population involved in food production to the 10 or 20 or 30 percent we will need in the future, those farmers will come first from the garden. Maybe even your garden. And if we are to produce a world full of people concerned with a sustainable ecology, they will come from the garden ecology.
I want my children to live in the garden – and that means welcoming them into it, making it accessible to them, setting them to work in it, helping them play there beside us while we dig or hoe. I want them to dream in the garden, and of the garden, so even though it is twice as much work to plant with Asher’s help, we want him to help plant. Last year when he was two, it was his job to take care of all the “baby” earthworms we uncovered – he would cover them up with a little bit of soil very carefully when the dirt turned them up.
A child accessible garden starts at the dreaming stage, in winter. Some books I really like about making children’s gardens and children’s playspaces are these:
_Great Gardens for Kids_ by Chris Matthews – A beautiful book with tons of great ideas for incorporating kids activities into the garden. My older boys were immediately taken by the idea of a carnivorous bog garden, a daffodil maze, and the catmint cat basket.
Sharon Lovejoy’s two books _Roots, Shoots, Buckets and Boots_ and _Sunflower Houses_ are terrific, filled with kid friendly ideas for gardening. My kids loved the year we made a Pizza patch – a circular garden in the shape of a pie, with pizza topping plantings (including calendulas and marigolds for “cheese” along with the tomatoes, basil, eggplant and peppers). My friend Alexandra has made a playhouse for her children out of sunflowers with morning glories trained across for the roof. And this year, we’re planning a butterfly flower garden in the shape of a butterfly.
What about books for kids about gardens? This time of year, storytime often features garden stories. Here are some of our favorites:
_Weslandia_ by Paul Fleischman. Wesley doesn’t fit into his mainstream culture, but he does pay attention at school and one summer, he decides that his summer project will be “to grow his own staple food crop – and found his own civilization.” And believe it or not, he does – the strange weeds that show up in his garden plot turn out to have a myriad of uses. This is just a flat out great book!
_A Kid’s Herb Book: For Children of All Ages_ by Lesley Tierra is one of my own favorite herb books, and a big hit with my kids. While I admit, the stories are a little boring (12 variations on “finding the magic herb”), the book is generally very good.
_Eddie’s Garden and How to Make Things Grow_ by Sarah Garland is cute – my kids think the little sister who eats worms is hysterical. Very good garden book.
_How Groundhog’s Garden Grew_ by Lynne Cherry is perhaps my single favorite children’s gardening book – lovely, lovely illustrations, and a great book. Every kid could use this!
_A Gardener’s Alphabet_ by Mary Azarian – wonderful woodcut illustrations covering real things like “prune” and “arbor.”
_Pumpkin Circle: The Story of a Garden_ by George Levenson. Lovely, rhyming slightly mysterious introduction to the lifecycle of a pumpkin, that uber-kid plant.
This is just a small selection of children’s garden books – there are many others and on my long to-do list is a full list of them.
Ok, onto strategies for bringing kids into the garden.
1. Start ‘em early. I was running a CSA when the kids were babies, so we *had* to spend time out there – a lot of it. They could play on the grass or in the playpen or in the dirt, but they had to get used to being out in the garden with us. Just like you have to go to work, or do the dishes, the garden should be treated as fun, but essential from as early as possible.
2. Make it kid friendly – this can be a pile of dirt and a spoon, or it can be elaborate play structures for their entertainment. But think about how to make it friendly – can you draw hopscotch or foursquare on the sidewalk next to your garden beds? Can you give them a garden of their own, or a section of yours? What about a little fountain to give them water to play in?
3. Get them involved from the beginning – my kids love to look at seed catalogs with me, and have strong opinions about what flowers and herbs we should be growing. We plan kid projects – we’ve done our pizza garden, an alphabet garden (a plant for every letter) and a three sisters garden, as well as other projects.
4. Assign garden chores. Yes, I know some people will say “I came to hate the garden because my Mom made me hoe.” So what? I hated doing dishes when my Mom made me do them, but since they need doing, I went on to do dishes without whining. Chores are a fact of life, and if you are getting your family’s food from the garden, they should be helping. Little kids will love helping, while bigger kids may whine, they can still do their share. Treating the garden as optional trivializes it.
5. Be out there together. Make your garden space, however big or small, a place you live in. That way, when the hummingbird comes to the feeder for the first time, or you see the first monarch, when the cherry tomatoes come ripe or the melons are ready for thumping, well, you’ll be together.
6. Let them eat – encourage your kids to scavenge, plant lots of snackable things – this is what everbearing and alpine strawberries and cherry tomatoes are for. But don’t underestimate your kids – when they are in the garden, they’ll try things they’d never touch on a plate. So plant greens, edible flowers, anything and everything. And when the peas all get devoured by the kids shrug and accept that it is a good thing.