Growing Up In the Garden

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.


15 Responses to “Growing Up In the Garden”

  1. MEAon 05 Feb 2009 at 5:14 pm

    A friend from India once told about living in a large city and going outside with her grandmother to pick veg from the garden for their meals. She posited that Indian society went to hell (her opinion, not mine) when people stopped having gardens in the cities and lost that connection with the earth.

  2. risa bon 05 Feb 2009 at 6:42 pm

    This one is not about veggie gardens but it was always my FAVORITE kid’s garden book:
    Rosy’s Garden by Elizabeth Laird (Author), Satomi Ichikawa (Illustrator)

  3. KFon 05 Feb 2009 at 7:16 pm

    One of my daughter’s favorite books is “The Ugly Vegetables” by Grace Lin. It’s about an Asian family that plants chinese vegetables instead of flowers in their garden, and when the mother makes a delicious soup from their harvest, all the neighbors come begging to trade flowers for soup. This year, I’m ordering some seeds from Kitazawa ( and Evergreen ( that specialize in the kinds of asian veggies from the book. My daughter (3yo) and I are planting an “ugly vegetable” garden ourselves and hope to eventually make the soup recipe from the back of the book.

    Lots of children’s books have themes about gardening and cooking the results. “Carrot Soup” by John Segal, “Apple Farmer Annie” by Monica Wellingon, and “Pumpkin Soup” by Helen Cooper come to mind. They have recipes in the back so you can make your own carrot or pumpkin soup, or apple cake with your kids, using the carrots or pumpkins or apples from the garden or local farmstand. It’s a great way to help them make the connection about where food comes from.

  4. Sharonon 05 Feb 2009 at 7:29 pm

    Oh, I forgot about Apple Farmer Annie - that was Asher’s favorite book when he was two. Very cute!


  5. graceon 05 Feb 2009 at 7:43 pm

    When my daughter was about 3 and we had
    continuous battles about brushing her hair, I
    cut it.
    Sat her on a stool in the middle of the kitchen
    and cut it.
    All through this, she cried and when it was over,
    got down and went to the drawer, took out a
    plain paper sandwich bag, went over to the stool and with her little hand, sobbing silently now, gathered up all her hair. Once in the bag
    she went out the screen door, down the hill and
    to the garden where she dug a hole and
    buried it.
    I watched in grief and guilt but when she came
    back up, the tears were done and she said…
    “it will become something else now”.
    Gardens are for many many things.
    The miracle of compost is one of my favorites.
    Probably hers, too.
    grace N Mex

  6. Michelleon 05 Feb 2009 at 8:36 pm

    One year we put up a 3 1/2 sided latice structure and grew all sorts of peas and beans up and over it…..our daughter got lost in it and needless to say we didn’t get a great harvest :).

    Great ideas to get the kids involved, mine always love to choose something from the catalogues and we have a habit of giving a tree/plant to each child every Birthday and Christmas, it is then their responsibility to plant and nurture. These living gifts have the added advantage of bulking out the total gift quotient without being ‘junky’ or expensive (even less so if you propogate and grow yourself, which I keep meaning to do!).

  7. Jimon 05 Feb 2009 at 11:26 pm

    he decides that his summer project will be “to grow his own staple food crop - and found his own civilization.”

    But…but…that’s MY goal, too.

    *sends ambassdors to Wesley*

  8. Frostwolf in Troyon 06 Feb 2009 at 11:52 am

    Haven’t written anything here in a while. During my wheel of the year, I start to go inwards in November, I guess. Imbolc has brought out some electricity that becomes hard to ground.

    In any case, two thoughts. One is of a semi-related children’s book called “Circle Round” by Anne Hill. It reconnects myths across the world in a pagan context for children’s ears. Wonderful story-telling and earth-friendly activities.

    The other was just a random awareness about this big ol’ kid and my awakening to nature in New York City. When I dropped the 100 pounds in 2003, I became awake and alive to the trees and the parks in NYC. During my lunch I would spend some time in a little courtyard on 49th and 3rd Avenue, where there were these wonderful trees that were wrapped in lights. (I used to work graveyard, so they were always on.) I would feel a vibrant energy emanating from them. I also had a favorite tree in Tompkins Square Park where squirrels would hide out in a little house just made for them. I’d throw them nuts and such. They were fun.

    You can be a kid at any age, really, and you can awaken to nature when and if the time comes. I’m surely grateful for it.

  9. Rosaon 06 Feb 2009 at 12:19 pm

    I got Roots Shoots Buckets & Leaves as a gift for my neice (and her mom) for this spring. They have a nice big suburban lot to experiment with.

    My son is still in the “hazardous to plants” stage but I have hope from reading about your kids that this is the year he’ll edge over into “mostly non-destructive”. We will see. At least he knows the difference between a mulberry and a purple Thai pepper now ;)

  10. DEEon 06 Feb 2009 at 1:01 pm

    My kids all had garden chores under the theme you don’t help;you won’t be eating this winter. And,of course, they hated it….but funny thing happened on the way to growing up….everyone of them has a garden now! The one son even had the front borders around the porch of his college rental home planted with cukes,tomatoes and beans!!!Yup. The protesteth too much I fear…..

    We always let them eat whatever they wanted out there…baby peas were a favorite. And when they did want to plant something we always gave them the best place with lots of compost . I think kids are naturally drawn to the earth and that is what is sorely lacking in our society today where they are kept indoors by fearful parents.

    Am so glad my kids all could run wild in the country. Most days they were gone the minute the bus dropped them off…to the woods, on their horses,to the creek fishing. Noted that they have all migrated back to country places to live and actually claim to enjoy cutting/stacking wood. DEE

  11. CTon 07 Feb 2009 at 12:35 am

    Plant some peas and strawberries. Kids can eat while gardening is happening. The really small strawberries work very well for this.

    And pumpkins- kids like to check them and see how big they are getting.

  12. Debon 07 Feb 2009 at 9:27 am

    My favorite picture from the when the kids were little is the two of them, totally grubby and in their mud boots, sitting on the ground, grinning, with our pumpkin harvest piled around them.

    And then there was the year that the three strawberry plants I put in just for fun didnt bear because “somebody” kept eating off the fruit before it could make it into our bowls. Hmmmm……

  13. Lizon 07 Feb 2009 at 1:15 pm

    I started gardening with the sole purpose of getting my kids to eat better (they plant or pick it…they are more likely to eat it). At dinner, the absolute worse thing that I could serve would be swiss chard…imagine my disbelief when the kids that summer began picking chard leaves, filling them with garlic chives and eating them while sitting on the back patio…go figure! I wouldn’t eat them that way…but what the heck!

    Kids also tend to eat what they cook…

  14. Ginaon 07 Feb 2009 at 4:24 pm

    Funny you should mention peas, none of ours have gotten more than two feet from the plant this year before ending up in the mouth of a two year old…

    People often ask me how I manage to “do it all”: try to grow and cook as much as our own food as possible, chase after a two year old, and work outside of the home. The truth is, I don’t know how I would manage my very active toddler without gardening and cooking. I would go insane if I had to make chalk drawings and read the same stories over and over again all day long. The garden and the kitchen are places that we are both happy as long as he is doing “real work”. Our favorite jobs for our son in the garden are, 1) putting worms and grubs he finds into the compost piles, 2) planting large seeds such as peas, beans, or seed potatoes or allowing him to broadcast seeds such as carrots, 3) cleaning up leaves and sticks (his dad built him a wheelbarrow to carry them in) then putting them in the compost piles, 4) watering the plants using a small watering can, and 5) harvesting anything. When he was younger and more prone to harvesting/detstroying everything we taught him the “one finger” rule. He could touch the tomatoes, peppers, peas, etc. as much as wanted but only with one finger unless mama or daddy gave him permission to pick them.

  15. Colleenon 07 Feb 2009 at 9:45 pm

    There is a fairly new book titled ‘Grow It Cook It’. After a quick intro, the book breaks up into a pattern of a 2 page (or so) spread showing how to start and grow a veggie or two then a 2 page spread showing a kid-friendly recipe. This is a DK book for 4-8 yr olds; so the pictures are great.

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