Growing Knowledge – Showing Kids the Art of Gardening
When I was a kid growing up in rural Illinois, I may not have been exposed to farm life, but I was introduced to the basics of gardening. My dad sometimes had a small backyard garden where he grew a few simple crops.
Those vegetables were always met with mixed reactions. I loved having fresh tomatoes and carrots, but hated the smell of onions. Even when I didn’t like the food we grew, I loved the simplicity of gardening as I understood it. You threw a few seeds down, covered it with a little bit of dirt, walked away and a few weeks later, you picked your crops. What could be easier?
Then I learned it wasn’t as easy as it looked. One year, I grabbed some pumpkin seeds that we had scooped out the Halloween before and strolled outside. I plopped the whole handful down right next to the house and walked off envisioning the huge pumpkin patch I was sure would be in place by the time October rolled around. In my mind, it was going to be like the Great Pumpkin episode of Charlie Brown.
Instead, what I had on my hands by October was a sad little patch of unhealthy, sunken-in and discolored pumpkins. My dream patch had turned into a something that looked like it belonged in a Tim Burton movie.
I found out that day there was a lot more to gardening than my young mind thought there was – knowing how much sun a plant needs, frequent watering sessions and spacing out seeds properly. The whole process was fascinating to me, and I knew when I got older I would have my own backyard garden.
Then 30 years passed in the blink of an eye. Though my husband and I had a spacious backyard and had lived in our house for more than a decade, we had yet to grow anything edible on our property.
That changed the day my son came home three years ago with a small cabbage plant he’d been given at school for a contest to see who could grow the biggest cabbage. He begged me to help him plant it, and it sparked memories of my long-ago excitement when I attempted to grow that ill-fated pumpkin patch.
Once again, not knowing what I was doing, I embarked on a gardening adventure. I sweet-talked my husband into building long, elevated gardening beds in our backyard so we could show the kids how much fun and work gardens really were.
Benefits learned from teaching kids to garden
My kids have loved their gardening experience so far, and here are some of the things they’ve learned along the way that surprised them.
- How quickly they see their plants poking through the soil: They couldn’t believe how fast those plants grew after they buried the seeds. I told them that’s exactly how I felt when I looked at them – whether you’re talking about babies or plants, little things grow up quickly.
- Nothing worthwhile is easy: Seeing how quickly and thickly the weeds come up amazed my kids. They soon realized that gardening isn’t easy. There’s a lot of upkeep with the expectation you’ll get your reward later.
- How much space it takes to grow food: While you can plant some things, like carrots, relatively close together, other plants, like tomatoes, take up a lot of room. We’ve had to carefully prioritize our space in those gardening beds.
- What pests can do to your garden when you aren’t looking: We’ve had vegetables stole by birds, rabbits and probably a number of other creatures we didn’t catch red-handed. But all that snitching made my kids realize there are no guarantees in life. Sometimes you just have to work hard and keep your fingers crossed that nothing goes wrong.
- How much better homegrown vegetables seem to taste: My son has always loved tomatoes, but once he tried his first tomato right off the vine, he couldn’t believe the difference in the taste. Many times, the produce you eat from the grocery store has been sitting so long, it can lose its flavor.
- How important water is to plants: They know from science class that plants need water to grow. But just how much water it can take in dry, hot weather has been a real surprise for them. If we get busy with summer baseball and softball and forget to water the plants for two or three days, they are looking dehydrated and wilted by the time we check in on them.
The small garden has become one of the most popular things for their cousins and friends to look at when they come over to our house in the summer. Even in rural Illinois, there aren’t as many backyard gardens as you would think, judging by how many kids visiting my house have never picked a vegetable before.
They don’t often want to eat them, but they do love pulling tomatoes off the vine or slowly yanking on a green stem and seeing a carrot appear out of nowhere. It’s like a magic trick to them. There’s always a mixture of laughter and amazement. It’s such a simple concept, but one that seems to bring kids so much joy.
So you parents out there – if you’ve never had a garden, maybe it’s time to start one. It doesn’t have to be anything extravagant. It could just be a single pot on your deck, balcony or even windowsill. It’ll take you just a few minutes to plant together, but your kids will be sprouting a lifetime of memories from that handful of seeds.