Monday, April 4, 2011

Growing Little Gardeners

“Children are the world’s most valuable resource, and its best hope for the future.”
John Fitzgerald Kennedy
July 25, 1963

When I think about the origins of my gardening addiction, I immediately think of Grammie.  I remember chilly October mornings picking Concord grapes on my grandparents’ farm in New Hampshire.   I can almost feel the plump fruit bursting in my cheeks and filling my mouth with the juice--sweet and tart at the same time.  

I remember walking along the rock wall where the bounty was sheltered by the meandering vines.  I would walk with my grandmother, pick the clusters of wild-growing grapes and bring our harvest to her kitchen.  Crushed, simmered, strained and set, the juice would turn to jelly.  Grammie invested hour after patient hour teaching me, cleaning up after me, and enjoying the fruits of our labor together.  It was not just about food production.  It was personal.

Now having two young boys of my own, I love watching them peruse the garden for the plumpest pods of sweet peas and nibble on basil and parsley leaves as they race each other around our yard.  They seem to love participating in tending the garden as much as they enjoy the harvest.  I have to admit, that my desire for gardening success is sometimes at odds with my desire to pass on gardening principles, especially when seedlings are mistaken for weeds, or when small green tomatoes are mistaken for baseballs.  

This past season, however, I discovered that we all benefit when I dedicate a few minutes to teaching and only teaching.  It was a happy accident, but we came up with a system that works perfectly and I don’t have to suffer any internal turmoil.  Here are a few of my discoveries: 
1. Give the kids their own space.  We made them a 4’x4’ raised bed where they could plant, weed, harvest and play to their hearts’ content.  I didn’t worry about plant spacing, or whether the cucumbers were going to overtake the tomatillos.  I worried about that in my own space and they knew that they had to ask before helping in my gardens.

2. Keep it age appropriate.  Toddlers and pre-schoolers don’t need to help with planting carrots.  They have great fun with the pumpkins and their little fingers can handle the seeds just fine.  

3. Focus on one task at a time.  The first lesson on watering sent soil and seeds floating down the driveway in the deluge.  The second time, I filled a flat with soil, skipped the seeds altogether and we practiced watering with empty soil!  The soil still splashed everywhere until the kids got the hang of the watering can, but I wasn’t counting the number of forfeited seedlings and we all had a great time together!

When the stakes are low and the prized heirloom tomatoes are not at risk, everyone has more fun.  Practice makes perfect and at the end of the season I found myself learning more during our teaching moments than I think my boys did.  Gardening is just as much about teaching the next generation as it is about feeding this one.  The veggies, the boys, and refreshing the memories of cooking with Grammie; it truly was a bountiful harvest.

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