Sunday, April 17, 2011

Weekly Column: Little Gardens, Big Fun

Every year around this time, I become enamored with the idea of gardening.  In my mind’s eye, I see a perfectly planted garden, colorful with the fruit of a productive season.  I see rows of protective marigolds bordering the veggies, and sweet little helping hands digging in dirt. 
And then I remember what those little hands will actually do in a garden: they’ll toss dirt into the air, letting it catch the wind and blow into a nearby gardener’s face.  They’ll grab a handful of muddy soil with such excitement that dirt will be caked under their fingernails for days.  They might dig up a newly sprouted bean plant to see what color the roots are.  And just when a bright, orange tomato is only a day away from being ready to harvest, eager fingers will pluck it off and take a ruinous bite.
It takes a minute for my perfectionist’s mind to clear and see the beauty in all of those ‘mishaps’. 
I know that a garden planted by two preschoolers and their novice mother will not be filled with symmetrical rows – rather, it will have scattered growth and tangled vines.   A garden tended by excited children will be plundered of its harvest, whether or not the harvest is actually ready.  Dirty hands will certainly find their way back into the (supposedly) clean house, and a worm or twelve will be handled and petted into extinction. 
All of those outcomes are beautiful.
What kinds of things will happen when we let the kids dig in the dirt?  They’ll discover worms, beetles, roots, and rocks.  Their hands will encounter tactile treasures that no indoor playtime can mimic.  They’ll learn just how much watering will produce a gorgeous pit of mud, and how big a pile of dirt must be before it becomes deep enough to hide a seed.  They’ll see why dry dirt doesn’t nourish the plants as well as moist dirt does.
The act of being outside for the time it takes to garden can make up for hesitations we might blame for staying inside.  Is it too wet or hot for comfort?  Oh well – the weeds will only take a minute to pull, and the burst of sunshine and fresh air will make a cooling splash of misplaced hose water all the more welcome.  Even better, on those miserably hot summer days, getting the kids outside first thing in the morning – in pajamas, even! – makes for comfortable and memorable gardening. 
If having kids beside us as we watch our plants grow is stressful because we’re not sure when they’ll pluck all the bean blossoms or maul a tiny squash, it’s okay.  There are lessons to be learned about patience and delayed gratification; an unripe tomato surely won’t taste as juicy and delicious as it would have if they’d waited until the time was right.  If a tiny plant is uprooted, we can explain how no veggies will grow there.  It’s all a learning process, and if we don’t encourage a few mistakes, they’ll never see the possibilities.
When children are allowed and encouraged to help with something as simple as growing a garden, the good effects can’t help but be bounteous, if imperfect.  Straight rows aren’t necessary.   Huge harvests aren’t required.  So many lessons and memories happen around the act of gardening, that kids of any age can and should be involved in a garden, small or large.  Potted or plotted.  Decorative or fruitful. 
Gardens grow more than just flowers or vegetables: they grow healthy, creative, thoughtful kids. 
(And sometimes, if luck prevails, gardens also grow patient parents.)

1 comment:

  1. Penelope picked our first little green strawberry this morning and I immediately thought about you. Did you decide to plant a garden this summer after all?


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