We're turning our kiddos into gardeners — and they love it

June 17 2011 | Guest post by Kate Munning
vegetable garden, detail
Photo by Southern Foodways Alliance, used with Creative Commons license.

When I was 15 years old I landed my first job working in a greenhouse. At the time I wanted to become an ethnobotanist and I just knew this was the perfect first step in my brilliant career. Instead, all I did was get dirty. In March, when it was barely spring, there were hyacinths to coax in their cold, dark cave. June found me misting hundreds of tomato plants, their stems and leaves staining my hands and leaving them pleasantly scented for days. In the heat of August I irrigated a sea of fall chrysanthemums on a blazing black tarp. I loved every minute of it.

The pay was next to nothing, the boss dour and temperamental, and I eventually moved on to bigger and better after-school jobs — like produce girl at the local supermarket. But as soon as I got an apartment there were pots of tomatoes and herbs on the balcony… though they may have been largely neglected while I studied and partied through my twenties. Finding myself a solid C+ student in college biology, I ended up with degrees in literature rather than botany. Becoming a homeowner and having a patch of my very own earth renewed my enthusiasm for gardening, and my pregnancy a few years later roped my husband into the process. Lumbering, exhausted, and vaguely afraid of toxoplasmosis in the soil, I coerced him into carrying out my vision of the vegetable garden until he’d fully drunk the Kool-Aid.

Somehow, I’m not exactly sure how, this has become our thing, a project we spend about as much time on as we do our paid work. Our interest in gardening has spun out into a dozen tangents that are just as fascinating: food politics, locavorism, seed saving, reskilling, foraging, cooking obscure Asian vegetables. And the fact that I find composting fascinating is probably an indication of how far gone I am.

Kate's gardening son Nico. Photo by Kate Munning.
One of the most exciting aspects of gardening is how easily and effectively the kids soak it up. Nico, who’s almost five, has his own patch in the garden this year containing some of his favorites: lettuce, edamame, nasturtiums, corn. Does he stomp on the occasional delicate pepper plant? Yes. He'll volunteer to weed his little garden and then three minutes later he’s running laps around the deer fence or messing with the hose. Baby Gemma, who just turned one, does not always enjoy riding on her dad’s back while he waters and weeds. Last summer, when she was an infant, she liked it even less.

Here’s the payoff, though. It’s having your three-year-old run up to houseguests with a freshly picked lettuce leaf in his hand and one in his mouth, so excited for them to taste it. It’s having a kid who knows where his food comes from, one who understands the life cycles of plants, who gets which parts of which plants are safe and delicious to eat and which are not. This weekend I personally witnessed him piling a plate up with red peppers and raw broccoli — and then eating them. I swear.

My husband sometimes worries that we’re not as kid-focused as some other parents we know because on Saturday afternoons we bring our sprouts out to the garden with us and let them roll around in the grass instead of shuttling them to the playground and the Little Gym and soccer (which, for the record, Nico vocally detests at this point). While we do our fair share of traditional family-oriented activities, I believe it’s important for our kids to see us active, for them to be by our sides helping us do things that inspire us — not least because chauffeur and housekeeper are hardly my chosen pursuits. I’d like Nico and Gemma to find at least one thing they’re passionate about, and I’m convinced that if I’m happy and fulfilled, they’ll be more likely to model my behavior.

  1. I would say that gardening IS a "traditional family-oriented activity". I have very fond memories of gardening with my mom. I have a great picture of me at one year old pushing my mini-wheelbarrow next to her pushing a big wheelbarrow. I think gardening promoted bonding much more than shuttling to a Mommy and Me event (was there even such a thing back in the day?).

    8 agree
  2. I think time together as a family is great regardless of which form it takes. I spent my toddler years on a farm and still remember it more fondly than any playground or playdate.

    We decided to start a garden this year for some of the same reasons as you. I think it's important for kids to understand where their food comes from, and they're WAY more likely to try new things if they grew it or took part in the process. Also, what kid doesn't like playing in the dirt?

    1 agrees
  3. I love to hear about other people doing things the way we do! Obviously we are obsessed with both food and dirt around here.

    The moms' groups in my area tend to be either sterile and bland or intensely ideological–essentially, they're just not for me. I'd much rather pick strawberries and make jam with a bunch of local parents and kids than sit around and debate the finer points of strollers. And yet I'm in the minority!

  4. "they're WAY more likely to try new things if they grew it or took part in the process."

    Also, garden fresh vegetables just taste better. I hated broccoli as a child (I barely tolerate it now). However, I grew a huge head of it in my garden at the Botanical Gardens Summer camp. I tried it and loved it. I was happily munching away on it for about 20 minutes (it was a LARGE head of broccoli) and then, seemingly all of a sudden, I didn't like it anymore. It tasted like … well, like broccoli. Straight from the garden, perfect snack. Sitting for half an hour, gross.

  5. I love gardening with my girls. Jazzy (4) has her own little garden, and Bubbles (2) is about to get her own space to dig and plant in. I love that they can go out and grab some beans, lettuce, peas or raspberries and eat it without worrying about sprays. Jazzy takes visitors straight to her garden and picks veggies for them to take home, Bubbles shows off all the different ladybugs and picks flowers to share. Gardening with my girls is awesome!

  6. our 2 year old has her own tiny garden this year too – enough room for 1 sunflower, 2 bean plants, and 3 small herbs in front. Her favorite thing right now is finding the ripe red strawberries for us to pick! I find it challenging to get the heavy lifting garden work done with a 5 month old and a 2 year old, but weeding, watering, and harvesting are definitely a family affair for all ages! Any suggestions about getting more heavy duty work done with the wee ones?

    • It's tough–there's no doubt about it. Last summer we had a young infant, so I feel your pain. The best advice I can offer is to enlist your partner or a family member or friend and do a tag-team approach–one corrals the kids while the other does the kid-unfriendly work. I find it helpful to prioritize: What can only get done when I've got both hands free, and what

    • It's tough–there's no doubt about it. Last summer we had a young infant, and I didn't get outside as much as I wanted, so I feel your pain. The best advice I can offer is to enlist your partner or a family member or friend and do a tag-team approach–one corrals the kids while the other does the heavy lifting. Since we have a 4,000 square foot garden that we started from scratch last year (yes, the same time we had a baby, and yes, we are insane), for big projects we organized a couple of work days where our friends and family came over. Everyone took turns watching the kids and doing the work, and there was good food and free veggies for all at the end of the day.

      I find it helpful to prioritize: What can only get done when I've got both hands free, and what is technically possible to do with the little ones running around? And our guys go to bed early, around 7:30, so we can spend 60 to 90 minutes out there after they go to bed. It might not work for everyone, but it's the most relaxing part of our day!

  7. we planted a garden this year and my kids enjoy taking care of it. sounds like a great activity for the kids plus they are outside… there is nothing better being outside in the sun, playing with nothing but nature. i think that is a great way to help a child's mind grow. plus you are out there with them!

  8. We live in an apartment right now, sans balcony, and the opportunity to have a garden is one of the things that really makes me want to have a house. For now, my son and I visit my dad to help with his garden. I hope that one day soon we'll have our own! Great post.

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