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.
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.