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Gardening with Kids

It's healthy, it's educational, and you get to mess around in the dirt.

Some people bring their children to the garden to teach them about healthy food or to introduce them to nature. For others, it’s a way to get them away from the electronic screen. For some, it’s a way of continuing a family tradition.

For Rachel Parker’s girls, going to the community garden means having fun. First of all, there’s the dirt. There are holes to dig and piles of dirt to move around. Rachel says that until kids are at least two and a half, that’s the best thing of all. Child-size shovels make it even better.

Then there are seeds to plant and water. Fast growing plants like radishes, lettuce and marigolds are satisfying because you can see your results in a few weeks (for the flowers on the marigolds it takes a little longer). Watering with a hose on gentle or with child-size watering cans is absorbing. The Parker girls like to water with the wand at the end of the hose – just holding something called a wand is halfway to being a wizard or a fairy princess. (Speaking of watering, it‘s a good idea for kids to wash hands often when gardening in urban soil, and it’s not a good idea to let children eat a peck of dirt.)

Rachel’s girls are good at observing – quickly spotting the new blossoms on the pea plants climbing up the string trellis.  Because their family lives near the community garden, they can keep an eye on things from their window, and they were the first ones to notice when the orange poppies in the garden burst into bloom. 

Rachel wants the children to have a good time in the garden, so along with the cold frames that provide the family with greens in the cold months and the trellises for peas and beans to climb up, there’s a set of wind chimes hanging in the garden plot, complete with a metal wand to play them.

Speaking of wands and wizards, Duna Pechstein says that for her 7-year-old daughter, the community garden is a kind of enchanted kingdom. She loves to come with a friend and explore the grassy paths between the plots, sometimes finding a friendly gardener who will share strawberries or other garden treats. Duna reports that her daughter is willing to sample food in the garden that she would never want to try at home; even more important, her daughter is learning, without ever being formally taught, how her food is grown from the earth.

For Duna, the garden has a different kind of enchantment, a contentment and peace that comes from focusing on simple tasks – turning over the soil, mounding soil around the potatoes – tasks she has been performing since learning to garden from her mother in Germany many years ago.  The German form of community gardens that Duna grew up with, the Schrebergarten, has been functioning for over a century providing city dwellers there with the same kind of access to fresh air and fresh produce that our community gardens do here.  One difference is that each Schrebergarten plot has room for a small structure, a kind of combination garden shed/picnic shelter/ summer house where families can gather. Duna’s memories and gardening skills, rooted in those early family garden experiences, flourish in her JP garden plot.   

Memories of childhood gardening experiences run deep. Nancy Gunn, one of the most creative gardeners I’ve met in Jamaica Plain, has no question about the source of her gardening passion. She tells of visits to her Southern grandmother over many years.

“Every day when five o’clock came, it was time to stop whatever you were doing, fix a nice cool drink, and take a walk through the garden," she said. "In those days people didn’t have their gardens planned and delivered by landscapers. As we walked through her garden, my grandmother would remark that she had started this flower bed from a slip from so-and-so, and that lovely shrub from a cutting from someone else. She had created the entire landscape, her own beautiful world, and we walked through it every afternoon. I loved her, adored her, and there was no question that when I had a house I would create a garden of my own, too.”

Some in the community garden are first generation gardeners. That is the case for Chris Troy, who really didn’t know about gardening or growing food as a child. When Chris was growing up he didn’t know, for example, what real tomatoes tasted like – he had only tasted those pale, carboard-like things, and he knew he didn’t like them. It wasn’t until he was in Italy, and first met Insalata Caprese, something that made the rich red pomodori seem totally different, fragrant, beautiful, so unlike those pale pink supermarket tomatoes… Was it the taste of the tomatoes or just something about being in Italy? Chris was never the same, and his interest in growing real food is now legend.

Today he grows eight different heirloom tomatoes in his community garden and  even more hybrid tomatoes at home, where his children can see them ripen and enjoy them fresh from the vine. He is determined that his children will grow up knowing what real food is and where it comes from. His daughters, Gabby and Natalia, play a role in the community garden plot; Chris has them each choose something they can grow in the garden. This year one daughter chose colorful tuberous begonias; the other is responsible for the spreading leaves of the pumpkin plants.

Sometimes planting big seeds, like pumpkins, beans, sunflowers or nasturtiums, is easier for children than handling tiny little seeds, and all those plants are satisfying for kids to grow (and nasturtiums add a peppery taste to salads!).  Other plants for gardens shared with children are ones that are interesting to touch or smell, such as fuzzy lambs’ ears or cactus (which actually does grow in JP). For indoor gardening with kids, the sensitive plant (mimosa pudica) is fun; the leaves fold and droop when they are touched. Talk about interactive!  It reminds me of finding jewel weed on walks in the woods; it grows a little seed pod that is equipped with tightly coiled springs, and if you touch it when it is ready, the pod explodes and the seeds fly out. (For a really beautiful little film on seed dispersal, including an exploding seedpod, see this one .)

Scent gardens are fun, too, featuring chives, mint, basil, sage, or lemon balm. These leaves are all so different! Kids can smell the leaves or pick combinations of them to be chopped fine for a flavor blast in salad.

Kids are not so different from most adults: they love to grow and pick cherry tomatoes and snow peapods (delicious raw) and giant pumpkins. Growing green beans on poles pulled together at the top in the form of a teepee can provide a special treat for children: a secret place that children can get into that grownups can’t. (One warning: our daughter came out of a green bean cluster totally unaware that there was a snail sitting on her hair.)A

nother way to make a secret place in the garden that I’ve read about but never actually done is a sunflower circle, with tall and short sunflowers alternating to create walls.

If you are gardening with children, you should watch out for the few poisonous things we are likely to have growing around our homes in New England: lily of the valley; the bulbs of hyacinths, narcissus, daffodils; any part of laurels, azaleas, rhododendrons. In the vegetable garden, rhubarb leaves are toxic, but you have to ingest a LOT of nasty leaves to have an impact. For the most part, time in the garden can only improve our health (Chris Troy says there are studies that show the stress-reducing health benefits of gardening.)

Thinking about the heritage of a love of gardening I’ve been able to share with my children, I stand and admire my daughter’s beautiful and bountiful garden plot – the purples of the translucent iris gleaming above the low, bushy, chives, asparagus stalks rising out of the ground like an army of miniature aliens, well-disciplined snow peas curling up their trellis, the peonies ready to burst into an exultation of pale to deep pink, yellow green lettuce as thick as a ground cover in the area the obedient tomatoes and basil will grow into, volunteer dill plants from last year’s crop that have been captured and re-planted where the mistress of the garden has decided they should grow, and blossoms on the strawberries and the blueberries.

Years ago we gardened together, but now she is far more accomplished than I am. Her garden is more carefully weeded; she is able to make the hard decisions and weed out the volunteer cosmos from previous years that keep popping up and grow so tall in my plot that they shade the vegetables. Her green peppers are more plentiful and have thicker walls than mine (“You have to remember to give them some fertilizer after the fruit sets on, Mom,” she tells me).

When I ask myself how it was that I introduced my children to gardening, I have to admit it was not so much to increase their environmental awareness or to help them make good food choices. To tell the truth, I think it may have been more along the lines of  “I’m going to go have a really good time messing around in the dirt with plants, and then see what happens; do you want to come, too?”

I do believe that being in the garden, watching things happen, has to increase one’s interest and wonder at the natural world. Take this week’s drama of the peonies, for example -- how the plants exude a sticky syrup that draws ants to swarm around the buds and eat the syrup off and in the process unlock the tightly bound peony blossom. And there are other heart-stopping thrills in the garden -- my daughter gardens barefoot, which intensifies the sensation of stepping on a garden snake.  “Oh,” she quavers, trying not to shriek, “it’s ..ah…so beautiful!”And for sensuous pleasure, there are few foods that taste quite as good as a ripe tomato (or love-apple, as my grandmother used to call them) eaten in the garden, still warm from the sun.

Who wouldn’t want to share such pleasures with their children?

Addendum of gardening activities to do with kids

As Rachel Parker said when I asked her how much of the garden time is for fun and how much is for science learning, “Learning is fun! That’s what we’re doing.”

Some of the garden related activities that you can do with children include

Tina June 04, 2011 at 02:26 PM
Did You Grow The Plant That Moves when You Tickle It? Great article Janell - I first saw the sensitive plant in the Botanical Gardens. It is so much fun to grow from seeds. To grow your own sensitive plant and to get the Complete guide to growing the Mimosa just go to http://www.sensitiveplant.com Now its more commonly known as the TickleMe Plant because it really does mOvE fast when you Tickle It. The leaves suddenly fold and even the branches droop when Tickled. I love the TickleMe Plant Party favors! See video of this interactive pet like plant at http://www.ticklemeplant.com
Janell Fiarman June 04, 2011 at 10:02 PM
Yes, we grew the tickle-me plant. It's fun. You do begin to feel that you have a relationship with the plant. There are some creepy videos on YouTube about people burning matches near the leaves, scaring the plant into shutting down. Creeeeepy!

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