I grew up on a farm that had a large vegetable garden. It had corn, sweet peas, radishes, beans, carrots, zucchini, cucumbers, tomatoes, beets, and a pumpkin patch. I have fond memories of going into the garden with my sister and spending hours eating the sweet peas, raw corn, and tomatoes until we were so full that our stomachs were sour. Now that I have a son, I want to pass along the lessons of responsibility and reward that I learned from taking care of a garden.
The spring that my son was three, he started to notice my perennial plants poking up through the soil in our flower beds. This started a conversation between us about plants and trees coming to life during the spring. I told him that not all plants are just flowers. Many trees and plants provide fruit and vegetables that we buy in the store, like watermelon, strawberries, cucumbers, corn, potatoes, peas, and many more. He seemed genuinely interested in finding out more about this. So I asked him if he wanted his own garden to grow things in, which he immediately became excited about. I told him that I would help him plant whatever he wanted and show him how to take care of it. Oh boy!
My husband and I moved into a house that did not have a great garden set up. So, I pestered my husband until he smoothed out the perfect location in our yard, constructed our garden boxes, and filled it with a fertilizer and top soil blend. Meanwhile, my son and I picked out what he was going to grow in his first garden – pumpkins, cucumbers, tomatoes, bell peppers, lettuce and chives. (My son was disappointed to learn that chocolate chip cookies do not grow on plants.) I think that most of his decision-making was based on pictures of the plants – big leaves of lettuce, large red tomatoes, vines of cucumbers, and pumpkins for Halloween. I went to our local greenhouse and purchased our baby plants (Next year we will start from seeds, but this year we had a late start because we had to put our garden boxes together). Now we were all set to start our gardening experience!
Our next step was to figure out where each plant would go in our garden. My son and I decided that the cucumber and pumpkins should go near each other so that they could climb the trellis and fence, and that the tomatoes and bell peppers should go near each other because red and green remind him of Christmas and Snowball (our Elf on the Shelf’s name). The Lettuce and chives ended up in another section by themselves by default.
Once that was all decided, it was time to plant. We marched out to our new garden with our trowels, rake, baby plants, and watering can. The first thing that I showed my son was how soft the dark-colored soil was. We sunk our hands right into it and mixed it all around. At first, I thought he was going to change his mind about a garden and make it a sand box, but he came to realize that all we were doing was getting the soil ready for planting; kind of like turning down the sheets before getting into bed (his analogy, not mine). He used his green garden shovel to dig deep in the dirt of one garden box, flip it over, and used his rake to smooth out the surface. I did the same with my trowel in the other box.
Then, I started to lay out the baby plants in approximate spots on top of the soil. Two rows of each type of plant. He looked at me funny and asked what I was doing. I explained that young plants should be planted only once in the ground. It was best to make sure our locations and spacing were right before we planted them in the soil. Otherwise, we could damage the plant if we had to remove it from the soil and relocated it. With a few minor adjustments, we were ready to start planting. My son watched me as I used my hands to dig holes in the first row of pumpkins that were deep and wide enough to cover the entire root and the some of the tiny stems.
Soaking all of this in, he jumped right in and started the next row by himself. I watched him dig each hole, just like the ones I was digging, in a row next to mine. I tried not to oversee too much in his row, because it is his garden after all, but found myself proud of what he was learning in such a short period of time.
In no time at all, each of our plants was immersed in rich, dark soil. My son then used all of his might to drag the full watering can over to each plant and “give them a drink”, he states. After that, we stood back and admired our newly planted garden. “Wow”, he whispers, “They’re going to be so happy in there. They’ll grow and grow, until they’re sssoooooo big!” I was filled with a mixture of being amazed and proud at how excited my son was. Isn’t that what springtime and gardens are all about? The possibility and anticipation of what the future brings? Dreaming of large carving pumpkins and unlimited cucumbers? I was already enjoying our first garden experience!
Weeks and weeks went by where all my son and I would do when we got home in the afternoon was pull tiny weeds out of the garden and “give them a drink”. Each day my son would note the progress in his growing plants and became thrilled when the first white pepper blossoms appeared; then the yellow tomato and cucumber ones appeared and he marveled at how large the pumpkin blossoms were. “Dad’s gonna flip when he sees these!”, he exclaimed one day. I’ll let the pictures from our garden so far speak for themselves.
There are too many pumpkin and cucumber blossoms to count, a growing jungle of vines climbs our fence, and a plethora of tomatoes and cucumbers. The lettuce leaves are size of elephant ears and the chives have covered the garden bed like grass in a lawn! Peppers are slow, but they are coming.
Each day that he and I go in there, we are harvesting lettuce for salad and cucumbers for snacks. The tomatoes are getting larger, but are still green right now. He’s already figuring out what he is going to carve on his Halloween pumpkins – so far it’s either Chase and Marshall from Paw Patrol or a big scary ghost.
At this age, my three-year old son has already learned several things that are key in creating great values in a person. He understands that not everything has an instant reward; some things require patience and getting your hands, and sometimes your feet, dirty. He has felt the excitement of a new garden and growing season. He is already learning from the mistakes of our first garden and planning improvements on next year’s garden. (We are going to plant the pumpkins and cucumbers in the back so they don’t climb over the gate, and he wants a dragon to guard the garden in order to keep chipmunks out.) He has felt the disappointment of losing one or two plants, and used that lesson to take better care of the remaining plants. Finally, he is experiencing what it is like to reap some rewards for his hard work.
My son is a remarkable person, as any parent would think of their child. He is perceptive, appreciative, and sensitive. Most of all, at his young age, he absorbs information and his surroundings like a sponge. That’s why I am teaching him the value of work, patience, and responsibility now. There are many more lessons that he will learn from this garden as the years go on and our garden expands, but this is a great start. I recommend a small garden for anyone with kids. Even potted plants on a window sill will do! (We plan to continue our garden all winter long by growing basil and chives and cilantro in pots during the winter. Maybe even a pretty tropical plant, too!)