By MK Martin
As we are all remembering, just now, kids have limited attention spans. They require sustained enthusiasm on their teachers’ part as well, to maintain their interest. For a lot of us hobby gardeners, that means wading through an overgrown tomato jungle in August, wondering what you like about gardening. When they’re under 4, maintaining garden interest is pretty easy. Plant some peas, maybe some flowers, and you’ll both be satisfied.
Ask Their Opinion
Lately, though, that hasn’t seemed like enough. Ready to take the plunge into meaningful production, I asked my kids to design their ideal garden. For the eldest, that meant a detailed drawing of a floral dreamscape. For my youngest, putting together a physical space with cardboard boxes. She drew on them later for effect.
This can take up a good two hours, guys! Imagining a 3-D space is fun, and if you manage to pull some elements into ‘real life’ they will feel a boost in confidence when working around the garden.
Let Them Choose the Plants
Gardens should produce things you like to eat.
As adults, with all the power, the urge to seed hoard is strong. Don’t we all need 47 varieties of heirloom tomato, even though we’ve only successfully grown them twice? Surely this is the year my Long Island Cheese Pumpkin grows into a cartoonish wheel, worthy of any fair ribbon?
At the end of the day, my kids like peas, beans, potatoes, cute little pie pumpkins, and cucumbers. They will also entertain lettuce and spinach, and herbs like parsley.
Parsley is a biennial, meaning it returns a second year, so they will look out for the first fresh leaves in spring just to chew on. A small number of crops means less to weed, less to worry about and an easier time companion planting without covering your entire space in flowers. Ask your kids which two foods they wouldn’t mind growing themselves, and go from there.
I’m including photos of today’s potato planting, with the girls. Tomorrow, we’ll do two bins of carrots, and one of onions, which we will pick small. This will all become a Patio Soup Garden, which I will of course try and get them to make soup out of at harvest time. We’ll see.
Give Them Direct Tasks
Here is my secret to parenting: never give a direction that has more than 5 words. Ask them to repeat said direction back to you. Then, once that task has been achieved, you may give them another direction. More than this, and you’re all setting yourselves up for failure (and probably tantrums).
Also, make sure you divide tasks according to skill and strength level. And attention level, actually. They’re good for poking precise holes in dirt and dropping one awesome seed within, or they’re good for scattering little lettuce seeds all over a big dirt space so they can cut the salad leaves for dinner later.
That’s not really a parenting secret up there, by the way—giving direct instructions and having them repeated. Just a communication one.
Know Your Limits and Your Needs
If you have a busy summer schedule, keep your garden to 5 crops total. If you have 100 acres and a lot of friends, build a glass-domed conservatory and invite me over for fresh squeezed orange juice.
Either way, check your limits and lay out the level of effort you have to put into your garden, and what you expect to get out of it. Figure out which crop you eat the most of, and plant extra.
Love ketchup? Tomato jungle with marigolds and chives.
Mashed potatoes can never be far from your person? Plan a block of potato rows and inter-plant them with beans and cosmos to confuse the potato beetle.
As a child, my grandmother kept a little summer plot at the lake. She would grow a few rows of corn, some beans, pumpkins, and summer squash. Sometimes there would be peas or tomatoes, but she loved the stalks and vines of corn and squash.
The lot would be surrounded by flowers, and she would tend it diligently when we were there. These are my first gardening memories, and I imagine watching me pick beans was as amusing for her as watching mine is, for me.
I love seeing a muddy hand stuffed with a bursting pea pod, idly picking out peas and feeling the heat. Eating fresh from the garden is a direct life experience; you are most certainly living, right then and there. Take in the expressions on their faces, even the disgusted ones. Try to steal away their hard-won raspberries so they eat them a little faster. Connect to each other through the dirt, and you can’t go wrong.