Letting Children Grow in the Garden

If the view from our farm is any sign, young Americans are heading to the country in droves to grow food. They find the land, buy the pickup and build the barn, and then they have . . . children. And that’s when things get complicated. You can’t hop on a tractor and bring your toddler along.

For big jobs in the field, child care is needed, perhaps by a trusted neighbor who’ll swap for farm-grown food. But it’s possible to get things done closer to the house, albeit more slowly. Some recent conversations with young farmers revealed coping tricks that home-gardening parents might use as well.

My farmer husband, Eliot, remembers holding his daughters Melissa and Clara on his lap while he potted seedlings into flats, explaining how the little root systems grew, and offering reject seedlings for the girls to plant.

Clara, grown up and farming in Colorado, did the same thing with her sons Bode and Hayden. When they were babies she could carry them in slings for some of her work. Later she’d confine them in a foldable crib and hand them pea pods to chew on. A “sandbox” of moist potting soil worked well for both plants and toy trucks.

Some garden activities for young children are brief but fun distractions. I recall an afternoon when my son Chris gathered up small, round burdock burs to create one gigantic, prickly ball.

But the best play instills responsibility and a sense of garden craft. Clara’s yard, fenced for kids’ safety, contained an enclosed kitchen garden and a free-range area for both children and ducks. “Ducklings are less fragile than baby chicks,” Clara explains, and the children both played with and cared for them.

At age 4, Hayden collected chicken eggs each day without being asked, carefully placed them pointed-end-down in boxes and hollered the day’s total to his mom. Pride, plus the fun of a numbers game, made him love that job.

Bode bonded with the garden’s insects, studying them and adopting them as pets. Tomato hornworms were a useful specialty. For both kids, planting pelleted carrot seeds 1 inch apart in furrows Clara made for them was a racing game, but they were learning at the same time.

For our young farmer friend Jen Porter, on the island of North Haven, giving her sons, Oliver and Zeke, their own garden areas was the key. “It’s all about respect,” she says. She has her tools and growing beds and they have theirs, both in the garden and in the greenhouse, which she says is “a must for gardening moms, especially in wintertime.”

She even suspends swings from its roof supports.

Does it work?

This year, 4-year-old Zeke went through the seed catalogs with Jen, picking out the things he most wanted to grow and building excitement for the upcoming garden season.

And 7-year-old Ollie will once again plant, pick, wash and pack the lettuce he sells to teachers at his island school. Last year he banked $70 with his crop. Says Jen, “These are amazing skills to pass on.”

Barbara Damrosch, author of “The Garden Primer,” is a freelance writer.

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Fenceviewer Staff

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