The thorny dewberry vines that grow in the garden along the side of our house are transplants from the home of my wife’s late grandmother.
After she passed, I moved several of these native blackberry-like bushes from her rural Oklahoma farmyard to our place, where they now flourish and compliment the annual bounty of our suburban fruit and vegetable garden.
Like many family matriarchs, my wife’s grandmother was a special individual. A survivor of the Great Depression and a stalwart example of the endearing qualities of the people of western Oklahoma — this is a woman whose memory is worthy of passing down to my children. I’m grateful I was afforded the opportunity to know her and the experiences and traditions of her home.
Although my three small children will never sit and visit with their great-grandmother in her home, through vegetable and fruit gardening, they will know some connection to her. With each summer evening’s visit to the dewberry bushes, our children hear the stories of warm country evenings, funny memories and wisdom passed down through the generations.
In those moments, our kids smell and taste fresh dewberries right off the vine, just like their mother grew up doing at “Grandma’s house.” And just like at Grandma’s, they’re invited into the ritual of gathering with loved ones around delicious food — in this case homegrown dewberry cobblers that are second to none. In this way we enrich not only our children’s experience in the garden but also their connection to our family roots.
From a patch of thorny vines in our backyard garden spring forth so many valuable lessons, traditions and opportunities to enrich the lives of our young kids. And so it can be for anyone who starts a home garden with their kids. Gardening can strengthen the bond between parents and children, build memories that long outlast the time it takes to produce a crop and deepen the connection kids have with the natural world. And that’s just the beginning of the tangible and intangible rewards that come from growing fruit and veggies with your children.
The value of hard work
For me, gardening has always been about the hard work, the sweat, digging my hands into the soil and working with shovels and forks and wheelbarrows. It’s about creating fertile ground and attracting earthworms and bees. And it’s about providing my family with quality food.
Add children to the mix and you’ve got a perfect environment for teaching hard work, patience, problem-solving and the importance of making fresh air, nature and nutritious food part of one’s daily routine. My oldest son enjoys explaining the step-by-step process of growing food, from planting a seed to adding compost, watering and eventually nurturing a plant that produces the most flavorful tomatoes.
Even more, he’s discovered the pleasure of doing the work, harvesting squash or green beans he’s planted and raised himself (OK, mostly himself!) He’s even felt the urge to grow “his own” garden in a space designated just for kids to plant and experiment.
His two younger siblings may not fully grasp all these concepts yet, but they still experience the gratification of planting fast-growing vegetables — like radishes — that sprout before they lose interest.
Reveling in the reward
There’s something viscerally rewarding about growing and raising your own food. And kids who take interest in raising a vegetable crop from start to finish are sure to feel it. But even if a child isn’t actively involved throughout the entire process, they can still enjoy gardening if you involve them in steps along the way.
Fortunately, even the youngest among us can participate. A 2-year-old can walk along a patch of loose ground scattering lettuce seeds. The steady hand of an older child can plant garlic or green beans with precision. A stronger child can carry a watering can. And a patient youngster can help with weeding and pruning. Even a small child with an appropriately-sized basket can stay occupied with a plant loaded down with ripe cherry tomatoes or sugar snap peas.
And perhaps the pinnacle of the gardening experience is the time spent after the harvest, in the kitchen. Involving your young gardener in the preparation of the meal is an important part of the gardening process. Even if you just have one or two ingredients from the garden on hand, that homegrown essence is sure to enrich your meal with a deeper connection to the ground outside your door, a better understanding of where food comes from and opportunities to affirm a child for his or her contribution to that meal.
Regardless of what you grow or choose to prepare with it in the kitchen, the taste of food grown at home in partnership with your kids is that of pure satisfaction.
Tips for Keeping Kids Engaged in Gardening
- Don’t underestimate what a child wants to learn. Study topics like foods you want to grow, composting and beneficial insects, then share what you’ve learned with your young helper.
- Start small. A surprising amount of food can be produced in a 4’x6’ raised bed or containers filled with a potting soil made for growing vegetables.
- Purchase kid-specific gardening tools for your children. The smaller size handles and implements are easier for kids to use than full-size tools and give young gardeners a sense of ownership over their equipment and the tasks around the garden.
- Make a day of if when you buy seeds or young plants. Children will look forward to it each year and enjoy the opportunity to help decide what to plant.
- With young children, plant fast-growing crops like radishes and lettuce. If you start in early spring and water daily, you’re likely to notice seedlings within about three days. Check the soil every day with your kids so that the planting will be fresh on their minds when they finally see the plants emerging.
- Involve your child in daily garden tasks. Set goals at the beginning, like watering and weeding the garden together twice a week, then lead your family in keeping the commitment to each other and your garden.
Bergin Family Favorites
- Green beans are easy to grow and fun to plant and harvest, even in a small garden.
- Cherry tomatoes are prolific and hard to mess up. The fruits are also sweet and delicious.
- Perennials like asparagus or blackberries take longer to establish but they help keep children interested and excited about gardening when they come back each year.
- Purchase a bag of beneficial ladybugs from a local garden center or online, then release them into your garden with your children. It’s great fun for everyone!
- Find an online resource or book to guide your efforts. There are many excellent options. Good starting points include the book The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible by Edward C. Smith or the “From Seed to Spoon” app for your iPhone.
Michael Bergin is an outdoorsman and food enthusiast at heart and loves engaging with nature through fishing, hunting, mountain biking and, of course, vegetable gardening. He lives in Yukon with his wife and three small children where they grow a garden of dewberries, asparagus and all manner of other vegetables, fruits and herbs.