Learning in the Garden

095One aspect of summer that has grown in importance and scale over the years is our garden.  My husband started it on his own, trying to tame the very elaborate and overgrown garden that was our backyard.  It was pretty but impractical or worse:  not only was there nowhere to walk or play, but enormous rosebushes threatened our babies with thorny tendrils (talons?) at every turn.

And… I wanted to grow food.

So we worked at it.  I joined my husband’s efforts, and we have slowly, incrementally, created a fairly decent garden out of a small and partly shaded space of perhaps 500 square feet.  It looks like we’ve done it ourselves – there’s no landscape designer’s touch here – but it’s a living, producing garden where there wasn’t one before.

And… our kids are learning about growing food.

It’s true that they’re not always involved in every step.  At the end of February, for instance, when I planted my seeds in the basement, I did not invite the kids.  Normally I love doing hands-on activities with the kids, but I know (some of) my limits, and putting a 7, 5 and 2 year old together with soil, water, and lots of seed packet (and tiny seeds!)  in a subterranean room was beyond what I could gracefully do.

With confessionals such as this out of the way though, it’s still completely possible to share lots of gardening love with children, and I do.  They’ve watch seeds emerge under the warmth of the basement grow lights, and see the seedlings planted into the backyard and into pots.  They ask about things that grow, learn what seeds look like, and try planting new ones they’ve found.  They become curious.

They helped me build raised beds, which we tried for the first time this year.   When the soil was poured in from the local garden centre, they helped me carry it into the wheelbarrow and fill those beds (which, by the way, hold a deceptive lot of soil).  I assigned one bed to each of the older boys, who decided  what to plant there.  We witness how their arrangements are panning out.  We are all watching, for the first time, how dramatically larger and stronger the plants in the raised beds are than the ones in the regular garden beds.  I’m trying to show them which of the tomato branches we should be pruning, with the understanding that my knowledge is incomplete and growing like theirs.

And bless them, they eat the food.  The lettuces, the kale, the cucumbers have been in for awhile now.  Raspberries are prized and I often decline the little bursts of sun sweetness to give my babes just a bit more.  Snap and snow peas are, well, snapped up, but they won’t be able to eat all the beans which are just starting to come in so I’ll get some of those.  The radishes are all pulled, but they know we can sow again.  The chard and possibly the beets have failed – we’ll see if the roots are doing better than the green tops.  They know to give the herbs more time.  The mushroom logs have been ravaged by the raccoons, and they know this is my biggest disappointment of the summer.  The ground is littered with the leaves of our potatoes, which we trust are growing peacefully below.  They sometimes bend to eat the plantain sprouting wild where the grass once was, and wonder why I am not making soup from the wood sorrel.  They cook with me.

The garden comes at a cost, as does everything else we choose to do – it occupies the space something else could have used.  Our yard is really not a yard anymore, but a garden.  My children have no open green space to play (although there is a little paved garage space for ball).

But I hope that there is something for them in this garden all the same, and I hope it is there during their everyday wanderings among the plants, or when my son says he’s going to the garden to have some space to himself.  It is so important to me that they are engaged in their food for the benefit of their health and for the environment, but I also hope there is a simple pleasure in it.   It’s the pleasure of being outside, of watching things grow wherever we find ourselves, and knowing we can nurture and help that growth along.  The concept of fruition isn’t theoretical in the garden:  the children can see and feel and taste it.  The garden also offers lessons in patience, observation, and failure.  Sometimes a seed is planted, takes a long time to grow, grows and dies, or doesn’t sprout at all – there’s no re-set button then, only next spring.  Sometimes our seeds grow well, just as experience and attention suggested they would.  And sometimes seeds reach skyward beyond our imaginings.

My sons’ school is wonderful in its strong ecological ethic, and the children learn about gardens there.  But in Canada, the heart of the growing season falls during summer holidays (when, once upon a time, children were needed to help parents in their fields and gardens), so working in the garden and watching it unfold is special to summer learning at home.

And if ever there was inspiration to garden with children (or anyone) in the city, this is it:  Ron Finley’s Ted Talk about guerilla gardening in South Central Los Angeles:

A Green Patch in March

012Around now, having gotten through the better part of heavy winter, most of us are eager for spring.  For me, I’m looking not just for warmth, but for some colour, especially some green, but most days March is a month of browns and greys.

I took these colour needs into my own hands this year, and for the first time am growing microgreens.  These are like baby greens, harvested when they are teeny little guys, and are amazingly flavourful garnishes for sandwiches, soups, salads, or just snacking.  They are also really pretty, and an easy pick-me-up during winter.

If I had gotten my green hankering earlier in the winter, when the daylight hours were still quite short, I could still have grown them in the basement, where we have a grow light.   But I started in early March, and gave my Mizuna Asian Greens and Astro Arugula (from High Mowing Seeds) a try next to a (partly blocked) south facing window.  And they grew!

I can now attest that growing microgreens is totally fun and wonderful to do with children.  Firstly, they’re instant gratification in the planting world.  Ready for harvest after about 10 days, microgreens will germinate as soon as a day after being sown.  Secondly, your kids will get to play in something akin to dirt.  Thirdly, they’ll know that they can grow things.  And fourthly, the microgreens are delicious – yes, my kids ate them! –  that they are so small and cute makes them that much more appealing.

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You only need 5 things to grow these puppies:

  • microgreen seeds
  • seed starting mix (some people grow microgreens in potting soil, but my books and local garden storekeeper told me seed starting mix, which actually has no soil, is better)
  • a tray with drainage holes to grow them in
  • a cover for the tray (or plastic wrap)
  • a sunny window or a grow light

The planting is even simpler:

  • moisten the seed starting mix with water until just damp 
  • lay an inch of soil into the tray
  • sprinkle seeds (don’t cover the seeds after sprinkling)
  • cover the tray to keep humidity in

After this, you just mist the seeds once or twice a day, which is a wonderful excuse to check in on them as they will basically transform before your eyes.  I planted our first batch (too thickly) by myself to see if it would work.  It did, and my boys (6 and 4) watched it grow.

A week later (succession planting!), I invited them to try.  They ran to the table, and didn’t leave until I had to ask them to.  It was a good time, one that we’ll repeat for sure, and now we have some much needed patches of green inside, to tie us over until the ones outside start to wake up.