The season for gardening is upon us. As I write, the blossom-covered trees are swaying outside my window (ok, bending, it’s windy out there), ushering in warmer weather. A few weeks ago my oldest daughter B and I grabbed packets of seeds at the dollar store and a tomato plant starter kit. You read that correctly, there was a whole “Hey Kids, Grow Your Own Tomatoes” package complete with seeds, dirt mixture, and a planter made of a biodegradable coconut husk. All for a buck! They’ve been sitting on my kitchen counter (the spring installation of Chaos), waiting for the frost risk to pass.
Now, if you’re an experienced gardener who thinks this piece offers delightful, creative tips for gardening with children, please stop. Feel free to read on for a good laugh and post your advice in the comments section. If you’re someone who has never gardened, but thinks it might be a fun activity to try with your kids, read on to learn how I screwed up and how you can avoid the same fate.
Last summer was my first attempt at gardening since the weed jungle I produced for the 4th grade 4H Club. When I won a ribbon for “production”, my dad sighed at the tangle of weeds and shook his head.
All four of my grandparents were raised on farms. Even though they all left farming as a profession, my dad’s parents have continued gardening into their eighties. Row after row of huge beefsteak tomatoes, towering stalks of corn, and intriguing crops like rhubarb greet me every summer I visit.
Apparently, the genetic green thumb that has been in my family for generations skipped right out of my gene pool. None the less, I’d like to give my kids the experience of growing their own food. I may live in the Jersey suburbs, where buying produce at one of five farmers markets in a three-mile radius would be more practical, but last year, we decided to get our hands dirty.
We planted tomatoes, peas, pumpkins, watermelon, some other vegetables I can’t remember, and a variety of wild flowers. I figured, they’re wild flowers. There’s no way we can fail. They grow without people messing with them at all. This was, perhaps, the one lingering thread of commonsense tethering me to my agrarian ancestors. The flowers were beautiful. Of course, we couldn’t eat those.
Our complete lack of experience was evident the moment we began planting. It was also the first time we read the seed packets and learned that we should have cultivated tomato seedlings inside weeks before.
“Well, it couldn’t hurt to try,” my best friend said as we shoved a few seeds in the dirt.
It should be noted that her experience alone is the only reason we grew anything at all last year. She advised us how to space the seeds with such practical insights as: Pumpkins and watermelons take a lot of space. Any fool who’s ever been to a pumpkin patch should know this, but my husband and I nodded in dumbstruck appreciation for her wisdom.
Our second mistake was not labelling what we planted. It’s easy to tell a pea plant from a tomato plant when one has peas and one has tomatoes, but those initial green shoots were tricky. Which leads us to our third mistake: not staking the tomato plants. This was more a result of laziness than inexperience. We just kept forgetting to buy the stakes and figured the plants would be fine without them.
Even with all our errors, the garden was a celebrated success. The girls loved running to the back yard to watch our progress, tramping new shoots beneath their crocs. Remember those vegetables I’ve forgotten? They never grew, victim to our kids’ feet or our lack of experience or both.
Our first “crop” was peas. B jumped out of the inflatable kiddie pool long enough to harvest the six or seven pods that totaled our entire yield. I cooked them that night separate from a supplemental bowl of the frozen variety, and we each enjoyed a single pea of our own making.
I was far too proud of this accomplishment, I’ll admit. However, it inspired me to continue to expand my gardening “knowledge”. Waiting in line at the DMW in June, I heard everyone around me talking about their tomatoes (Despite what you’ve heard, this is the Garden State and people take their tomatoes seriously here). Through my eavesdropping, I learned I was woefully behind the growing season.
My crop came in around the time experienced farmers were onto their second planting. Even so, I’d gather a handful of cherry tomatoes from my backyard (a food that neither of my kids will eat) and relished in my bountiful harvest. The plants grew tangled and buried, so that I had to lift the vines from the dirt to find the hidden treasures beneath. Perhaps this is why it survived the first few cold snaps of fall and provided tomatoes into late October.
As for the melons: the only watermelon to thrive came up by the air conditioner unit, where we didn’t plant it. It had to be removed for fear of obliterating the HVAC. The pumpkins fared well and raised the water bill substantially until we went on vacation in August. They then withered and perished, which was fine because our kids wanted to go on a pumpkin-picking hay ride anyway.
So this year, I have tomato plants germinating in my window sill. I intend to plant the entire contents of my pea seed package instead of half. We might actually get a spoonful each! I’m venturing into green onion and kale in place of the ill-fated melons.
The point is, we’re trying again this year, and with any luck, we’ll learn from our mistakes. I may never have a green thumb, but if I learned anything from my cautionary tale it’s that it doesn’t matter. My kids are young enough to be excited by eating a single pea of their own making. Our garden, though unsuccessful by most standards, provided hours of entertainment.
So best of luck to all the gardeners out there. Whether you grow a bountiful harvest or a tangle of weeds, enjoy the process. Because after all, there’s always the farmer’s market.