Growing, and Eating, Vegetables with Kids

The White House kitchen garden got a lot of attention recently because of the First Lady’s new book, but where I live, my daughter’s container garden is the big news.

A neighbor with a green thumb helped us get started last month. She and my two-and-a-half-year-old, along with her nanny, walked to a nearby garden center to buy cow manure, seeds, and plants. The staff loaned them a wagon to bring the purchases home, and even threw in a hanging flowering plant that wasn’t looking good enough to sell. Later in the day, when more potting soil was needed, another neighbor walked the wagon back and picked up a bagful of dirt.

By the time I returned home from work, my preschooler and her assistants had patted seeds and plants into containers filled with soil and manure, and arranged the containers artfully on a sunny patch of concrete in front of our porch. Grace, the neighbor who serves as lead gardener, happily reported that my daughter had loved digging, mixing, and watering with her pint-size pail, shovel, and bright green watering can (a gift from her nanny, who remembered last year’s garden). Grace also handed me nasturtium seeds and coached me on how to soak them in water that night, getting them ready to plant the next day. The project fit my limited time perfectly, and inspired conversations with my daughter about edible flowers and why the seeds started out floating but (we saw at breakfast the next morning) eventually all sank to the bottom.

This week, the lettuce and sunflowers are sprouting. The basil and tomato plants are looking good too, and we have some chives that came back from last year with no extra encouragement. “Chia?” asked an upstairs neighbor who stopped to chat, like so many who pass by the garden. “Like chia seeds?” “No, chives,” I explained, and he paused, keys in hand, to look at the tall grass-like plants next to the rosemary and cilantro.

Having planted a garden herself, my daughter responds with greater knowledge to books about gardening, like a current favorite by local Somerville, Mass., author Grace Lin, called The Ugly Vegetables. After reading this book about a family’s garden full of Chinese vegetables, we talked about which of the vegetables we might grow so that we too could make the delicious soup the book describes. (The recipe’s included.)

Planting a garden, even a small one in containers that sit on concrete, is a spring ritual I love, and it hits on all the themes that Michelle Obama emphasizes in her book – healthy eating, physical activity, and connections with the natural world being at the top. Gardening also celebrates culture and community, as Grace Lin’s book shows. But I almost counted the activity out when my daughter was younger and I felt particularly frazzled as a working mom.

That’s when this very blog inspired me. In a post last May titled “Make your own summer camp,” Kristen Laine wrote about how she and her husband created a theater camp for local kids by channeling the talent and energy of teenagers in their community. The post got me thinking about people I know who are great with children and have talents to share, like Grace, my neighbor with the green thumb. I asked her if she’d be interested, and a toddler’s garden was born.

If you’re thinking about starting a garden with your kids, I would echo two of Kristen’s recommendations: start small, and ask for help. I would also add one of my own: enjoy eating the benefits.

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Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Heather Stephenson.

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