The Seeds of Family Gardening

Gardening is a beneficial activity for so many reasons, not the least of which are it establishes our connection to the earth and where our food comes from, it reduces anxiety and creates focus and has the end goal of producing something healthy to eat. Take all those benefits and double them for the children in your life – the most important one: growing plants means they get to spend time with you.

If you’re not already a gardener, don’t deprive yourself of this incredible family bonding activity because you’re intimidated or overwhelmed by the idea.

You don’t need a perfectly level, large or sunny yard. You can plant in a small raised bed or a few edibles in existing landscaping. Lean a trellis against an outside wall to grow beans or other edible vines. If you don’t have a lot of outdoor space, a few containers and soil in a sunny spot can be an easy way to grow herbs or some sweet cherry tomatoes kids won’t be able to resist.

In addition to working toward something like growing food for the family, gardening helps boost a child’s growth and development as well as learning capacity, as it incorporates science and mathematics and planning – plus, produce contains brain-building nutrients that aid in cognitive function. The physical activity (gross motor skills gain from moving soil, carrying a watering can, digging in the dirt, pushing a wheelbarrow and other tasks) and Vitamin D from sunshine it provides only adds to that brain power.

Not only do kids enjoy getting their hands and feet dirty, it can strengthen their immunity and overall health.

Time in the garden allows for team building and promotes communication skills. Planning a garden, planting the seeds and watching them grow give kids a sense of purpose and responsibility. Making sure the plants get enough fertilizer, water and sun fosters mindfulness. The concepts learned while gardening, including composting food scraps for fertilizer or using gathered rainwater, can show kids a deep respect and responsibility for taking care of our planet.

At the top of the list of the assets of gardening is the meaningful family connection it provides in an age dominated by children’s use of electronic devices for connection.

Melanie Plenda-Washer, of Keene, has three young children who first became interested in gardening because they watched their father, Jason, in the garden.

“[Jason] started harvesting his own seeds for plants and has expanded the garden to include a variety of hot peppers (his favorite), green peppers, green beans, zucchini, asparagus and lots of varieties of tomatoes and cucumber this year,” she said. “Once he started spending so much time growing his own little plants, expanding, building beds, et cetera, the kids just kind of got naturally curious about it and he would let them help. He lets them plant the seeds and seedlings, weed [the garden] and water the plants.”

The children also helped her plant rose bushes. “I think they enjoy being by us,” she said, “and I will take that for as long as I can get it.”

While it’s a convenient shortcut to buy starters, children will learn more by seeing the growing process as it begins, from seeds. The care given to sprouting seeds and nurturing the young seedling are a valuable part of the gardening experience.

Children learn better when they understand the context of their activity. They will learn that gardening can be fun while contributing to the family’s well-being. Besides planting and nurturing their garden beds, be sure they alone do the harvesting and preparation of their crop for the table, no matter how modest the offering.

Of course, you should show off their work by pointing out their garden beds when giving friends and family tours and taking photos of their harvest to send to them. The attention given to their work is the best motivator for children to stay involved with a project.

Emily Esslinger, of Chesterfield, said her two boys – 7-year-old Mitchell and 5-year-old Mason (her third son, Manning, is seven months old and also spends time in the garden) – appreciate being able to help their family in a meaningful way. Normally they enjoy gardening with their grandmother.

“[They] are excited for this year’s garden because they got to help their Nana and Poppy, who live on a blueberry farm that has been in the family for four generations in Alstead,” she said. “Mitch, in particular, asks every morning when we’re harvesting spinach if we can add it to the farmstand where [his grandparents] sell veggies and fruits from the homestead. The spinach is a family favorite because it’s easy, grows fast and we are able to use it in our morning smoothies as a family with the blueberries from the farm that we freeze.”

Mitchell has his own garlic bed he planted, she added, and Mason has his own spinach bed; together they have their own pumpkin and gourd patch.

Tracy Caprio Cowher, of Keene, shares garden space with her family but each of them (including 13-year-old Ryan and 9-year-old Lauren) picks three vegetables they want to grow.

“Ryan always does spring onions [scallions] and radishes,” she said. “Lauren likes zucchini and tri-colored carrots.” Cowher has gardened with her children for eight years.

It’s always helpful to have a crop of something easy to pick and eat raw, such as cherry tomatoes or snap peas – Esslinger said her sons love eating raw asparagus.

According to Jillian Miner, of Harrisville, her 2-year-old daughter, Louisa, “will randomly grab a green from anywhere and munch away on her way to the raspberry patch.” Miner doesn’t designate a special bed for her daughter, as “all our garden beds are hers.”

“It’s hard to know her favorite gardening duty,” she said, because of her young age. “She loves to plant all seeds, use the hose and pull weeds. She gets extremely excited when we are heading over to the garden and can help for hours as I work away. There are different tasks depending on the time of year in the garden, and watching her learn and grow and experience them all with delight make my heart full.”

Esslinger noted that her boys (who use both adult-sized gardening tools and some made for child-sized hands) enjoy raking spaces for their grandmother, Sue, to plant as well as using the riding lawn mower to load the attached trailer with hay to put down in the garden.

“But the rule is they have to do morning chores on the farm first before they can start the mower,” she said.

Cowher’s children, who take part in the watering and general care of the garden, most enjoy picking lettuce and tomatoes for salad.

Miner’s vegetable garden has been her sanctuary for 10 seasons.

“I remember the feeling when I was pregnant of anticipation and excitement thinking of having a garden helper sharing my special place,” she said. “Seeing [my daughter] learn and love in our garden brings such joy and peace to my life, especially in these uncertain times.”