Having Fun With a Family Garden

In fact, I looked forward to introducing my kids to the fun of gardening. Call me an incurable optimist, but I thought a family garden would bring us together, show the kids where the food -comes from, and demonstrate the old-fashioned value of physical work. All this, while providing crisp carrots, new potatoes, and delectable tomatoes for the family larder.

Boy, was I wrong. Instead of a garden, I created a battle ground, and the arguments threatened to drive us all apart. My approach was flawed from the beginning. I saw myself as the head gardener barking commands to the hired hands. Soon, the hired hands grew to loathe me and my garden. They threatened to strike, and I heard muttered threats of sabotage. I had to hide the weed killer out of fear of guerrilla attacks on my precious Swiss chard.

Ultimately, I agreed to a humiliating labor contract that included the requirement that henceforth all potatoes must be purchased from a grocery store. In my defeat I crawled off to a dark room to reassess my strategy. There, I realized that father did not always know best.

I changed my tactics and allowed input from other family members. We decided as a group on how we'd approach the project, and eventually, my kids and wife grew to enjoy the tradition of a family garden. We had years of fun, growing everything from giant pumpkins to sunflowers with blossoms as big as pie plates.

Here are some tips about raising a family garden without making your children hate you for life.

Plan It Out
Before you plant, gather a family meeting and invite everyone to express their opinions. Ask your kids what kinds of plants they'd like to grow. Be positive and stress the fact that the goal is to have fun as a family and grow delicious food. Reassure your kids that you're not creating a slave farm where they have to spend every Saturday weeding for eight hours.

The biggest mistake you can make is planning a garden so big and elaborate that you won't have time for it. For most of us, the summer is already a busy time with vacation and sports, so don't add to your stress by trying to raise enough spinach to drive Popeye crazy. A plot of land 8' by 8' or 10' by 10' is big enough to begin with.

Before you start digging, look closely at your backyard and make sure you plant your garden in a sunny spot. Vegetables need at least six or seven hours of sun a day, particularly hot weather plants like tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers. Pumpkins take a lot of space and water, so be sure you have room to grow them. Or, you can plant a dwarf variety which takes up less space.

You also need to know which plant varieties will flourish in your area. The United States is divided into various climate zones. If you live in damp, cloudy Oregon, you'll need to plant a different variety of tomatoes than sunny New Mexico. Go to a garden store and talk with an experienced gardener about the best plants for your area and the correct times to plant each type of vegetable.

We all like to have our own stuff and our own spaces, so consider giving your kids their own plot, if your yard is big enough. A 3' by 5' space is big enough for younger children; for older kids a 6' by 8' space will give them plenty of good earth to dig in. In addition to their own space, giving your kids their own tools will give them a sense of possession and improve their attitude.

Have Fun and Learn
Once you start digging, keep your expectations low and let your kids participate in their own way, as befits their age. Your goal is to have some laughs, create emotional bonds, and grow food that tastes the way God intended. If you accomplish these goals, you can also create an opportunity to teach your kids about natural processes and the cycle of growth.

Equal Opportunity Employment
Here are some age-related guidelines to keep in mind.

From Ages 2 to 4: Young children love to dig and don’t mind getting dirty, so let them dig holes for your plants and seeds. They can also water your plants with a watering can and help pick cherry tomatoes.

From ages 4 to 8: Kids at this age can choose which plants they want to grow and can do much of the work, including planting the seeds, watering and weeding. As the sun grows hot and the weeds magically pop up, you’ll probably want to help them weed and water, so they don’t get discouraged.

From ages 8 and up: Older children can easily learn basic organizational skills by keeping track or recording watering and feeding schedules.

Parents can also begin to teach older kids about some scientific principles and processes, such as photosynthesis, pollination, phototropism, and other interesting concepts. While you’re out in the garden, turn over some rocks and logs and see what kinds of crawly critters you can find. Look at them through a magnifying glass and collect a few bugs in a jar. It’s fun to get a book on bugs and identify the critters you see.

Older kids can compare different kinds of plants and measure how they grow. Use a tape measure and keep track of the growth in a notebook. Have them look at the root systems of weeds and compare different kinds, like dandelion and morning glory.

Raising kids requires way more patience than raising vegetables, so don’t get discouraged if your dreams take a few years to bloom. It’s worth the effort.

Your children will learn patience as they wait for the plants to germinate, and they’ll develop a sense of wonder by glimpsing the mystery of life and the cycles of nature. When their efforts pay off in a bountiful harvest, they’ll see how hard work is rewarded. In the end, they’ll thank you for your love and patience.