Garden offers lessons in growing up
Slam! It’s the sound of spring in my home. The doors are thrown open and shut as my kids run in and out of the house now that the weather has warmed up. Overjoyed at the change in season, all of us move our focus from inside to outside, suddenly liberated.
If doors slamming is the sound of spring for my family, then brown is the trademark color. One of our first rituals of spring is to prepare our garden for planting. Getting things ready outside can be a muddy mess. But, working in the garden with my girls has shown me that some of the most important lessons in life can be learned while playing in the mud.
Lesson #1 The benefit of patience
How well I remember my toddler’s first foray into the garden! It was time to plant and I had gathered the seeds, her shiny new plastic garden toys and my own tools. I had visions of my daughter working dutifully beside me — digging holes when I asked, gently covering the seeds and sprinkling the ground with water. As a first-time parent, I didn’t realize this vision was really a delusion.
My daughter wasn’t the peaceful planter that I expected; she was more like a bulldozer. Some of the plastic tools broke and she quickly tossed the others aside and insisted on using mine. She flung dirt and dug holes at random. She searched the ground for the seeds I’d already planted, proudly holding up each one she unearthed like a trophy. She was exuberant. I was frustrated. How would I ever get anything to grow?
After planting, replanting and pleading, I gave up. Defeated, I retreated to the shade of the deck. Without me to stop her, she explored the muddy world of the springtime garden. She piled dirt, poured water and delighted in barefoot mud dancing. She was so beautiful and innocent; I had to smile despite my frustration.
In typical toddler form, she soon got bored. She left the tools, puddles and holes behind and came over to ask me why the garden wasn’t growing. I led her back to the garden.
She settled in beside me as I showed her how to plant a seed. I explained that gardening isn’t something that happens quickly. It requires patience and nurturing. Gardeners have to pay attention to what the plants need. Sometimes, they need a more shade. Other times, they need water or food. Or, perhaps they are like you , I thought to myself, they need some time to explore their new world before starting to grow.
Lesson #2 The importance of boundaries
The next year, I wised up. Before I attempted any real planting, I gave my daughter a chance to play in the garden. I handed over my tools and the hose and let her go. She had a great time. Our garden expanded that year, and I decided to allow my 3-year-old to walk through the flowers and vegetables unsupervised.
By midsummer, she had trampled quite a few plants. I didn’t want make the garden off limits to kids (the family was expanding, too), but I did want to the plants to survive. My mother-in-law suggested that I use mulch or wood planks to mark some paths through the garden. Surprisingly, that was all it took.
Once I marked the paths and made it clear that she had to respect those boundaries, she stuck to them and our plants flourished. Even today, my oldest girl is still looking for boundaries. She comes home from school with new words and attitudes that test my limits. She’s realizing that she’s making her own path, but she still wants my help. As I watch her grow, I hope that she’ll choose boundaries that will allow her to mature with confidence.
Lesson #3 The joy of renewal
The last couple of gardening seasons, I’ve felt a sense of sadness as my kids start back to school and the garden begins to die off. Some years the garden has been an accomplishment to be proud of — we successfully ate or froze our vegetables, dried herbs and picked bouquets of flowers.
Lately though, fall has been filled carpools, after-school activities and homework. These days it’s more likely that the tomatoes will rot on the ground and the herbs will freeze before they get picked. Even so, just planting them gives me a sense of fulfillment.
I used to feel bad about my lack of harvesting instinct, guilty for letting things go to waste. But, even when this happens, I realize that the garden still holds a sense of promise. The tomatoes that rot on the garden floor in the fall come back as new plants in the spring. The herbs that are ruined by frost can be composted and used as fertilizer the next year. What feels like failure this year can actually be the key to continued growth.
Our relationships with kids are that way, too. They take our tools, test our limits and sometimes trample our hearts. We retreat to the shadows, thinking we have failed. But then, we notice that they’ve taken all that we have to give them and used it in their own way. Just when we’re about to give up, they renew our hope by dancing barefoot in the mud.