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Monday, March 2, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 26.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Can you dig it?
Helping your kids enjoy gardening

Credit:Kate O'Leary

When I asked my boys, ages 7 and almost 9, to describe their experience at our garden plot, here's what they said: "Hot. Endless toil. Mouse-eaten cantaloupe. Backbreaking, sun-scorching labor. Tomatoes going black."

I flinched. Didn't they remember any of the good stuff? The toad they named Pebbles, the family of sandhill cranes we sometimes spotted stepping carefully through our plot? The five or six cantaloupes that ripened perfectly, untouched by varmints, to chin-dripping goodness? Or was all of this overshadowed by the "toil?"

This spring marks our fifth season of plot-sharing at Eagle Heights Community Garden with our friends Erica and Mark and their two girls. We started out blissfully idealistic, à la Roots, Shoots, Buckets and Boots, a lovely guide to gardening with kids.

Erica bought ladybug garden aprons for the kids. I convinced my husband to build a charming sandbox with latticed top and sides, for shady climbing vines. But the vines didn't take, the boys didn't want to wear aprons, and the girls drooped like parched sunflowers, listlessly waiting to go home. The fathers lent muscle for a while, but faded after the first couple of seasons. Since then, our eight-person team has dwindled to Erica and me, and the two boys - who are more vociferously reluctant, I glumly realize, every year.

More and more, gardening with my sons is about striving to keep our tempers long enough to complete a task before heading for home. (Or the pool, which is where they'd rather have gone in the first place.) It's not that much fun, even for me.

Why drag them along? Why not let them off the hook on chilly, drizzly spring mornings or hot summer afternoons when they'd so clearly rather be doing something - anything - else?

Because gardening is important to me and someday - I do believe this - gardening will be important to them. Not just a fun childhood memory. Important. Why?

Hard to say, in so many words. My dad always had a big garden, wherever we happened to be living. We ate from it all season long. Sometimes my dad's garden seemed more dependable and good than almost anything else in our lives.

I also want my city kids to know something about the land, and where food comes from, and that work and help are not four-letter words.

Meanwhile, things could be better. March blows in, cold and snowy. I sign our plot up for tilling. April peeks through her rainy veil. Erica presses peas into the icy mud. May arrives, and all hell breaks loose. We scramble to sow spinach, lettuce, beets, carrots. Driven by a vague sense of urgency and inadequacy (and a very real sense of blisters and back strain), I am impatient with the boys, their complaining and even (shame on me) their clumsy zeal. If we can just get the damn seeds in, I think, then I'll deal with making it fun.

In early May, everybody's garden is ugly. Weeds sprout between the still-empty rows and there is no real shade. The boys come home from school tired and hungry, and roar at the suggestion of a bike trip to the garden plot. May, that "sacred" time of planting, can really suck.

Contrast May with August, though! Any parent would want a garden plot in August. The whole hillside sings with color: golden, nodding sunflowers, bubble-gum-bright zinnias, scarlet salvia. Across the mowed, grassy paths, ground squirrels ripple and vanish like magic into invisible holes. Red-tailed hawks perch on posts. Erica's tomatoes sound their round note of wholesome juiciness, the pumpkins swell under their blossoms, and the zucchini gets too big for anything but bread-making. The days are blue and hot, and from the top of the hill Lake Mendota sparkles.

And the boys? Well, they love to harvest, so our best moments involve hunting and picking and gorging on golden tomatoes or dusky raspberries. Or walking, not running, through the first hard rain in six weeks, singing "Have You Ever Seen the Rain?"

Is it too much to hope that the other months could be more like August? I know my boys have a keen appreciation for the natural world. But gardening is not only about strolling and sniffing and taking it all in. There's work involved.

I suspect a missed connection, something so simple and obvious that a small change (relaxing my expectations, perhaps) would make all the difference. I just don't know exactly how, or what, to change.

I decide to call Nathan Larson, educational director for the Kids' Gardening Program at Troy Gardens, a community garden on Madison's north side. If anyone could help me, and other parents, make gardening more kid-friendly, it would be Larson.

The kids' garden at Troy serves about 500 children through partnerships with community centers and schools on Madison's north side. In the fall, the program moves indoors to second- and third-grade classrooms, partnering with Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch and the UW Extension to offer a gardening and nutrition curriculum that dovetails with standard subjects like science and reading. Last fall the kids made cookbooks, blending classroom skills and gardening knowledge.

Larson has been teaching kids about gardening for about 10 years, beginning with a stint at a school garden in the Santa Cruz Mountains. He came to Troy Gardens in 2000, when the community - farm, prairie restoration, housing - was just evolving past the concept stage. He's always represented the interests of youth and teens, from his board of directors role to his current job.

In photos, sunny-faced children hold up dirty plastic bags of produce, grinning from ear to ear. They learn how to pickle their cucumbers, make their own salsa. I want some of that joy.

"Nathan, I need some tips on gardening with kids. My boys don't seem interested in our family's garden plot."

"Oh," says Larson, who is soft-spoken and deliberate. He sounds surprised.

"So how do you do it?"

"Well, a big piece of it is making it fun."

Figures, I think. Everything's always about fun.

"It's important to give kids a sense of empowerment," Larson continues. "Out here, we have a choice-centered environment. We set up as many different 'stations' as we can: raspberry-picking, watering, weeding. They choose where they want to start. And they may stay there the entire time, or they may move on to something else. Because we have so many choices, it never feels like drudgery."

In the family garden model, Larson explains, the parent is the director. Kids are just helpers (or observers). At the Kids' Garden, the children lead the show from the beginning. Before the planting season arrives, they get to draw up their own garden plan.

"We give them a handout telling which plants don't like to be next to each other. Then we give them a list of all the available plants for that season. They plan around that information."

So "fun" isn't just mindless goofing off. It's kid-driven work. I'm all ears.

The kids plant seedlings donated by Oakhill Correctional Institution. That's something different - we always opt for seeds.

"I do a demo," Larson explains. "First we dig the hole. Then we walk over and get the plant. I show them how to squeeze the bottom of the container, pull it out by the roots. Then I encourage them to put the trowel away and use their hands, so they can get the feeling of their hands in the dirt."

Sounds slow and methodical.

"Yep, sometimes they'll only plant one or two seedlings that day. I always encourage them to send a good luck wish out to their plant."

I'm starting to sense why Larson's approach works. The children, not the garden, are the focus. Larson does a lot of encouraging, and knows when to step back and let the kids take over. And he's not worried about getting a bunch of stuff done.

"Our primary objective is not to produce," Larson says. "Our deeper goal is to connect children to the land, to foster a heart-centered relationship with plants and animals."

Despite the laid-back approach, the Kids' Garden does produce. Larson says last year's tomatoes were among the most robust at Troy Gardens.

"I don't know if it's the good energy, or what," Larson muses. "But it's a fruitful place." Food for thought this season, as the boys and I venture out once more to garden, and grow, together.

And thinking back on that August storm that caught us by surprise, I figure it was the long, hot hours of toil in the garden that made those fat, heavy raindrops feel as cool and sweet as a blessing.

Resources, an offshoot of the National Gardening Association

Roots, Shoots, Buckets and Boots, by Sharon Lovejoy: Whimsical drawings and text make gardening with kids sound like a dream. You'll be seduced by suggestions like the backyard moon garden.

In the trenches
Tips for making gardening fun, from Nathan Larson, educational director at Troy Gardens:

  • Clear some space within the garden that belongs utterly to the kids. Let them make their own plan, and choose the task or activity they want to start with.
  • Make a "pizza garden": divide a circle into "slices" and plant the pie-shaped bed with tomatoes, basil and onions.
  • Create a "rainbow garden" with the brightest, most colorful plants you can find.
  • Plant strawberries, raspberries, fennel ("licorice plant") and other fun stuff kids can nibble on all season long.
  • Cook in the garden. Larson and the kids have made salsa and mashed blue potatoes (with home-grown garlic) using a cutting board, serrated butter knife and a solar oven.

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