Archive for Kids in the Garden

Spring already?

Since it’s the last day of January I feel it’s appropriate to begin a countdown to gardening season. There are only 108 days left until I can put in my vegetable garden! On second thought, this is quite depressing, given that winter has only been upon us for 41 days. On the bright side, gardening season really starts before May anyway. My tulips and crocuses will be in full bloom much sooner, not to mention the dandelions. I can hardly wait.

Any gardener can relate to my feelings of anticipation. Even non-gardeners can appreciate the glory of spring with its fragrant blossoms, brilliant colours and the promise that snowsuit season will soon be behind us for another year.

Parenting is a lot like that. Sometimes it feels like we’re stuck in one record-breaking stretch of winter where there is no fruit – nay, not even a bud – in our children. We spend countless summers preparing the soil of their little hearts, praying for rain, adding fertilizer, pruning, and loving on that little sapling in hopes that one day it will bear fruit. I am here to tell you, folks, that there are signs of spring in our family’s garden. Yesterday I discovered a shiny little fruit on one of our little saplings.

In Teddy’s class there is a troubled child whom we shall call Nick (not his real name). Nick joined the class in the middle of the year. It soon became clear that Nick had some problems making friends. His way of getting attention was to hit, spit at, pester, push, or in some other way irritate his classmates. His idea of “play” was limited to anything involving weapons. In no time at all he was well-known at the office and by the parents of Teddy’s classmates.

My gut instinct was to advise Teddy to stay away from the child and make sure he tells the teacher about Nick’s inappropriate behaviour. This is also the side of me that just wants to call the police about rowdy neighbours instead of talking directly to them. It solves nothing. Still, when another child spits at your child, you want justice.

Instead of seeking justice we decided to pray for change. We made the choice to think and speak of Nick as a troubled child, not a trouble-maker. Of course Nick knew that what he was doing was wrong and that it would win him no friends, but something was obviously compelling him to act that way. From the little we found out from Teddy (not the most trustworthy bearer of accurate information, mind you) Nick came from a broken home. Although this does not always result in children exhibiting bad behaviour, Nick’s behaviour could certainly be explained by trouble at home. Although we don’t know any details, I invited Teddy to project himself into Nick’s possible situation: most likely he wasn’t seeing one parent most of the time. It’s possible that he did not feel secure in their love for him, which caused him to come to school already bent out of shape. Maybe his need for love was not being met at home, and his “love tank” was perpetually empty.

His problems were only exacerbated by the fact that he had joined his class in the middle of the year and was trying to find his place where everyone already had theirs. His attempts to impress the others with his knowledge of guns did not impress his teacher. He perpetually placed second in two-man running races at recess, which is to say that he came in last place all the time. This is a big deal in a subculture where being the fastest boy means everything.

Time went on and the Anti-Nick movement grew. Based on their children’s bad experiences with the boy, parents began going to the vice-principal with the issue. He did what he could to reason with him and explain how to be a friend if he wants to have any. His behaviour seemed to settle down somewhat, but there were days when his “happiness balloon” lost air all day and was totally deflated by3:00pm (according to Teddy). We maintained that Nick needed a good friend if there was to be any hope of his behaviour changing.

One day I asked Teddy if he would consider a play-date with Nick. “Of course!” said our son, who would consider a play-date withIran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad if it meant that he could host someone and possibly share a meal with them. When he mentioned it to Nick at school, he was immediately open to the idea. Although we haven’t managed to arrange the details yet, the thought alone seems to have changed something between the boys.

Yesterday Teddy came home and announced that Nick had told him that he was his only friend. At recess Teddy had been playing soccer with his buddies when he noticed that one of the girls in his class was irate with Nick. Apparently, a switch flipped and the mental movie of his Mommy talking to him at breakfast about Nick started playing. He walked over there and explained to the girl that Nick was not a bad kid, but that he wanted to make friends and just didn’t know how. He told her that he would feel a whole lot better and be a whole lot nicer if someone would just be his friend. At which point he turned to Nick and said, “Right Nick?”

I can imagine Nick’s surprise at this point, but he agreed with Teddy that yes, this was the correct analysis of the reason for his angst and aggression (though I don’t think he used those terms). After this, the two boys went and found a place where melting snow was dripping from the roof, and had a great time sticking their heads underneath. It didn’t seem to matter to Nick that their game had nothing to do with guns. “You know Mom,” said Teddy as he concluded his story, “I think Nick is actually a really good friend.”

I think I could say the same about you, Buddy.

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Mucho Mulcho

mmmm.... mulch

A friend of mine recently told me a story about sitting in her fenced backyard and accidentally overhearing a conversation her new neighbour was having with someone on the other side of the fence. While working in her flowerbed this new homeowner complained loudly about “all of the bark s*#t” lying around. (I’d say that one is most likely not gardening material.) My friend commented on the irony of the fact that the previous owner had put so much effort into properly mulching her beds every year, and here was someone who obviously had no clue about the benefits of her efforts.

At the risk of insulting everyone’s intelligence therefore, here is the definition of mulch: any protective cover that is placed over the soil to retain moisture, reduce erosion, provide nutrients, and suppress weed growth and seed germination.[1] The one benefit this definition doesn’t take into account is that the effort of spreading 3 cubic yards of mulch over all the flower beds is a perfect opportunity to teach kids to take up a shovel and work.

Is it just me, or has “work” become a bad word in the context of children? I’m not talking about child labour, which is undeniably horrific. I’m talking about the notion that little suburbanites should be catered to and not be expected to pull their weight in the family. Most of us would agree that it’s only right for a teenager to be expected to mow the lawn, but how does that happen unless children learn to work when they are young? The norm today is for adults to run themselves ragged working, while their children do nothing but play all day.

Children are more capable of channeling their energies into meaningful work than one may think. This isn’t to say that they enjoy the prospect of work on a regular basis, but as long as they live under our roof, that’s beside the point. Kids as young as three or four can be taught to do a variety of chores around the house, from cleaning up their own piles of laundry to cleaning out the dishwasher (remove the knives and breakables, please!). Children can set and clear the table, and be expected to tidy up their own messes, particularly at the end of the day. At our house, we divide up the regular responsibilities so that both of the older children are involved, though in different capacities (given their differing levels of ability). I will admit to it being more work to teach children to do chores rather than just doing them ourselves, but oh, how sweet it is when you can just tell them to clean out the dishwasher after breakfast and go have a shower!

What we are finding is that our rather large lawn and ever-expanding flower and vegetable beds are a perfect opportunity to teach them the value of breaking a sweat doing manual labour. Yesterday was mulch-day, which is exciting for several reasons: the kids get to ride along to pick up the mulch from the local soil depot, where a big front-end loader dumps the load into the trailer. Exciting every time. Next, they may get a turn shoveling the mulch out of the trailer (how often do you get to stand in a trailer?!). After the initial excitement wears off, however, there are still 3 cubic yards of mulch waiting to be spread around the yard and that translates into a lot of hard work for several long hours. While we don’t expect our children to stick with it for the entire time, we do encourage them to put in their best effort.

We have found that special treats for the workers are a great way to keep them engaged. A cookie or freezie break here and there helps. And let’s not underestimate the value to the entire family of jointly getting behind the proverbial plow and being able to celebrate together at the end of a long day’s work. These are good memories we are building with – and for – our kids. Amazingly, our 6-year-old stuck with the task until the bitter end yesterday. In fact, while working side-by-side we had some great conversations, including one about the value of hard work. Curious to see what he would say, I asked him whether he thought that a big job like this deserved a reward or not. As though he had previously prepared himself for this question, he replied, “even if there is no reward for doing a job, we can still feel good about a job well done” (I could almost hear his grade 1 class reciting it in unison).

As it was, our neighbours invited us to use their pool afterwards, which was quite possibly the best reward of all for everyone. Anyone who has ever spread mulch on a humid day knows that there’s nothing like jumping into water once you’re done. This applies to adults and kids alike!

[1] Source: Accessed:July 3, 2011

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Theatre in the Garden

I have been using dracaena spikes in my pots for several years now, but yesterday was the first time I considered that they could become characters in a narrative. It makes perfect sense – at least to a four-year-old and his vivid imagination.

Our children have a fantastic imagination which we work hard at preserving by limiting the amount of time they spend in front of screens. They don’t always understand the reason for our limits, but mostly they just enjoy making up stories where cars have parties in houses or plastic bugs ride shotgun in big cars. At age 4, Sammy is just now getting to an age where his imagination is taking off, making him a great playmate for 6-year-old Teddy. Sammy can make a game or story out of pretty much anything – including dracaena spikes.

Yesterday I overheard him talking “to himself” on the front porch. Curious, I poked my head around the corner to see what he was up to. I should mention that Sammy has a fascination with the flower bed at the front of the house, probably because up until recently, he was not allowed to be there without direct supervision. Last summer he would slip away undetected and we would find him in the front flower bed “harvesting” hosta leaves like he had seen me do with my lettuce. The front bed became off-limits until this summer.

So there he stood yesterday with a spike in each hand, acting out the story of David and Goliath. One spike would say, “WHO WILL FIGHT ME?!?” in a really big voice, to which the other would answer confidently, “I will!” The first spike would be hit with a stone from the second spike’s sling, and the timeless story would conclude by the first spike saying, “pthblt” and falling over, dead.

Forget flannel boards in Sunday School or smart boards in school. The only visual aid kids really need for learning are plants!

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Suburban Strawberries

perfect homegrown strawberries

It is June, and for those of us living in the northern hemisphere, that means strawberry season. Strawberry season at our house begins after weeks of watching the agonizingly slow succession from bud, to blossom, to hard, green fruit, and finally to glorious red morsel of horticultural perfection. That first juicy berry is carefully and dutifully divided up five ways so that each member of the family can partake of the elements of this annual ritual. I am not exaggerating when I say that the strawberries from our patch are sweeter than any local or imported fruit we have ever tasted. I’m sure it’s because we don’t irrigate our berries, but I like to think it’s simply a reflection of our joy in growing them.


Our children love to pick strawberries. Let me rephrase that. Our children love to eat strawberries. At the age of six – and being a self-starter by nature – Teddy is a real help in the task of harvesting. When he comes home from school he heads to the patch and eats. If Oli or I are harvesting Teddy will gladly pitch in and help fill the bowl. His younger brother Sammy, on the other hand, is another matter entirely.


Today I suggested Sam come outside with me to do some weeding in the garden.
“Yay!” he cried as he ran to the door to put on his shoes. His 4-year-old enthusiasm lasted about 5 minutes, at which point he had pulled out about 4 weeds and announced he was “boiling” and needed to stop.


I suggested he get a bowl from the house to harvest a few berries, thinking that would entice him to stay with me in the garden for a little while longer. Initially he wasn’t too thrilled to have to walk all the way back into the kitchen (!) to get the bowl, but once I assured him that he could also eat berries while picking them, he perked right up and went to fetch the bowl.


Boiling no more, he began picking, informing me of every ripe berry he found. At one point he proudly showed me what he had picked. “Look Mommy! Look at my bowl!” It didn’t take long to count the four strawberries that constituted his harvest. Instead of picking more, Sam slowly ate the few strawberries that were left in his bowl, at which point I took over the strawberry picking. This suited him just fine, since he was now relieved of the task of picking, and he could eat from the bowl that was becoming full faster than he could eat. When it became too hot for him he suggested I go push him on the swing for a while. Sure, Sam.


Sensing a teachable moment I explained to Sam that he cannot have it both ways: have Mommy pick his berries while simultaneously pushing him on the swing. In fact, after a while, I cut off the berry supply, explaining that pickers get to eat and kids who wait to be served will have to wait a long time.


What can I say, except that kids are not born with an appreciation for work! Left to their own devices they will most likely chose the path of least resistance and leave the work for the other people in their lives: their parents, their siblings, their roommates, or their spouses.


our open-air grocery store

Lucky for him, Sam is just beginning his apprenticeship as a garden helper. Other program points in the coming years will include weeding (and sticking to it), working with compost, tilling the soil and of course, harvesting the produce. That little vegetable patch will teach our children a very valuable life lesson: the joy of breaking a sweat working, and the thrill of a job well done when they bite into that first ripe strawberry.


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