When I was very young, possibly four, I recall a bare patch of ground near our house. I remember my mother handing me a packet of carrot seeds and telling me to sprinkle them on the earth. Opening the packet, I peered inside at some very tiny seeds. My mother helped me carefully pour a few seeds from the packet into my palm. I bent down, so close to the land I could smell the soil. Gently, I sprinkled the seeds from my tiny hands on the bed below. It was a windy day, and I remember crouching very low with my back to the wind as my mother had instructed, but yet still, a few of the tiny babies were scarified to the breeze to be carried to destinations unknown. Once the sprinkling was done, my mother handed me a child size watering can and showed me how to water gently, but thoroughly.
These are my very first recollections of gardening. I tended to my carrot garden sporadically that season, as young children do – sometimes forgetting it was there and, then, wandering over to it from time to time to notice with great zeal – significant mile markers like the first seeds sprouting. My watering was predictably erratic, and my mother most likely filled the gaps because my seeds did come to fruition several months later. When the carrots were ripe, I grasped the delicate lacy green carrot tops and began to tug. The reveal was gnarly odd shaped carrots. These gangly, knobby carrots were nothing of what you see the grocery store – yet they were a prize to me. We gathered a few in a colander and when the dirt had been washed away I enthusiastically took a bite. The sweetness was strong and my pride even stronger. At that moment I was hooked. In a simple act of sprinkling seeds, initiated by my mother, a lifelong gardener was born.
I went on to plant other things throughout my childhood: marigold seeds, green beans, and cherry tomatoes. I would help harvest from the family plot, tomatoes, cantaloupes, beets, wax beans, and squash, among many others. My first year out of the house, I lived in a carriage house in the middle of nowhere and had my first garden all on my own. I planted sweet potatoes and honeydew melons. When my first honey dew melon was ripe, I had my new husband take a picture of me holding my prize. In that moment I was a very proud parent of a five-pound pale green baby.
Upon further reflection, I don’t believe that since the time I was four there has ever been a gardening season that I have not participated in. Some gardens were grander than others but, always, without fail, each spring I have managed to crouch low to the earth and smell freshly dug soil. I credit my gardening persistence to my parents who, also without fail, always had a garden and the family participated in the proliferation and upkeep of said garden. It is because of this annual ritual, this yearly cycle, that I have always felt truly connected to nature. My amazement of this cycle of seed to plant never wavers.
I am lucky. I was given the opportunity at a tender age to invite nature into my young developing world. I believe that most children, provided with an opportunity to bond with nature through gardening, will embrace the miracle and invite nature into their fresh new world as well. Research on the positive effects of gardening and children corroborate what I inherently believe to be true. Positive connections to nature and the food children consume can be achieved through garden experiences.
Studies show gardening increases access to vegetables and lowers inhibitions to try new foods. (Gupta, Langellotto). The National Institute of Health did a study in Amsterdam where school gardening has existed for more than a century. “Children particularly expressed enjoyment of the outdoor gardening portion of the program, as it enabled them to be physically active and independently nurture their gardens. Harvesting was the children’s favorite activity, followed by planting and sowing. …experiencing fun and enjoyment appeared to play a vital role in children’s motivation to actively participate.”
Increasing vegetable curiosity and consumption is merely one of the many benefits that can be manifested by the outdoor gardening experience. Gardening is a fluid, evolving experience that provides a natural canvas for exploration, investigation, and experimentation. For school systems that are increasingly favoring rigid academics, the garden can be an escape from structure and enhance a young person’s creative mind in ways that the indoor traditional academia cannot. Fostering a young person’s connection to nature is essential now more than ever as the population is spending more and more time indoors where the wind doesn’t blow and the birds don’t sing. Consequently, bird songs affect us more than we realize… “they (birds) foster a connection with nature, which research shows may provoke effortless attention, restore alertness, reduce stress, decrease hostility, and promote a sense of well-being.” (Psychology Today)
School is always in session in the garden. Gardening provides an interconnected approach to investigations into math, science, history, and literature. Math is realized through garden design and planning, tracking weights of the harvest, calculating germination percentage rates for seeds and the use of fractions and volume measurements in recipe development and implementation. Science is obvious in the garden; plant and insect identification, soil pH and nutrient measurements are just the beginning. History is tackled through tracking progress and learning from past mistakes. Thomas Jefferson’s gardens at Monticello provide a window into past gardening systems and techniques that are still relevant today. Literature, both fiction and non-fiction, abound on the subject of gardening. The children’s book The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, is a favorite of mine. It is a story of discovery and healing. Beyond basic educational topics, deeper scholarly platforms can be researched. Plato’s famous Academy began in a public garden where he delivered speeches in the small grove surrounded by olive trees and statues. How fitting that a garden would embrace such intelligence! Existentially speaking, while digging in the earth, one cannot help but begin to disseminate what their place is in the natural world.
Discovery abounds in the garden. It is where we may discover the sound of a chick-a-dee, the feel of an earthworm in our hand, or watch a toad jump. We may observe a honeybee on a flower or a ladybug on a leaf. We may discover the warmth of the sun on our face is different than the indoor warmth of our home. Both soothing, but different.
When my boys were very young, maybe four, I invited them into our family garden for some discovery. I showed them my cherry tomatoes – the green and the red – and asked them to pick all the red ones. They were up to the task. I walked away and let them pick in their own way, at their own speed. Dawdling was encouraged. A few minutes later they presented me with a basket full of red AND green tomatoes. They knew their colors; I was sure of it. I asked why they picked them all and they replied because they are all the same color. I was puzzled. “They look the same?” I asked, as I held a red and green tomato next to each other. “Yes!” they both replied. “But this is red!” I said as I held a red tomato up separately. Yes! Red! They replied. “But this is green!” I said as I held a green tomato up separately. Yes! Green! They replied. I put both tomatoes together back in my hand somewhat exasperated. “They look the same now,” one boy replied. The other one piped up: “Yes, now they are the same!” So, what was my discovery in the garden that day? That my identical twin boys were colorblind (It was later corroborated by the family doctor).
We are in the heart of gardening season now. The soil has warmed and the ground is ready for whatever you may offer it. If gardening is new to you, consider taking this journey with a child together; there is so much to be learned along the way. If you don’t have much room, a large flower pot with a cherry tomato plant in a sunny location is a good start. When your vegetables and fruits mature, let the children harvest and carry their achievement into the kitchen for dinner preparations. Even the simplest of connections can lead to big revelations. If your passion is not vegetables, but flowers, watching the butterfly or honeybee visit one of its favorite plants in the garden can cement a link between our actions and the natural world. There are countless garden activities that can really get your mind cranking, like building a sundial, making a native bee home, or birdwatching to name a few. So, while the sun shines and the soil is fertile, crouch down, smell the earth and sow a few seeds with a child together, it may very well be the best thing you could ever do for our youth. After all, we reap what we sow.
Cathy Schmidt writes from Trappe where she and her husband Chef Brian Schmidt own Garden and Garnish Catering. A food explorer, Cathy loves to garden and cook from scratch.
Need some seeds? Check out the Free Seed Library, located in the Talbot County Free Library in Easton and St. Michaels branches.
The Birds and the Trees, by Linda Wasmer Andrews. Psychology Today, July 4, 2011.
Gardening Increases Vegetable Consumption in School Aged Children: A Meta- analytical Synthesis, by Gail Langellotto and Abha Gupta. HortTechnology, August 2012.
How Gardening Can Help Build Happier, Healthier Kids, by Shannon Brescher Shae. The Washington Post, July18, 2017.