“Nononono,” I cry, sprinting over to Little Bird. He looks up, one dirty, guilty hand still at his mouth. His lips are lined with bits of dark brown. I looked down for just a moment to plant a pepper seedling. In that short period, he crawled over to the garden fence, stuck his hand in, and shoved a chunk of dirt right in his face. I sigh, wipe him off with the back of my hand, and rest him on my hip. Gardening with kids isn’t for the faint of heart. If you garden with young kids, all of these things will happen at some point:
Gardening is all about science, from the life cycle of a plant to the nitrogen cycle of the soil. I combined both of those loves in a guest post for Raising Nerd about using gardening to teach your mini-nerds about science, engineering and math. It’s heavy on the ecology, but touches on a bunch of areas.
Here’s a preview:
Dirt covered the table. Dirt covered my son’s hair. Dirt covered everything. While I wanted to be annoyed, I really wasn’t. It was all in the name of learning – and growing food in our new garden.
While trowels and compost may not seem like obvious tools for teaching science, vegetable gardens can be incredible classrooms. That day, my son was learning about the life cycle of plants while we started tomato seeds.
The best part is that gardening provides the potential for kids of all ages to learn. While my three-year-old is just beginning to learn the basics, even I’ve learned quite a bit in my years of gardening. If you don’t garden yet, consider planting a few flowerpots so you can share the benefits with your kids.
Most people aren’t thinking about prepping their garden at Thanksgiving. But due to a delay known as “having small children,” that’s what we were doing on Sunday, prepping the layers of our inedible lasagna garden. Lasagna gardening, also called sheet mulching or sheet composting, is a permaculture method of gardening that’s easy, cheap, and fun to do with kids.
Lasagna gardening mimics the natural process of leaf litter and other organic matter building up on the forest floor. In the forest, the dead leaves and other plants slowly accumulate and then decompose into soil. Lasagna gardening speeds up this process. Because the organic matter you layer is largely cheap or free, you save quite a bit of money. This technique also doesn’t leave any disturbed soil for weeds to root in. Even though it takes some serious prep time in the fall, it makes for a nearly maintenance-free garden in the spring and summer.
Getting kids outside has a whole host of benefits, from stronger immune systems to the sheer joy of play. While sometimes all that’s needed is a stick and a bit of imagination, having certain gear can help bringing kids outside easier, safer and more fun. Whether you’re in the mountains or your own backyard, this gift guide – which is mainly focused on kids in preschool and elementary school – should provide a few helpful suggestions. (Note – none of these are affiliate or sponsored links, just products and/or companies I personally like.)
My years are measured in seasons now, not months or years. Each brings a flurry of activity and opportunity for growth.
Roaming the local pumpkin patch, we find the most perfect bumpy, little pumpkin for our little boy. Around campfires and hay bales, we breathe in the cooling air.
The leaves shift colors and drift down. As much as my two-year-old loves jumping on the bed, he’s never jumped in leaves before. We start with a slow-motion fall, easing our way down with giggles and flailing. After a few jumps, he piles the leaves into the wheelbarrow by the armful.
The week before, we had stripped the garden, pulling out monstrous tomato plants and prickly squash. Now, we empty the composter, scraping the sides of the dark sludge and shreds of newspaper caught there. We break down the straw bale that held our Jack o’lantern, layering it in with the compost and leaves. The pile nearly comes up to my son’s head.
My garden is sad. Or at least I’m sad about it. But a combination of bad luck and slight neglect is reminding me where my attention needs to be right now.
I’ve planted corn, broccoli, melon, beans, peas, basil and tomatoes so far. The May rains of Biblical proportions washed away our broccoli seedlings and corn seeds. The first round of bean sprouts failed, along with the melon sprouts. A hungry animal stripped the leaves from the second round of bean sprouts, along with the vast majority of my pea sprouts. (Possibly our resident groundhog – she did that to the sweet potatoes last year.) Hungry birds looking for worms dislodged the sweet potato and few sprouts that remained.
It’s Earth Week – my favorite secular holiday! For an environmentalist, Earth Day is every day, but it’s still nice to recognize it. This week, my posts are all going to be on how to engage kids on environmental issues, from how to talk about climate change to fun activities that can spark long-term change.
Communicating about environmental sustainability is astonishingly hard; inspiring people to take action is even harder. In fact, I spend a good deal of my professional career contemplating how to do this effectively. Add kids into the mix, with their limited knowledge of science and ability to handle “big issues,” and it seems near-impossible. Kim Payne of Simplicity Parenting actually holds climate change up as topic we simply shouldn’t discuss it with children because it’s too stressful.
Unsurprisingly, I disagree. We have an obligation to teach kids about climate change and other environmental issues, if only because they’ll be ones who have to deal with this crap in the future. Plus, there are plenty of kids who want to know about them and like with sex ed, it’s better to give them good information than misinformation. I’ve been an activist since my elementary school self dog-eared a copy of 50 Simple Things Kids Can Do to Save the Earth and I came out okay. (Right?) But Payne is correct that we often discuss climate change in ways that are disempowering and frankly, scary, for kids.
Instead, I recommend using permaculture as way to discuss sustainability. While permaculture has its roots (ha) in agriculture, it’s actually much broader. Essentially, it looks to structure how we live around ecological principles, helping us work with, not against, nature. It is based on three major principles: care for the earth, care for people, and return of surplus back to the system to meet the needs of the earth and people. I’ve been a fan of permaculture since I moved to D.C. and started volunteering with a Transition Towns group, a movement based on the idea of applying permaculture to entire communities. I learned more about how to apply it to teaching children from Jen Mendez from PERMIE KIDs when I attended her Rooting DC workshop last year.
Our yard would be mostly vegetable garden if its topography and Chris’s aesthetic preferences allowed me to do so. As it is, we have a modest but productive 10X15 garden in the back. While I could fill it with seedlings from the farmers’ market, my thriftiness and DIY-aesthetic motivated me to learn how to start everything from seed a few years ago. So every spring, I flip through the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange catalog, order too much, and start the long process of bringing up seedlings. Except this year, I have a helper. Sprout – true to his nickname – joined me to start planting this past weekend.
Sprout also “helped” start seeds last year, although that was more about introducing him to gardening than him actually being useful. This year, I still could have done it faster and with less of a mess by myself, but he did actually contribute.
Listening to music can be a radical act. And I don’t mean in the 2112 or Footloose “music is evil” type of way. But more that the type of music we listen to is not only a reflection of our tastes and perspectives but an influence on them.
Nowhere is this more true than for kids, who either end up listening to music developed for their specific age group or are subjected to their parents’ musical tastes. While some kids music is absolutely inane, it doesn’t have to be. Without needing to go full-on Defiance of Anthropomorphic Sea Mammals (from Portlandia), here are a few songs that may help inspire your kids to be activists or at least anti-authoritarian. Not all of these were originally for kids – many of them are straight-up folk songs – but I think they all have a kid appeal.
Giant cows, sheep in coats, neon Ferris wheels, huge wheels of cheese, racing pigs and deep fried everything – just a few of the wonders found at our local county fair. Except for the pig races, which we sadly missed, we experienced all of these last Sunday at the Montgomery County Agricultural Fair. But the thing I cared about the most was one little ribbon in one little pavilion on a plate full of cherry tomatoes. To be precise, my cherry tomatoes.
I’ve always loved county fairs. We frequently attended the Saratoga County Fair when I was a kid, home of many animal exhibits and at least one absolutely terror-inducing ride that clearly didn’t meet any reasonable level of safety standards. When we moved to Montgomery County, which has an entire agricultural reserve, I knew it would have a worthwhile fair. With three years of gardening experience, I thought it would be fun to enter my tomatoes in the fair last year, but it directly overlapped with our trip to Disney World. So I held off until this year.
While I do think of them as “my tomatoes,” gardening is really a family affair. We picked cherry tomatoes because it’s the one crop that we always have plenty to spare. This year, I was particularly proud of them because I raised the plants from seed I had saved, so they were fully mine. But they would have died long ago without Chris’s regular watering and pruning. Even Sprout helps out, using his little can to water (mainly his shoes) and picking red tomatoes (that usually go from the branch right into his mouth). I wasn’t able to pick the tomatoes for the fair myself without a small person trying to steal half of them, so Chris did it for me and even dropped them off for judging. It was the perfect job to tap his fine dining training – as he said, “I’m actually really good at small, repetive motions to make things look just perfect.”
So walking up to the vegetable table at the Farm and Garden and Flowers Department was exciting for everyone. Spout was already thrilled that we got to ride a school bus from the parking lot, so this was yet another amazing thing of the day. I stopped breathing as I looked for our plate. First place was literally a five dollar prize that they probably haven’t increased since 1950, but it was the pride of it that mattered.
Our entry turned out to be pretty easy to find because it was the only one with the stems still on the tomatoes. Although person accepting the entries recommended to Chris remove them, but he was worried about bruising one in the process. While none of the stems fell off – which would have disqualified us – they were a little wilted, which detracted from the tomatoes’ deep red just a bit.
All of that considered, we received – an honorable mention ribbon. But hey, it was something! I was a little disappointed that we didn’t place in the top three or even five, but it was a solid showing for the first year participating.
It made me feel validated as a gardener. Even though I’ve grown pounds upon pounds of food for my family and raised enough seedlings to give away to others, this outside recognition of my skill was special. It felt like entering an exclusive – albeit quirky – club. It was a similar feeling to the first time my writing was published in print. Like the connection I feel to my neighborhood while gardening, it was the sense of contributing to the history and larger whole of the county’s Agriculture Reserve. As someone relatively new to gardening in the grand scheme of things, it also reminded me of how far I’ve come. Only four years ago, my neighbor was betting to her friend against my garden being successful. She’d be so proud to see my ribbon now.
We celebrated our recognition by looking at all of the animal exhibits. Many of the animals at the Fair are owned by 4H students, who raise them as projects. Sprout’s favorites were definitely the chickens and bunnies – they’re more his size and less overwhelming than the cattle.
From there, we abandoned all pretense of sustainability or “local food” and headed to the Carnival. Filling up on fried chicken on a stick, fried green tomatoes, mutant-large corn on the cob, and watermelon, we tried to prevent get-away attempts from an excited small child. Fortunately for him, the next stop was a Funhouse in the style of the one in Grease. Starting with the rickety stairs to the slide at the end, he ran through with a smile.
We ended our night with the county fair classic – the Ferris Wheel. I have a necklace with a picture of an old-fashioned Ferris Wheel on it, which I’ve been telling Sprout about for months. After 20 minutes of waiting, we stepped into the car. As the wheel rotated, it lifted us up high above the fairgrounds, each step up revealing a little more landscape. The other rides glowed blue, red, and green, lines and curves of neon. The exhibits we had been at earlier retreated in the distance, dark as the animals started to bed down. The pop music from the rides and the chattering of the crowds lessened to a low background accompaniment. Once in a while, I would glance over at Sprout, who was in Chris’s lap across from me. His eyes were wide, his mouth parted just slightly, not a smile, but his signature look of concentration. He just watched, as he always does.
And tonight, as all nights, he was watching Chris and I. He was watching our pride in our handiwork, just as he watched and helped us tend the plants. He watched our participation in the larger community, engaging with the 4H students. He watched as we enjoyed simple pleasures like the Funhouse and Ferris Wheel. While I rarely do things just to “be an example,” I hope that my whole life is one, on that night and all of them.