Picking, Squashing, Fetching...

By Walter Chandoha

Involve children in gardening by having fun, like this little girl discovering lady beetles.

The financial uncertainty of freelancing was what got me into gardening in the first place. With eight mouths to feed (counting myself and my wife, Maria), I figured that if we could grow food for our table we wouldn't go hungry.

Encouraged by my first harvests, I enlarged the garden each successive spring. It grew so big that I was spending more time gardening than writing and taking photographs. Even with Maria's valuable assistance, the garden was getting ahead of us.

We needed help. And what help could be handier than that of our own children? This is what we thought anyway, but the kids didn't share our enthusiasm. No amount of begging, cajoling, or threatening could get them to work willingly in the garden. Assigned chores (mostly pulling weeds and cultivating) were completed only after much stalling, griping, and grumbling. I could have done the chores myself in a fraction of the time it took them.

We figured there had to be a better way, and there was. Using a variation on "catching more flies with honey than with vinegar," I discovered three foolproof ways to get kids interested in gardening: picking, squashing, and fetching.

One of my early successes was a long row of everbearing raspberries that produced bumper harvests in early summer and again in the fall. One of raspberries' many pluses is that they are pickable only when ripe. Unripe berries cling tenaciously to the canes, but ripe ones come off with no resistance at all. When the children saw how easy it was to pick the ripe berries, I couldn't keep them out of the berry patch. Eating as they picked, they were doing a necessary chore and enjoying it. It was a turning point in their being helpful in the garden.

In the vegetable garden, they most enjoyed picking in the potato patch. Once I showed them how to burrow their small hands into the hilled-up rows to pick what I call "grabbers," they actually pestered me to let them pick. They so much enjoyed eating these golf ball-sized spuds that I usually planted several extra rows solely for grabbers. Peas rarely got to the dinner table; we all ate them out in the garden. Both cukes and tomatoes were also garden treats, but these were so abundant that the children were often assigned to pick them for kitchen use as well.

All of the kids were fascinated by the creepy-crawly critters they encountered while picking. Their interest was increased when I encouraged them to squash the bad bugs, which they did with enthusiastic gusto. When I showed our oldest daughter, Paula, a yellow larva of the Mexican bean beetle, she couldn't wait go on a squashing spree. After she had squashed all the larvae, her next assignment was to locate egg clusters of yellow dot beetles on the undersides of the leaves. For her 5-year-old fingers, these were even more fun to squash.

As the kids got older, smashing crunchy Japanese beetles kept them busy on many a sunny summer afternoon. But they were not too keen on smashing the ugly larvae of Colorado potato beetles, and I couldn't fault them for that. We ended up spraying them with Bt instead. I taught them to spare ladybugs and praying mantises -- and even a tomato hornworm found covered with wasp egg cases, because, I explained, the wasps eventually kill the hornworm and keep their numbers in check.

As pickers and squashers, everyone was a big help. But the children were most helpful as fetchers. Any gardener knows that more time can be spent fetching than gardening: a trowel gets left in another part of the garden, seeds are sitting on the kitchen table, picking baskets and pots are in the garage, and the shovel is nowhere to be found.

If fetching were as simple as going from point A to point B, then back to A with the found object in tow, the chore would not be so time consuming. But the actual process of fetching creates tangents and digressions, and, inevitably, forgetfulness. I notice things along the way that need doing, and I can't help but stop and do them. By the time I get where I'm going, I've forgotten why I went there in the first place and think, "What am I looking for?"

When one or another of the youngsters did the fetching, I realized I was winning the battle of getting them into the garden. I was able to continue with my planting, pruning, or puttering, and my productivity increased tremendously. They may have been distracted, like me, when going from A to B, but while they were, I continued working. And they didn't consider fetching to be an arduous chore like weeding or digging. Fetching was usually done willingly and happily. And when they returned, I could show them some sidelight about gardening--intercropping, mulching, companion planting, cultivating, or watering--that broadened their knowledge.

Now they're all adults, and when they visit on weekends and holidays, they cheerfully help with garden chores without being asked. I feel vindicated: maybe my earlier days as a martinet did indeed spark their interest in gardening. And in their own homes, they garden after a fashion. Some have proper kitchen gardens behind their houses; another grows vegetables and flowers on a penthouse terrace. Others grow pots of assorted flowers and herbs on the windowsills of their city apartments. When they were younger, they must have learned a bit about gardening in spite of themselves.

A writer and photographer based in New Jersey, Walter Chandoha is a Fellow of the Garden Writers Association.

Photography by National Gardening Association

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