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19th Apr 2017

6 lessons I learned about life from gardening with my children

Alison Bough

Once upon a time there was a confirmed townie who took a fierce notion and moved to the countryside. The townie knew nothing about green things, gardening, compost, or growing food, but decided to give it a lash anyway (and force her three children to do so too). This is  what she learned.

I cannot stress how very little I knew about gardening. The first set of bulbs I bought, it later transpired, had been planted upside down. With great gusto and enthusiasm, I ripped out numerous ‘weeds’ that turned out to be mature hostas (beautiful plantain lilies). I planted things in the wrong season. I watched various types of plants die needlessly because I had used the wrong soil in the pot. I ran into the garden on icy winter mornings to try and perform vegetable CPR on limp, frozen, green shoots that I had moved outside too early. I cried. I ended up with 300 small tomatoes that never turned red. I beamed with pride and made jars and jars of green tomato chutney that everybody accepted but nobody ate.

Nevertheless, we persisted. I say we, because it was a team effort and no team member was considered too young or too short. I was (and am) of the opinion that mud is good. Pick up the worm, maybe don’t eat him but if you happen to do so it ain’t going to kill you. I promise.

Sufficed to say, in my first year aspiring to be the next Monty Don, the only thing I grew successfully was some very large rhubarb. Rhubarb would grow successfully of its own accord in an unattended ditch, so I seek no glory there. I did get a follow on Twitter from Monty’s dog, Nigel, but that was as close to the green-fingered master as I got.

I discovered that a garden is a great metaphor for life and in that first year of major failures (and minor successes) gardening taught every member of my family some valuable lessons.

1. Don’t be afraid to start small and aim big

Even if you have delusions of grandeur and visions of yourself as Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden like I had, starting a garden does not have to be overwhelming. You don’t have to prove yourself to anyone. Enjoy the trial and error process, it will provide you with better skills in the long run. You can always start by sowing some seeds in a few pots on your windowsill, hanging baskets or window boxes. If you don’t have the time or the (physical and emotional) energy to invest into plotting a garden this is a great introduction. If you decide to plant a vegetable garden, it’s a good idea to use topsoil to make a raised bed. Oh and if you have a dog it’s a good idea to put up a fence to protect your garden – we learned the hard way on this one.

2. You reap what you sow

When we started ‘over’ we were wiser about laying the groundwork. The kids drew ‘blueprints’ of the garden before we set the seeds. While I read every Gardening For Complete Idiots book that had ever been published, the smaller team members drew pictures of the fruits and vegetables we planned to grow. We stuck the pictures and plans on the fridge. We plotted. We bought shovels, watering cans and rakes. We learned to only sow seeds that are in season. We discovered that July is a great month to sow seeds both inside and out. In July, no gardening can go wrong. Our radishes, beetroot, carrots and spring onions thrived. Our small herb garden with chives, thyme, sage and parsley, grew wildly. Our planning paid off. We all absolutely stank of onions for months.

3. Be patient and trust the earth

Gardening is a great way of teaching children the art of patience. In the first few months, the kids checked “if it had grown yet” obsessively on the hour. Eventually, we learned that all good things truly do come to those who wait. Even if they were inadvertently planted upside down by your mum.

4. Let go, some things are just out of your control

Gardening encourages your kids to spend more time outside which is always a plus. It is an excellent way to build a child’s interest in food and after growing their own fruit and vegetables the children became less picky about what they ate. It is also an excellent way to build their immune system. Because they will always be filthy. I learned to embrace the mucky hands and the black dirt under our nails that wouldn’t come out without ferocious scrubbing. I stopped fearing slugs and bugs and let nature use its own wisdom and natural selection instead of pesticides. I learned that there will always be weeds. I learned that just like life, a garden is never perfect. I learned to let go.

5. Appreciate your harvest

The kids were involved in every aspect of each harvest. They did the hard work so they reaped the rewards. I resisted the urge to hover and monitor. I allowed them to use tools that made me nervous. I hid my anxiety that they might lose a finger or stab a toe with a spade. They ate the fruit and veg that they grew and helped to research recipes for their home-grown spoils. We saw our individual projects and processes through from seed to plate, from bulb to bowl.

6. Enjoy yourself

You can bury a lot of troubles digging in the dirt. And remember, as in life, there are no mistakes – only experiments. Enjoy.

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