I have no doubt that my friend Jessie's daughters will be gardeners. Why? Because Jessie's plot in the community food garden is exemplary. This fine group of plants was tended by Jessie, who brought the girls along to witness the entire process from seed to harvest.
Jessie's life in the garden is a perfect example of why it's important for every parent to grow a garden. It's the best way to raise a child with direct understanding of how Earth yields food, and that child, in turn, will pass it along to his or her own children one day.
Children are natural mimics, and often copy their parents' interests. When they're involved in pursuing them, kids naturally learn what these activities are all about. A child who grows up in a city apartment may have no experience with soil or plants unless Mother tends herbs on the window sill or Dad pots up succulents for his office. Even these small examples of gardening are as valuable as growing a big outdoor plot. They demonstrate the role of plants in science and survival.
Few kids are natural gardeners at first, primarily because plants grow too slowly for their shorter attention spans. But they will absorb what they see and will remember it well into adulthood. My father loved our native California sycamore, Platanus racemosa, and planted it all around my 1-acre childhood home to provide shade. Those trees are mature now, and totally transformed that barren site into a place of beautiful canopies.
The trees were his thing for the few days each month he had spare time outside work, marriage and raising six kids. I'd go to the nursery with him to pick out bare-root trees and learn about dormant stock. Then he'd plant his sycamores in our black adobe clay soil. Each one was ringed by a big water well. He'd fill them to the top with water to encourage deep-down saturation that stimulates adventurous rooting.
I'd watch him treat the damage made by borers, the grubs of flying beetles that tunnel through the vital cambium layer just under the bark. He painted the trunks white to prevent sunscald blisters that allow borers to enter. And when gophers struck the vulnerable roots, he'd collapse their holes and flood the tunnels, forcing them to go elsewhere.
In those childhood observations, I learned that bare-root trees are cheaper. I discovered that wells help trees in clay grow faster by putting a lot of water over the root zone, where it can percolate gradually into the ground. I protected my young fruit trees with white paint so those tender young trunks didn't burn. And I learned how to drive out gophers without traps or poisons.
To get started influencing your kids, begin small. Try something simple at first, such as an EarthBox (http://www.earthbox.com/) gardening system. It comes as a kit that grows an amazing amount of plants in a lightweight trough. These are semi-hydroponic, so your tomatoes can suck all the water they want from the reservoir. This means that you aren't burdened with frequent watering tasks. This method also lets you grow more in less space, is ideal for apartments and condos, and a real problem-solver for renters.
Every parent in America should take this to heart. If all children grew up with a garden in the backyard or at a community garden nearby, they would absorb knowledge of the natural world by osmosis. They can also get an idea as to how long it takes to go from seed to table-ready tomato, and that's a lesson in patience.
(Maureen Gilmer is an author, horticulturist and landscape designer. Learn more at www.MoPlants.com. Contact her at mogilmer(at)yahoo.com or P.O. Box 891, Morongo Valley, CA 92256.)