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Gardening with children teaches valuable lessons

“A garden is a grand teacher. It teaches patience and careful watchfulness; it teaches industry and thrift; above all it teaches entire trust.”

— Gertrude Jekyll in Jo Brielyn’s “A Garden of Inspiration,” 2015

The other day I was at the Grange Co-op and was astonished to see plant benches practically empty when only a few days before they had been stocked with vegetable and herb starts. One of the sales associates told me the nursery had been struggling to keep up with the demand for edible plants ever since schools closed.

It seems that many parents are viewing the school closures as an opportunity to plant a garden with their children. Although my daughters are 24 and 29 years old, due to the pandemic one is home from college and the other has been laid off, so we’re doing some gardening together, too. It’s been nice to be outdoors with them, getting sunshine and exercise, and growing our own food.

There is no doubt that today’s youths are growing up in an uncertain world filled with crises: terrorism, drugs, overpopulation, climate change, land, air and sea pollution, deforestation and habitat destruction, violent crime, political and economic instability, high costs for wholesome food, adequate shelter and health care and now an infectious disease that, for the first time in everyone’s lifetime, has spread across the globe.

It’s no wonder that stress, anxiety and depression have become their own pandemic. I felt downcast just listing all of these societal ills. However, besides being a known antidote for stress, gardening offers a host of opportunities to experience what is consistent, healthy and positive in the world.

Parents (and grandparents) can play an important role in guiding these experiences by observing with children what is happening in the garden, and by incorporating gardening into the learning-at-home curriculum.

As I write, I’m looking through the window at my front yard, and I see new plant shoots emerging from the earth and from the branches of trees and shrubs. I look forward to this colorful reawakening every spring.

I also see that hellebore, heather and forsythia are still in bloom, but their flowers are fading. Daffodils, camellias and grape hyacinth are in full bloom; whereas, buds on the pear tree have just burst open into miniature clouds, enticing pollinators to explore.

Over the years in my garden space, I’ve come to count on this sequence of spring’s unfolding; yet, there are always a few surprises to keep me asking questions. Staying attuned to the cycle of life and death in the garden is reassuring. Like the flowers, gardeners are participants in nature’s continuity.

It was raining a few minutes ago, and my plants welcomed the additional moisture. Cool temperatures and intermittent rains provide ideal conditions in which to plant seedlings. Just when longer days trigger a plant’s root system to increase uptake of nutrients in the soil, spring rains make nutrients available so the plant can produce new foliage and flowers. Nature’s synergy restores confidence that the world is not all chaos.

My daughters and I sowed tomato and pepper seeds this week, and we marveled at how each seed contains all of the plant’s genetic material. This observation sparked a discussion about the power of tiny seeds, whether they be plants, ideas or small acts of kindness. Even my adult children feel empowered by handling seeds, and by knowing they are producing food, not merely consuming it.

Additional learning experiences will follow as we provide growing conditions for our seeds to germinate and thrive. Despite our best efforts, some seeds will not develop, and some seedlings will die before they are planted in the garden. These will be added to the compost trench to replenish the garden soil, thus continuing the cycle of life and death and life again.

Growing our food is an exercise in delayed gratification. We experience the joy of watching plants grow, flower and fruit, but we must wait to harvest and eat the food, unlike going to the grocery store or farmer’s market. Before planting seedlings in the garden, we should practice patience by hardening off those we have grown from seed indoors, gradually exposing the seedlings to outdoor conditions over a week-long period (see this week’s blog for details).

Hardening off provides the time for young plants to adjust to change, similar to the way people need time to adjust to changes like the restrictions put into place due to the coronavirus.

It isn’t difficult to make connections between the needs of plants and the needs of people, which is why the garden is an ideal place for learning some of life’s most important lessons. I was glad to learn that parents are using the state’s stay-at-home order to grow food with their children.

As Gertrude Jekyll wrote, “The love of gardening is a seed once sown that never dies.”

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, visit her blog at http://blogs.esouthernoregon.com/theliterarygardener/ and check out her podcasts and videos at https://mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-literary-gardener, and her website at www.literarygardener.com.