When I began gardening with my children, I did not realize that there would be a lengthy series of gardening “developmental milestones,” not described in my books about babies, that they would have to achieve before they could be more of a help than a hindrance in the garden. This weekend, when we planted beans, Ella, my 5 year old, achieved one of the most important milestones: placing the seeds in the row with approximately correct spacing without my constant supervision.
Before children can spend much time at all in the garden, they must be able to walk. My children both walked very late, and even after they began walking on hard surfaces, they needed a lot of practice before they could walk on uneven surfaces without falling, so throughout most of the first two years of their lives, I couldn’t do much in the garden when they were outside. Once my children walked well, they began moving through the other developmental milestones: not eating dirt at every opportunity, only eating plants or berries an adult approves, not pouring out the entire seed packet in one spot, walking around plants instead of on them, and walking only on mulched paths in the garden.
At about age four, Ella began achieving more complicated milestones such as remembering to use two hands to pick beans and peas so she didn’t tear up the plant in the picking process, and knowing what is ripe and what is not (this generally requires some taste tests to be sure I am right about what is ripe and what is not, especially where fruit is concerned). She also started taking plants out of their nursery containers and tearing apart the roots enough, but not too much, before helping me plant them. She learned how to place a single seed where I directed her; later on, I gave her an appropriate number of seeds and told her to spread them out enough to make them last the entire row.
Saturday morning, when Ella helped me plant beans, I showed her how far apart to space the beans, gave her a container of seed, and went off to other tasks. When I returned, I discovered that she’d correctly planted the seeds, and I dug another row and told her to plant it. With her unexpected help, I was able to plant several more rows of beans than I thought I would have time to sow. Later, I gave her the clippers and asked her to pick the eggplant; she was able to decide which ones were the largest ones and which ones were too small, and to pick accordingly.
Meanwhile, her two-year-old sister, Clara, was pouring out her bean seed in a pile in the row, and wanting more to plant. It will be awhile before she passes through the developmental milestones and is able to be more of a help than a hindrance, but at least she doesn’t eat too much dirt anymore. Anyone with small children knows they love to “help,” and most of the time that help results in an easy task taking twice as long as it should. However, when they are finally able to be of real help, the training time is worth it, as is the pride they display in telling others about their accomplishments.