Watching your vegetable garden fade out as fall sets in can be depressing, even jarring—especially for kids.
“Something is killing our garden,” gasped Aria, Amanda’s 5-year-old daughter, after she’d wandered into the backyard one recent morning. “The sunflowers are keeling over! So is the corn! It’s going yellow and shrivelly, Mama, is it sick?”
The night before, a big rain had toppled many of the tall plants. The sweet corn and mammoth sunflowers looked like capsized masts; the vining cukes and green beans were withered and slumping on their stakes. But the plants weren’t sick exactly, they were just petering out. For weeks they’d been wilting, exhausted, having given up their fruits all summer. They were dying their natural autumnal deaths, and the rain had just accelerated things. Now they were ready to be yanked up, roots and all, and added to the compost pile.
Not everything in the garden was going: the tomatoes, basil, peppers and eggplants, cucumbers, and zucchini were still vibrant. But not for long—the first light frost will wipe them out completely. Others will survive the frost: Brussels sprouts, kale, carrots, beets, potatoes, chard, and spinach. But their days are numbered, too.
“What do I tell her?” Amanda asked Jeanne, after Aria’s gloomy discovery. “Tell her it’s the cycle of life—that plants die and decompose, so they can feed the soil and help new plants grow,” Jeanne offered. “Tell her that death is a new beginning.”
This was one of many conversations we’ve had with each other and our kids this summer about big life lessons we can all learn from the humble act of growing food. The garden is a safe, quiet place where kids can begin to understand the full gamut of essential life skills from basic stuff like time management to lessons about death, birth, bravery, connectedness, and how to slow down.
Here are our top 10 life lessons from the garden:
Less is more 1 of 10
The single most common mistake among rookie gardeners is overplanting. If you plant too many vegetable plants too close together, they will compete for nutrients in the soil and won't grow to their full potential. So it is in life: If we clutter our lives with too many commitments, none of them can fully succeed.
Clean as you go 2 of 10
The best way to stay on top of weeds in a garden is to pull them up as soon as you notice them. This steady hand-weeding doesn't take more than 20 minutes a week. But if you ignore the weeds and let them grow big roots, they'll steal nutrients from your plants, proliferate, and become a much bigger problem. So it is in life: Don't let the mess pile up. Steady cleaning will save you time and sanity in the long run.
Explore the unknown 3 of 10
Kids learn to be brave and try new things in gardens—to taste fennel, touch a worm, stake a cucumber, yank a stubborn weed, pluck a Japanese beetle off a leaf. Exploring this new frontier—becoming unafraid and competent in it—gives them confidence to try new things at school and beyond.
Use all five senses 4 of 10
In a vegetable garden, kids savor the crunch of the cuke, the fragrance of the basil, the gritty-velvety feel of the soil, the vivid colors, and the sounds of insects and birds. Seeing, tasting, smelling, feeling, and listening to these stimuli is a richer sensory experience than they could ever have indoors or at a computer. And it inspires them to seek out that kind of stimulation beyond the garden.
slllooow down 5 of 10
As the rich sensory experience of gardens engages a child's attention, it helps them slow down, become patient, and hone their powers of observation. These skills are essential antidotes to the fast-paced, technology-intensive world they live in.
Everything is connected 6 of 10
Just as vegetable gardens need humans to tend and care for them, and water, soil, and sunshine to grow, the gardens, in turn, provide nourishment for the insects and creatures around them. When kids learn this they begin to understand the essential beauty of ecosystems: that all living things depend on one another to survive.
Lean on me 7 of 10
In order for big fruiting plants like tomatoes, corn, beans, peas, cucumbers, and peppers to grow tall and flourish, they need support. As kids learn to prop up these growing plants with stakes, cages, and trellises, they can understand that people, too, need support to grow tall and thrive.
Miracles happen 8 of 10
It's almost inconceivable that the tiny hard seeds you plant in the soil transform into huge, lush, soft, juicy, nutritious food in a matter of weeks. But it happens. And when it does, the miracle of it is written all over a child's face.
Respect the earth 9 of 10
When a kid looks up a mammoth sunflower many thousand times larger than the seed it was just a few weeks earlier, she understands that no machine is as smart as a plant. The best way to inspire young environmentalists is to show them that the earth can do something way cooler than an iPad.
Death is a new beginning 10 of 10
It's sad and even jarring to watch the vegetable garden you've tended for four months begin to die, but it's also hopeful and empowering to learn that the dying plants will decompose and create a rich soil the essential nourishment for new plants to grow.