Reap What You Sow | Elaine Griffin | 9 Min Read

June 24, 2024

Seeding Your Children’s Future Through Gardening

After our long winters, summer is truly something special to experience and savor. And there’s no better way to lure kids outside in June than through gardening. Whether you live in the country or the city, you can help children foster a love of nature by growing gardens alongside them. Kids can learn about botany, take on new responsibilities, and have fun making nutritious meals with their harvests.

And if you think gardening is just about digging in the dirt, think again. Gardening is a natural antidote to anxiety and depression. It gives kids meaning and purpose. It fosters independence and agency. It connects them to the natural world. Perhaps most important, it cultivates resilience by allowing kids to fail safely — often through no fault of their own.

Schools give children a lot of information about the environment and the scientific processes at work in nature. But they often forget to focus on some of the most important related questions, involving what it means to be a caretaker of the earth, connect with nature, and thereby truly live within the world. I’m grateful to be the Middle School Head at University School of Milwaukee, where our outdoor education program and clubs foster students’ connection to the outdoors. 

Emily Vruwink, a 7th grade science teacher and advisor of the Middle School’s Ecological Society, believes that gardening gives kids a sense of purpose because it enables them to be a part of something much bigger than themselves. “In the Ecological Society, students grow a variety of plants from seed,” Vruwink notes. “They nurture the plants by tending to them carefully. And at the end of May, students get to sell the literal fruits of their labors to adults in our community.” This year, the Ecological Society donated a portion of the proceeds from their annual plant sale to the nonprofit organization Teens Grow Greens to help finance community gardens in Milwaukee. 

Graduating senior Nathan Steinbach, a member of the Environmental Action Team (EAT), has mentored students in the Ecological Society. “It’s really important that kids know where food comes from,” he said. During Covid, his family purchased a mini greenhouse, which motivated him to grow microgreens such as arugula, spinach, peas, and radishes—a great way to get started if you are new to gardening or nervous about the learning curve. “These plants grow within two weeks, so a bad harvest shouldn’t get you down. You can plant again and wait another two weeks,” he pointed out. “All in all, microgreens don’t require a super high commitment,” he continued.  

Microgreens are much denser in nutrients than their full grown counterparts. Steinbach suggests “cutting them when they are small and adding them to salads or other dishes.” While his family’s greenhouse sits among apple and cherry trees, microgreens can grow in a kitchen with just a few supplies: seeds, a container, soil, sunlight, and water.

Rising 8th grader Viraj Kamath has been a member of the Ecological Society for three years and is an avid gardener. Kamath told me that after a long day at school, he decompresses by heading out to his backyard garden. This year he planted tomatoes and basil. He admitted that he gets frustrated when a plant dies, but reflected that “if you persist, everything usually ends well. And, when the hard work pays off, I feel like I’ve really accomplished something.” He also enjoys eating the fruits of his labor. Kamath’s specialty: homemade gnocchi with tomatoes and basil.

Beside the physical benefits like exercise and healthy eating, gardening has psychological benefits as well. I mentioned to Steinbach that research links being outdoors to reduced anxiety. His response? “That’s definitely true. I’m happier in the summer. I feel productive when I’m growing food. When I spend time outdoors, I’m in a better mood. I’m active and getting sun.” 

Vruwink says that she finds gardening meditative, explaining that her life can be fast-paced and stressful at times and that gardening forces her to slow down and focus on small tasks. Ditto for her students.

“If my Middle School Ecological Society members have a test and are a little anxious, I know they appreciate getting their hands dirty and working in the greenhouse,” she said. “We all unwind when we meet in the school’s greenhouse and get to work. Conversation and jokes flow freely. Even a mundane task, such as scrubbing the aquamats in the greenhouse, relaxes us.” 

To be sure, gardening isn’t always calming; as anyone who has tried it knows, it can occasionally be downright frustrating. I asked Steinbach if he’d experienced failure as a gardener. “That happens all the time,” he said. “In the greenhouse, sometimes the top plants get sunlight and the bottom plants don’t, or you over water or under water.” 

Kamath also shared that he’s “made plenty of mistakes.” He recounted a time at the end of last year when each student in the Ecological Society received two free plants. “One passed away because I left it outside in the cold,” he confessed. “The other lasted all summer.” As Kamath’s anecdote demonstrates, gardens also teach kids a healthy sense of control (read: you can’t control everything!). They can do their very best, and they have no guarantees of success. On the other hand, fortuitous interventions like rainfall and honey bees can make a garden flourish. 

Whether or not a particular garden is successful matters less than its ability to give kids a sense of meaning, purpose, and authentic responsibilities. Caring for tools, watering, weeding, and harvesting their yields are important but manageable tasks. 

I talked with Kip Jacobs, my school’s outdoor education coordinator, about the responsibilities kids take on when they decide to plant a garden; his response suggested something akin to the work involved in sustaining any meaningful relationship. “It’s something you need to attend to everyday,” Jacobs said. “You can’t let it down. You need to water and weed, but the work is worth it. The sheer pleasure of eating what you’ve grown is amazing.” If he could give one tip, he would tell young gardeners to water before weeding, as doing so makes the weeds much easier to dig up and collect.

Finally, Jacobs believes that gardening can educate students about plants and help them develop healthier eating habits: “They should know where their food comes from and just how many varieties of plants there are. Kids need to eat their colors. They should eat reds, oranges, and purples. Some kids think that carrots are only orange, but heirloom carrots come in lots of colors.” 

In reviewing gardening books for this piece — yes, faithful readers, my column hasn’t lost its brand and I remain focused on books, as you’ll see below — I was amazed to learn things about vegetables I never knew. Some examples: Broccoli contains twice the amount of vitamin C as an orange. Corn is best categorized as a grain — like wheat, barley and rye — rather than as a vegetable. Fennel cures stomach cramps and bad coughs. And there are over 5,000 varieties of the potato!

I also came to see that planting a garden allows children to be makers in independent and creative ways. Vruwink allows her own young children to determine what they grow at home. “We have a few garden boxes that we tend to each day,” she said. “We traveled to a local garden store, and I allowed my kids to decide what they wanted to plant in our garden this summer. Allowing kids to make these decisions encourages a sense of ownership, responsibility, and pride.” To foster children’s sense of ownership, you could let them determine whether they want to grow a flower garden, a vegetable garden, or a variety of herbs on a windowsill.

Whether planting a backyard garden, making an indoor fairy garden, or cooking with fresh vegetables from the farmers’ market, all of these activities will help bring nature into your family’s life this summer. Even very young children can contribute to these activities. Vruwink shared a great example of this. “I was able to teach my son’s pre-kindergarten class about gardening and the school’s greenhouse. Each of the PKers planted a sunflower seed. Encouraging kids at any age to show concern and care for living things is invaluable.”

After reviewing dozens of gardening books specifically pitched toward kids, there were five that really, ahem, “grew” on me. I hope they, and books like them, will inspire your children to garden indoors or outdoors, or take on craft projects involving plants. If a garden isn’t a possibility this summer, these book selections also contain fascinating information about plants as well as simple recipes that give children experience in the kitchen. 

  1. “The Ultimate Guide to Gardening: Grow Your Own Indoor, Vegetable, Fairy, and Other Great Gardens,” by Lisa J. Amstutz: Use this resource if you want ideas for creating indoor gardens, whether it’s an edible flower garden, a water garden, or a fairy garden. Each page displays a unique garden and provides specific instructions on what you’ll need to assemble and care for it.

2. “Plant, Cook, Eat! A Children’s Cookbook,” by Joe Archer and Caroline Craig: A horticulturist and food writer co-wrote this guide to growing and cooking plants, which teaches kids how to sow specific plants, use garden tools, and perform everyday maintenance tasks in the garden. It contains simple kid-friendly recipes, like bean and bacon spaghetti or tomato, feta, and basil pizza, that will encourage kids to cook their garden harvests or farmers’ market finds. 

  1. “Veggie Power,” by Annette Roeder, illustrated by Olaf Hajek: This is a gorgeous picture book with artful illustrations of the featured vegetables. Each illustrated vegetable is accompanied by a short essay reviewing its history, super powers, and surprising facts. This book is designed for younger readers, but everyone can learn from the thoughtful information presented.

  1. “Gardening for Kids: Learn, Grow, and Get Messy with Fun STEAM Projects,” by Brandy Stone: This book provides directions on gardening as well as fun experiments. It teaches kids how to test their garden’s soil, how to attract pollinators, and how to take advantage of “companion planting.” It also contains activities on creating cool crafts with plants. Each activity is rated by a “Dirt-o-Meter” to let parents gauge the difficulty level and time commitment.

  1. “Grow,” by Riz Reyes, illustrated by Sara Boccaccini Meadows: Reyes grew up in the Philippines on a fruit plantation managed by his father. In his book, he profiles 15 different plants, providing information on how to cultivate them and understand their plant relatives. The illustrations are eye-catching and the information is condensed and easy to read. You can use this book to grow a backyard garden or an herb garden inside your home.

I hope that these books inspire you to harvest your own produce or, at the very least, visit your neighborhood farmers’ market to savor the flavors of local produce. By teaching children the farm-to-table concept and exposing them to the rich diversity of plant life, we empower them to cultivate food and create healthy eating habits. In a world inundated with distractions, gardening serves as a refuge, a sanctuary where children can unplug, unwind, and reconnect with the rhythms of nature. The earth, the wind, the trees — even the smallest flower — are sparks that can keep us lit. 

Sort of like books themselves, right? May your summer be nourished with plant food as well as brain food, healthy eating and captivating reading. Ground yourself in the earth. And read like the wind.

You may also be interested in reading more articles written by Elaine Griffin for Intrepid Ed News.

Elaine Griffin

Elaine Griffin is the Middle School Head at University School of Milwaukee, where she had previously served as an Upper School literature teacher and administrator for more than 20 years. Her essays have previously appeared in Education Next, The Once and Future Classroom, Chinese Language Matters, and the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. Her professional interests include parent education, curricular reform, and social-emotional learning.

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