We’re all familiar with the ancient Chinese adage “Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime.” This axiom has no better meaning than when translated to the garden. Even as the number of gardeners is steadily increasing (40% of families with backyards have a garden), many people don’t really understand where their food comes from and certainly don’t know how to grow the food themselves. We can change that. In this season of love, goodwill, sharing and caring, think of the lessons learned from gardening and how both young and old could benefit from those lessons.
How to garden: Growing vegetables is relatively easy, as the seeds want to grow. From the gardener, seeds need help finding good soil and sometimes supplemental water. Children are particularly entranced by fast-growing seeds such as radishes, but also try fun-to-eat foods like corn, lettuce and watermelon.
Academics: The garden is a classroom. Learn about soil structure (geology), climate and hardiness zones (meteorology), photosynthesis and plant growth (botany), measuring and harvest projections (mathematics), new words and meanings (language arts), discipline and planning (management), garden layout and aesthetics (visual art).
Patience: Popcorn is ready-made these days. Open a bag of already popped corn, right from the grocery shelves and you have instant gratification. On the other hand, when the gardener wants popcorn, he plants a seed and cares for it until the day — some 90 days later — when the corn is ready to harvest and dry. There is no popcorn on any store shelf that compares in taste to that grown in your very own garden.
Planning: Particularly in the upper Midwest, there is a narrow window of opportunity for growing many warm-season crops. Gardening can teach not only the importance of thinking ahead but presents a hands-on lesson in what happens when best laid plans go awry.
Economics: Gardens are a valuable lesson in economics. That ready-to-eat bag of popcorn might cost $1.29. For that price, you can get enough seed to grow popcorn for many years to come and relish the joy of the harvest at the same time. Once you’ve grown your own food, handing over $1/lb for 3-day old lettuce seems almost like squandering your hard-earned cash.
Nutrition: Children are naturally inquisitive and far more willing to eat vegetables that they’ve grown themselves. Not only are just-picked vegetables tastier than store-bought, but as a participant in the food’s very production, youngsters take an interest in that food. Some veggies, such as kohlrabi, are weird-looking but delicious, particularly with a dipping sauce. Looking like a creature from outer space, its very weirdness is enticing to children. I’ve yet to meet a child who doesn’t adore green beans harvested hand to mouth.
Connections of nature: Plants, trees, animals, and humans are all part of that grand scheme we call Mother Nature. Planting and nurturing seeds, harvesting fruit from our own orchards, and watching frogs and toads hop around the garden all bring us closer to the unity of life. The garden teaches that we’re all connected with a common desire to live and prosper, while also demonstrating the cycles of life, death and physical decay. Humans tend the earth and plant the seed, and in return the earth produces the vegetables, fruits, nuts and flowers which nourish us. Gardeners often feel a sense of belonging to nature and to the world that non-growers can never quite experience.
This is my last column for this newspaper. I have greatly enjoyed writing it and being in touch with so many of you. Gardening is one of the most enriching “hobbies” around. We learn valuable lessons, get healthy exercise, save money, and best of all, we get to eat what we grow!
Beverly Carney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.