Our backyard is filled with 14 reasons for our kids to get their hands dirty. And we encourage it. As often as possible. Those 14 reasons are raised garden boxes. We call our little operation an urban micro-farm, because it is.
In those boxes are bunches of colorful carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, cucumbers, squash, greens and Brussels sprouts. They didn’t grow overnight. It took us months of planning — dreaming, we’d call it — then a few more months of prepping, by reconfiguring the entire yard and bringing in truckloads of compost, and then a few more months of planting and watching things grow.
I never thought I’d get emotionally attached to a vegetable, but the day a cauliflower fell victim to the appetite of our veggie-loving blue heeler (Australian cattle dog), I almost cried. The plant had become a point of pride.
The cool thing about our farm is that our entire crew of kids has been involved from the get-go. They offered opinions on our plans. They helped move the artificial turf from one side of the yard to the other (which I can only compare to the chore of moving an unwilling elephant). They helped build the boxes, put them in place and plant seeds when we were ready.
It is their farm as much as it is ours. And the bigger point is — we did it. We live in a city, on a modest lot, and we got a little farm going. Chickens, for those who are wondering, are on the horizon.
We’re within a five-minute drive of at least four grocery stores, but those stores teach kids absolutely nothing — except patience in the self-checkout aisle and an unexpected appreciation for soft pop hits from the ’80s. More often than not, kids think food comes from the store, not from the ground or an animal that was once alive. And that’s just one of the reasons we decided to start growing our own.
Here’s why we think our micro-farm is good for our tiny humans. Any tiny humans.
It instills self-reliance. Sure, in the event of a zombie apocalypse, we’ll all need to figure a few things out. But, short of that, having a micro-farm, and getting kids involved with it, teaches them that they are able to do things themselves. Not as kids, but as humans in general.
We don’t need to buy spinach at the store for our salad. We can harvest it from our own yard. We don’t need to buy basil for our pasta, because we have a box full of it — more than we can even use. Our children may not start their own little farms when they are older, but they will know they are capable of doing it if they want to. And thanks to our compost, they’re learning how to make less waste and finding ways to use as much of everything as possible.
It explains the Food Chain. When my oldest was little, she asked if grapes came from pigs. I can’t even make that up. And it’s a good joke now, but man — she had no clue. And I’d be willing to bet, if we quizzed kids on where food comes from, the majority of them would be stumped.
As our little seeds turn into plants that flower, and as those plants begin to grow edible goodness, they can see the entire cycle. They can learn that root vegetables, like those rainbow carrots we have going, grow underground. They can see that cucumbers need to vine, that tomatoes need a little support, and that soybeans grow amazingly in 100 percent compost.
Our backyard has become a market. If I consistently forget anything when grocery shopping, it’s cilantro. I have a brain block on that herb. Which is why having a garden box full of cilantro in our own backyard is totally magical. I never have to remember it, because we have it. And the kids can go right back there, just before dinner, and yank a few strands off the plants for us to use in our salsa or pico or on top of our sautéed peppers. There is no waste, because we take and use what we need.
It teaches patience. The day we planted our first “crop” of plants over the summer — horrible timing, we know — one of the kids asked if the plants would be grown by “tomorrow.” No. They wouldn’t. And so began a waiting game unlike anything they have had to experience in life, as our culture increasingly embraces immediate fulfillment.
The kids have to watch, every week, as the plants get bigger. They see us troubleshoot hungry caterpillars, pluck weeds, adjust watering and dust with vitamins. We have a couple of pickle-lovers who can’t wait for the cucumbers to do their thing, and we have a little girl who is anxiously awaiting the day she can pull a non-orange carrot from the ground in her own yard. Those days will come. But until then, they have to wait and watch. And learn to be patient as nature follows its own timetable.
Gardening with kids
Desert gardening has its challenges, such as learning techniques and the best times to plant (NOT summer). Seek help from your local plant nursery for the bigger questions. And let kids of all ages help.
- Let them plant. Relax, planting isn’t rocket science. Help kids with seed spacing (which we’ve learned is important) and let them drop the seeds in and cover them up.
- Let them water. There is likely not a kid on the planet who doesn’t like holding a hose. Especially during a plant’s first few days, allow the kids to use a watering can or hose to gently water your “crops.”
- Let them pick — and plan meals with the produce. We made a salad over the holidays with three different greens from our backyard — enough to feed all seven of us and then some. Send the kids out to pick the spinach or arugula so they can see the fruits of their labor.