When gardening season hits, typically in April or early May depending on latitude, the dad migration hits the small greenhouse in Northeast Ohio operated in part by Valerie Garland. She waits for them, knowing they’ll come in the evenings and on warm weekends in search of hot peppers, cucumbers, and squash, which they find among pots of Kohlrabi and beefeaters. They come — and they’re quick to explain this — because they’re trying to do the right thing and they understand that gardening is the right thing. Whether or not they have a totally clear grasp on why is another matter.
“They understand growing something that provides for their families,” Garland says. “They’re teaching them something that will allow them to survive. The pretty flowers are nice but they’re not going to sustain their family.”
Realistically, neither is a backyard plot, but that doesn’t mean gardening doesn’t sustain a family in other ways. One study from the University of Colorado, Denver, found that kids engaged in gardening programs felt feelings of calm and happiness and could have relaxed conversations with adults. Another study from Louisiana State University Baton Rouge found that kids who engaged with a gardening program had better science test scores. Finally, a Cornell University study in 2015 found that children who grow vegetables are far more likely to eat them. And, for many parents, that’s a very significant result.
“Making the connection with how food is grown is a powerful concept for kids to understand,” says dietician Melanie R. Silverman, who serves as CCO of the pediatric telemedicine company Pacify. “The process takes effort and can teach patience, science, and nutrition. A crunchy carrot or a sweet juicy apple is a delicious reward for all the hard work.”
Still, gardening doesn’t have to be hard. Back in the greenhouse, Garland points out that there are essentially two ingredients that make a plant: moisture and warmth.
She explains that the simplest way to garden is to buy a start (a small plant that’s already sprouted from seed) and pop it in a pot to set out on a porch or deck. But with a kid, that does take a bit of the wow factor out of seeing something sprout from the ground. To allow them to experience that particular brand of natural magic, Garland recommends buying an indoor greenhouse kit. These kits sit in a window and require only soil and seeds. Over a couple of weeks, the family can observe the veggies begin to grow.
There are some pretty foolproof seeds, according to Garland. For near instant gratification, she recommends beans, the stalwart veg of many a kindergarten science class. From there she says you can’t go wrong with squash, cucumbers, carrots and radishes. While the growing, thinning, and weeding provide the dirty-hands situations kids dig, it’s the eating that brings the whole circle of life, Lion King-type lesson home. So how the hell does a 5-year-old take his radishes? Baked cinnamon sugar radish chips, obviously.
But Garland also suggests that fathers consider the humble taco. Taco night can act as a vessel for home-grown lettuce, tomatoes, and onions. The truly heroic can add an additional simple salsa with garden-fresh garlic and hand picked cilantro. Pizza is another kid-friendly, garden-ready edible. A DIY veggie-lover’s pie on a premade crust with mozzarella is an easy option. Easier still? Sliced romas from the vine and some basil plucked from the porch plant.
In the end, more than teaching a valuable skill to leverage in case of a catastrophic collapse of the country’s food distribution system (lol), a gardening dad can build a healthy kid who knows how to cook. And that’s a trend worthy of a warm spring Saturday.