Growing great kids: Lessons from the garden

Published: Monday, May 20 2013 5:20 p.m. MDT

Coral Kading and her uncle Delos Newcomer snap green beans from the Newcomer garden in Boise, Idaho.

Family photo

BETHESDA, Md. — John Robert Deoudes has been gardening nearly his whole life — all five years of it. He knows how seeds sprout and, like most little boys, especially likes digging in the dirt and finding worms. He happily waters and putters and plucks weeds. Sometimes, while his mom completes gardening's more complicated tasks, he plays contentedly with his toy trucks a few feet away.

He is growing tomatoes and herbs and a few flowers. His mom, Meri-Margaret Deoudes, is growing flowers and vegetables and a little boy who understands that food doesn't grow in tin cans, who isn't afraid to work and who loves the outdoors.

Gardening may be big business in the United States, where American home gardeners spent $2.5 billion a year just on growing food. The monetary benefit of the investment, according to the National Gardening Association, may be a whopping $21 billion, with a typical 600-square-foot vegetable garden costing about $70 and providing a $600 return.

But families get more than savings or a pretty yard from investing in a garden. Its greatest value may be how it helps families strengthen their relationships and children develop important traits like creativity, responsibility and patience. It even ties children to the earth and its wellbeing.

Life lessons

When Duke and Becky Mossman decided to expand their family garden, they were certainly interested in growing vegetables and berries and fruits. But they were also interested in growing great kids.

He had grown up on a farm in Hawaii, while she had grown up on one in Minnesota. When they married, they started their own garden, Duke Mossman said, and it seemed to get bigger as the kids grew. Today, Sarah, 21, isn't too heavily involved in the 50-by-60-foot garden at their home in Heber City, Utah. But Bret, 17, does his share of work, often alongside one or both of his parents. And Don, 9, has great enthusiasm because he's allowed to sell part of what he grows. "If he doesn't help me plant, he doesn't get to sell. Last year, he made over $300," Mossman said.

"We truly like the work ethic that comes with gardening. A pet is something you're responsible for. So is a garden: You plant, weed, fertilize and harvest. It's a long process, so it's kind of like committing to something and following it through."

Gardening teaches many things. "Responsibility. Patience. Wonder. There is absolute magic in the garden," says gardening professional and author Mary Ann Newcomer, who's known to Boise radio audiences and kids from neighboring elementary schools as the "Dirt Diva." She starts young kids in her life out with foods that grow fast, like salad greens. She got her start in her grandparents' garden growing radishes, charmed by their little heart-shaped set of first leaves and the slight bite to their flavor.

Sometimes she helps schools in her area grow edible schoolyards, on the roof or tucked in the corner. The children are learning, sometimes to their surprise, that food does not start out prepackaged or in a fast-food paper bag. School gardens are a popular national trend. PS41 in Greenwich, N.Y., was one of the schools that received a recent NSA Adopt a School Garden grant, sponsored by Organic Valley. According to Sarah Pounders at Kidsgardening.org, the kindergartners care for the container garden, which has become a green laboratory.

Newcomer thinks gardening is about family and belonging and that it naturally celebrates hard work. She just co-wrote a book called "The Rocky Mountain Gardener's Handbook" that not only touts the value of gardening, but tells how to do it.

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