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Family photo
Meri-Margaret Deoudes and her son John Robert spend many happy hours together gardening in Bethesda, Md.

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.

Her grandpa, a retired lumberman, grew giant dahlias on his farm in Latah, Wash., and had a friendly competition with one of his pals over who could grow the biggest food crops. Once a year, he'd buy meat from a German butcher in a nearby town and stock the freezer, but they tried to grow most of their food. Her early memories include summers weeding and harvesting and canning to make jams. As a little, little girl, she stood on a chair by the kitchen sink, wearing an oversized apron, to help. "Looking back on it now, it was almost like playing house, in a good way," Newcomer says, a smile in her voice.

Her grandparents were in their 60s when their daughter, her mom, died and they were handed Newcomer and her brother to raise. Their neighbor had chickens for eggs and to eat. Down the street, someone had cows that provided milk. Her grandmother cooked in forest service camps, always for large crowds. When Newcomer grew up and left home, she took her love of growing things with her in the form of ferns and African violets she hauled across the country to college.

The bounty of a good garden is a pleasure she shares with her husband, Delos, and extended family.

Loving nature

Meri-Margaret Deoudes says gardening is also a fitness class — aerobics for all ages — a ready antidote to summer days indoors watching television or playing video games. When her son has hit his limit of being cooped up, they head outdoors and she "can practically see the endorphins release" as he digs in the dirt.

Deoudes heads up Be Out There, a National Wildlife Federation effort to reconnect families with the outdoors. Gardening is just one of the ways they promote that. "We try to provide opportunities for families to be outside together," said Deoudes, who calls the spring planting season a special time for families outside. "It's not only for the health and happiness of our children. It's an opportunity for kids to get connected with the outdoors at a young age. As they grow, they are more likely to want to protect the environment."

Gardening requires time. Gardening together means companionship and a chance to talk about the day's events, about friends and values and future plans — all valuable topics for parents and kids.

Gardening outside doesn't require a lot of room either. It can be done in little pockets. She and John Robert garden in pots on the stoop and deck of their home and in its small yard. "It can be as small or large as you want. It doesn't need to be perfect like Martha Stewart's backyard."

The two happily pass time together, talking about colors and textures and how things grow. She's used the garden to teach some basic science principles, to talk about sunlight and how plants use it. At 5, he can tell the difference between rosemary and basil and she can send him out to pick some for whatever she's cooking. It's also a place where he can be creative and improvise. He has learned not only to enjoy the sight of butterflies and birds, but that certain plants and colors attract them. As they water, she explains gently how important water is to life and that it's a limited resource. "There's a whole discussion to be had about what we can do to make the outdoors more beautiful and keep it safe," she says.

Duke Mossman has seen gardening contribute to broader interests for his kids. Bret, in particular, loves to plant wildflowers and stock bird feeders. He's interested in birds and may even study ornithology.

Getting started

To get kids interested in the garden, Newcomer recommends starting with a small area that won't be overwhelming.

As for plants, "start with something that the kids will see as soon as possible. Beans are fabulous. When I was little, we did little projects, growing a bean between pieces of cotton, like between sheets of plastic where you see them develop roots and leaves."

Cherry tomatoes and snap peas are fun for kids. Herbs and kids are a natural combination. And children love to learn about edible flowers that can be used to brighten both the looks and taste of salads. That includes nasturtiums. Many gardeners tout growing gardens as a way to get kids to try new foods. If they grow them, they are more likely to taste them, it seems.

Let the kids pick the flowers and make bouquets. Encourage them to smell the plants and eat the ripened berries. "They should see these as they develop. I have a friend who has a great saying about hoping that edible gardening is the gateway drug to perennial gardening," Newcomer says.

There are a couple of warnings from experts, though. Some plants are poisonous. Don't let little kids around those. Make sure children know which plants are edible and which aren't.

They'll do the rest. Even 5-year-old John Robert Deoudes knows there's nothing more joyful than biting into a cherry tomato you've nurtured from a seed.

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