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How Doesn’t My Garden Grow?

“I do not garden! I am not going to help you and I will not referee. If you want a garden, you need to do it alone or figure out a way to work together,” I snapped as I slammed the door in the face of my children’s enthusiasm. Yikes—did I really just say that? And, more importantly, did my words carry over the back fence to the greenthumbed mom with the lovely garden and two helpful children younger than mine?

We live in an area that causes gardeners to sing rhapsodically. Things grow here, but I manage to kill plants even when that is my intent. I used to fear neighbors would shun me for my poorly thriving roses or my straggly rhododendrons. Fortunately, my neighbors don’t seem to care or, if they do, they are perhaps too nice to say so. Still, bouts of mommy guilt related to gardening seize me at moments. It’s so wholesome, engaging, educational, etc. Good parents support and encourage their children to garden, right? One year, the Easter Bunny brought little packets of basil seeds, diminutive pastel pots, and dehydrated discs of soil labeled with “just add water.” Well, the pots and packets still clutter the built-in cabinet in my dining room, mocking me.

When our oldest daughter was a toddler, she wanted to garden, and my husband and I were nudged by guilt into digging a small plot to plant tomatoes, basil and zucchini. We’d been raised by gardeners who simultaneously built our character and tortured us by requiring that we pull weeds. We reminisced about eating freshly harvested carrots and peas shucked directly into our mouths. Turns out my oldest daughter and I are alike. We like the idea of a garden: We’re happy to pluck a tasty, ripe delight from a vine, but we’d rather stretch out in a lawn chair in the yard, lifting one single finger to turn the page of a book, rather than dig our hands in the dirt.

Last year, another mom strode toward me in front of our daughters’ school, alight with enthusiasm, her Schnoodle dancing along beside her at the end of his leash. “I thought it would be great to create a gardening workgroup so we can knock out all our spring yard work over a few weekends, taking turns at each other’s houses,” she said as her dog wound around our ankles. I shrank away from her, shaking my head, “I don’t garden.” She paused, “Well, you must have some…” I interrupted her, “Nope, I don’t garden. I also don’t do pets. I’ve removed both of those items from my Super-Mom requirement list.” I gave her a smile that I hoped said, “I don’t do pets, but other people’s pets are probably OK.” I’m pretty sure I’m known as the weird anti-pet parent already, so why not add anti-gardener?

Maybe I’m just lazy, but I find yard work mind-numbingly dull. I’m told gardening is soothing, therapeutic and grounding, but I am restrained by my profound dread of wasting anything, whether that be time or lettuce. I fear planting things and having them fail to grow as much as the possibility of producing more veggies than I can handle! Just thinking of tomatoes rotting on the vine or neighbors closing the door in the face of my proffered excess zucchini makes me sweaty. It’s not the good, clean sweat from hard work, but the rank sweat of anxiety.

My husband and I cultivate excuses. We sow discouragement. “The yard is too shady. We’ll be traveling and unable to maintain a garden.” My girls are getting old enough to take matters into their own hands. Despite my words bellowed from the doorway last spring, two of them, ages 8 and 11, decided to start a garden with two separate plots, one for each of them. They took turns wailing at me from the back door with their feet planted in muddy boots. “She won’t let me use the shovel! She won’t help me dig!” So, as well as being a failure at teaching my kids to garden, I’ve failed to teach them team work. I speculated we would end up with two giant pits in our yard and two fatigued and bored kids who would develop new passions before they ever reached the planting stage.

The younger one lasted a few days, but perseverance carried our middle daughter through. She claimed the site of an old raised bed, where rogue cherry tomatoes had cross-pollinated and sprouted a mystery variety after our last haphazard gardening adventure. On her own, she dug a garden bed 3-feet wide and 8-feet long. My husband rewarded her by helping measure the plot and built a frame. Together, they bought seeds and eventually staked a forest of tomatoes.

Despite my aversion to gardening, I love to cook. I serve regular meals created from whole foods, albeit not grown from soil adjacent to my own home or requiring dirt to accumulate beneath my fingernails. If my daughter retains her enthusiasm for gardening, I may soon slice her tomatoes into salads, but I’ll seal my lips if her brilliant fruits rot on the vine instead.

Some days, I worry that I’m the slacker mom. It’s tempting to grab hold of a child’s dream and dig the holes and lift the rocks for them. Then I remind myself that my children don’t benefit from my trying to be someone I’m not, and they’ll learn far more pursuing their own paths. I’ve realized that it’s OK to occasionally step back and allow children to explore without help to find their own solutions and to harvest their own fruit. So, I guess I’m a gardener after all—I’m growing children.