Growing Gardeners: A Case for Starting a Family Garden

March 26, 2021 Updated: March 26, 2021

A special painting by our children hangs framed on a wall in our house. It’s a simple tree standing in a field, painted as though you can see the roots as well as you can see the branches and leaves. The roots are labeled, in cursive, with the words “truth,” “patience,” “generosity,” “goodness,” and “growth.”

The tree represents the life and growth we aspire for each of our kids to have. Just as the roots are the foundation of the tree, we aspire for this set of traits to be the foundation for our children’s character.

The painting came about as my wife and I found ourselves being confronted with the general decisions of raising multiple children. We came up with this set of foundational values to help us set our priorities and guide our decision making.

Intentionally developing these values, then, requires leadership. As parents, we can misconstrue our role as a child’s guide into adulthood, and instead allow the child to lead us. As you look at your parenting style, ask, who is leading whom? It’s very easy, in the hecticness of life, to have the child dictating where we put our time and energy, as opposed to the parent purposefully planning where the family will put its time and energy.

But what would be the best way to lead our children in cultivating those characteristics?

The word “cultivate” really stood out for me. It was also clear to me that children needed a balance between freedom and responsibility. Too much freedom tends to make for a spoiled child, and too much responsibility makes for a child with no creativity or joy. Our desire to balance their lives and cultivate good character led us to start a hobby farm with a quarter-acre garden.

This was a learning experience for all of us, but more importantly, it was a group project. So many activities supposedly for families leave either the parents or the children watching from the sidelines. We wanted something that pulled the family together. Both a garden and children need daily attention to thrive, and the garden became a place for us to gather every evening and plant some seeds, pull some weeds, or simply share our amazement every time one of the children said, “Look at these!”

With this series, I hope to help you and your family do the same. Each installment will provide you with planned, purposeful activities, full of creative intention, that will give you opportunity to spend quality time with your child—or grandchild—while cultivating both a garden and important character traits.

This series will take you and your budding gardeners through the full cycle of your garden, from starting seeds to canning your produce for storage. Along the way, you will find ideas on how you might begin to introduce principles such as working hard, precision, responsibility, diligence, following instruction, growth, planning, teamwork, appreciating food, and taking pride in your work.

These opportunities exist no matter the size of your garden. If you have a quarter of an acre for a huge garden, you will just have more opportunity to practice. If you have a patio garden that consists solely of plants in pots, you will have fewer opportunities to practice but the same application of principle.

Remember, you will be working together on the project, balancing the freedom and responsibility your child needs. This all starts as you allow them to begin to dream about where the garden might be. Do you have some simple stakes you can use to mark off the area? Will you measure the area and teach them how to read a tape measure? Do they get to pick out some pots for a container garden? Can you plan a special trip to the home and garden store to pick out seeds? Can they draw a picture of their vision for the garden? Simply sitting and looking through a seed catalog together, circling the items you both want to grow, can be akin to making a Christmas wishlist.

It’s time to get started. We invite you to head outdoors and take part. The tasks will be light. The family will bond and your child will bloom. The results will unfold before your very eyes and produce real fruit (and vegetables) to enjoy.

Matt Fowler, MBA, Ph.D., enjoys writing about his experiences at The Abundant Farm, an intentional farming operation in southeastern Illinois on the Crawfish Creek. The farm challenges the family in the building of a homestead by producing food, products, and character while teaching health and bounty to others.