Photo courtesy John Lorton
Columnist Steve Lorton’s grandchildren are learning about gardening by taking on projects good for teaching children about gardening.
Photo courtesy John Lorton Columnist Steve Lorton’s grandchildren are learning about gardening by taking on projects good for teaching children about gardening.

The new year stimulates visions of resolutions: “I’m going to organize the kitchen, the garage, my desk.” Or, the big one, “Starting today, I’m shedding that 20 pounds that’s been bugging me.” Sometimes the musings are more conceptual, more global, “I want to do something to make the world a better place.”

If that last quote resonates with you, I’m here to make a suggestion: Take on the joyful task of getting a child interested in gardening. You’ll be introducing them to a lifetime of fascination, an avocation that will connect them to the wonderful natural world surrounding us. Most importantly, you’ll be grooming a soldier in the vast army it’s going to take to save the planet. 

When I look at my grandchildren, I see, as I did with my son a generation ago, diamonds in the rough. Gently remove the rough edges of this raw material, polish it carefully and a dazzling gem emerges to cast light on everything around it. 

Getting a young horticulturist launched is easy. Start with a small clay pot and saucer, some good, clean planting soil, a window sill and three or five seeds from the orange or grapefruit they ate for breakfast or the lemon you squeezed. The vaunted avocado pit, spiked with toothpicks and suspended half way into a glass of water is a classic. There’s a bonus here. In these housebound pandemic days, everyone in the family will have an additional project, a happy focus. All it requires is genuine enthusiasm. 

“Think we can get this to grow?”

“Yeah!”

“OK, let’s plant it and see. But you’re going to have to water it a little every day. Can you do that?”

“Yeah!”

So it goes. It’s called imprinting. A couple of weeks pass, and suddenly there’s a little sprout of green in the pot, then a leaf, then two and ... Ta-da! A gardener is born! Cement the relationship between plant and child with anthropomorphism. Give the plant a name: Olivia Orange, Leon Lemon, Gilda Grapefruit, Aubie Avocado. 

In late March or April, implant windowsill pots with tomato seeds or sunflower seeds. Nothing thrills quite like seeing a seedling cherry tomato turn into a robust plant, which, transplanted into a large pot and set outside in full sunlight, produces edible fruits.

The excitement that this produces is akin to having a puppy, and the plants won’t chew your slippers.

Once a sunflower goes into the ground outdoors and begins shooting skyward with Jack-in-the-Beanstalk speed, do a weekly photo shoot with child and sunflower. The visual record will go from ankle high to a leafy, dwarfing pillar. Then comes the flower, followed by seeds for birds or for snacking. Save a few of those seeds for planting next year and you’ll be teaching the cycle of life. 

Sempervivums and sedums are also good gardener-starters. Hens and Chickens send off shoots with tiny, leafy “chicks” at the end. These have “Wow value.” Sedums come in great foliage colors, produce nice blooms and withstand a bit of neglect. When bedding plants show up in nurseries, grow some marigolds, zinnias, pelargoniums or begonias. Again, giving the plant a name fortifies the relationship. You’ll also be inspiring responsibility. The sight of wilted leaves on a limp plant teaches vigilance. Seeing the green pet rejuvenated by a good soaking is a lesson in cause and effect and problem solution.

Suddenly it is spring. So you map out a little plot in full sun. Don’t make it too big, 3 by 5 feet is plenty. Meticulously tilling the soil is a family project. Add some amendments. Coffee grounds and finely chopped kitchen waste are perfect and enhance the lessons of organics and sustainability. Edge the plot, carefully. Sow rows of the easy things: radishes and carrots, lettuce and kale, onions, and set out some tomato plants.

Water, weed, watch and await the glorious day of harvest. Imagine the excitement of the first salad.

You’ll soon see an interest growing in nature and its cultivation. But, you must add one more crop of components to the equation: perpetual nudging to stick with the project, frequent praise and, finally, understanding and a window into the future when things go wrong. I have a favorite story about this last one.

My son was 8. I was in my early 40s and at the top of my game in publishing. A good share of my work was writing about gardening. Gifted horticulturists from all over had given me choice, sometimes rare, plants that I grew in my Madison Park garden, dutifully and, I’ll confess, with more than a modicum of vanity.

I came home from work. My son, excitedly met me at the front door. “Dad, come see what I’ve made. Close your eyes.” He led me through the house, to the kitchen door, and I heard him scamper down the stairs to the rear garden. Then he shouted, “Look!” I opened my eyes to see my garden completely cut to the ground and he was standing there, proudly, in the middle.  “I made a baseball diamond!”  

I was speechless. I stood there, stunned for a moment. Then I heard an angel speak.

“Dude, you’re at a crossroads, here. You can have a happy, well-adjusted kid or you can try to whip him into what you want. You choose.” I gulped and said, “Well, great. Let’s play the first game.”

Summer came. Swimming and soccer eclipsed the baseball diamond that had been used, maybe, six times. When late autumn arrived, I cut everything back, scattered some 12-12-12 around and top dressed everything with compost. Spring emerged and the garden did what gardens do. It roared back, more robust and floriferous than ever. That Mother’s Day we went out to cut a bouquet of flowers for Mom’s breakfast tray.

Now, my son sends me pictures of what he’s snapped on his walks, asking me to identify plants he wants to add to his garden. My grandkids grow seeds on the window sill and eat radishes and tomatoes under the tutelage of their green-thumbed mother. Our world is as leafy and green and blossom-filled as ever.

The baseball diamond is a distant memory, and I gaze in awe as I blink at the beauty of all the dazzling diamonds I see that were once in the rough.