It takes a special approach to make gardening fun for children. My dear late Grandpa Adrian clearly did not understand this concept—and, due to this, ended up locked in his backyard tool shed. I still say that it wasn’t really my fault.
When I was four years old, my mother would take my grand-mother grocery shopping every Wednesday. This was Grand Rap-ids, Michigan, back in the late 1950s when no one simply went to one store. Good women clipped their coupons and hit every store for their best bargains. Then they went to the butcher’s for a good cut of Sunday dinner meat. This took more than a few hours—and they always stopped for what was called a nice lunch. It was their favorite way to spend a day together.
I was usually left with my older sisters; however, one day I was put in the care of Grandpa Adrian. It was clear right from the start that no one had asked him about this arrangement. He wasn’t a mean person, he just wanted to work in his garden. He didn’t know what to do with children. Nor did he care to learn.
My parents were always good at including us children in house and garden projects. So I was surprised when my grandfather told me to go play but not touch anything.
Playing by yourself in a garden where you can’t touch anything is not an easy task. However, I persevered by acting out scenes from Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, a wonderful old movie I’d just seen on TV. In case you don’t recall, the thieves had this neat cave where the door would open whenever they said, “Open Sesame!” I was sure that everyone knew about this—and that’s where my problem began.
When my grandfather went into his little tool shed in the back of the garden, I closed the door behind him and asked him to say the magic words needed to get out. His first response was simply a gruff “How should I know? Let me out!”
Surprised by his response, I gave him a hint. “You know, there’re the ones that Ali Baba used for his cave,” I said. “Every-one’s seen that movie. It’s on TV!”
That’s when things went kaput. It wasn’t that Grandpa didn’t respond. It was the fact that he did so in Dutch. A long animated statement in Dutch that I pretty much knew was swearing. Big-time swearing.
I could tell I was in trouble. Big-time trouble. Even when he switched back to English and, trying to sound nice, said “Please open the door—now!” No, I could tell he was not happy.
I was facing my first moral dilemma. I knew that while I should let Grandpa out, his wrath might be beyond what I wanted to face. I thought about all the sharp tools he kept in the shed and while I could probably outrun him, I wasn’t sure I could make it all the way home. If I waited for my grandmother and mother to return, I would probably get spanked, but I was pretty sure they wouldn’t kill me. My grandmother really liked all of her grandkids. I didn’t think she’d want to lose even one of them.
So we sat, my grandfather sweating in his tool shed, without his cigarettes, and me outside wondering what to do. He tried using his nicest voice: “If you let me out, we could both go inside and have ice cream.” But I knew it was a ploy—he’d made me drink sour buttermilk for our morning snack.
Then he tried playing dead by not responding when I talked to him through the door. Unfortunately for him, I’d seen that trick in any number of cartoons.
The day wore on.
I remember thinking that when I became an adult with my own yard, kids would always have a place to play where they could touch things. I have, indeed, since made it a point to make gardens welcoming to children. Here are a few things I’ve discovered over the years. I hope they help you in your own efforts.
• Invite fairies into your garden. A good way to get kids to look closely at a garden is to give them something to look for. If you’re really energetic, you can hide things and then write up clues to finding them.
If you’re less ambitious, simply put out a Fairy Mailbox. Tell children that when they put odd little item gifts into the box at night, the fairies will hide gifts in return around the garden. It’s a great way to get rid of all that odd stuff you have in your junk drawer.
• Start a B&B—a Branch & Breakfast. Set out houses and food for birds. Make helper tasks more fun by adding a little creativity. I explained to one little girl that I needed her help because my yard had been written up in Migration Magazine as one of the best B&Bs in the city. A bright girl, she asked, “How can birds read magazines?” I responded, “Birds read all of their magazines online. What do you think they’re doing when they’re sitting on the phone lines?”
She gladly helped that first day, but she obviously thought about it more when she went home. She came rushing in the next day and asked, “How do the birds pay you for their stay and all the food they eat?” I laughed and responded, “They use their Frequent Flyer Miles.”
• Plant edibles in with the flowers. If you don’t have time or space for a vegetable garden, let your little ones plant carrots in the rose garden. Make sure to plant extra so that the kids can give into the temptation to pull one out early to see how it’s doing.
Raspberries by a fence are also a good kid garden option—and you can’t beat cherry tomatoes. If you’re really cramped for space, go with spices. As a child, I was always surprised that my mother could tell I had been eating chives out of her garden simply by smelling my breath.
• Give the kids their own little garden. After Princess Diana died, my then eight-year-old daughter was worried that they wouldn’t make a garden in her honor. So we put up our own garden complete with a bench and an old brick pathway. I let her put in whatever she wanted. When she had a few bald spots, she simply planted a few plastic flowers—and kept them there all winter long. Although my daughter is now in her late 20s, I still keep the Princess Di garden for my future grandchildren to enjoy.
• Turn a shady spot where nothing grows into a kid’s camp. You don’t have to build anything to make a great tree house. Letting kids tie old sheets up in the lower limbs and put a few raggedy rugs on the ground turned the ugly corner under my big pine into a wonderful hiding house. Little girls tend to make lovely little houses, while boys are more apt to build military encampments, but both have hours of fun away from the TV.
I’ve learned over the years that the little people who enjoy my yard today will most likely become good gardeners as grownups. It’s a nice way to pass on a wonderful hobby.
Oh, and what about Grandpa Adrian?
When my mother and grandmother finally arrived, I ran to meet them, crying hysterically. Hugging my grandmother’s legs, I begged for mercy. “I thought you’d never get home!” I cried. “Grandpa’s mad because he’s locked in the shed.”
I had never seen my grandmother run so fast. She threw open the shed door and stood with her hands on her hips. “I can’t believe that you cannot take care of even one grandchild!” she bellowed. “You’ve left this poor little girl out in the yard all by herself all this time?”
My mother was well beyond upset—with me. Her only comment was, “Wait until I tell your father.” This was terrifying; my father was brought in only for serious issues. I spent the rest of the day waiting anxiously for his return.
When my father finally arrived and heard what’d happened, something wonderful happened. Much to my mother’s surprise, he laughed. Realizing by the look on his wife’s face that this was not a good response, he covered his mouth with his hands and choked out, “Is he okay?” With that, my mother threw up her hands and went back into the kitchen.
It seems my father had warned Mother that leaving me with my grandfather wouldn’t be such a great idea. I had never before realized the power of being able to say I told you so.
He gave me a hug and said, “Well, I guess you won’t be left with your grandpa next week.” That was okay by me.
Anyway, I still say that it wasn’t really my fault. ❖
This article was published originally in 2015, in GreenPrints Issue #104.