The Agony and the Ecstasy of Gardening with Children

My greenhouse had gotten away from me. Weeds were threadening to overtake the tomates. Slugs had overtaken the cucumbers and basil, both of which needed a replant.

And so I embarked on a clean-up effort. Out came the mini handheld hoe and the red plastic mulch. Somewhere along the way I decided to redo the greenhouse bed borders with some cinderblock I had lying around. This meant moving and leveling soil and reworking the sad, one-size-doesn’t-fit-all irrigation system into something more appropriate for the new layout.

I’m 5’10” and the peak height of my greenhouse is approximately 5-foot-10-and-an-eighth-inches tall. Working on the side-beds, digging under the sloping roof, requires some extreme hunched-back bending over on my part.

It is four thousand degrees inside the greenhouse. I am, naturally, still wearing the sweats I slept in and sweat is rolling in great torrents into my eyes and down my back. For good measure I have gotten about a cubic foot of gritty garden soil down my bra and with every twist and turn it abrades off another thin layer of my nipples.

Picture my sore, stooped back as I squat-tuck in a decidedly non-ergonomic posture while hoisting cinder-blocks into position around tomato plants and balancing precariously so that I don’t stumble and – horror of horrors – end up stepping into my garden bed and crushing something. Cat-like, I am balanced, placing ciderblocks like I’m a reject from a failed Cirque du Soileil.

It is at this moment that my son, a 35-pound-atomic-fireball of speed and never ending energy, runs down the short walkway of the greenhouse, leaps, and hurls himself onto my back. His little monkey arms close around my neck, his little legs seek to curl around my flank and scramble for purchase, knees crashing into my kidneys.

“I gotchoo mama!” he yells, thrilled with the wild, bucking piggie-back ride that ensues for a few terrifying seconds as I simultaneously hurl parts of my body in opposing directions in an effort to not fall teeth-first into a stack of concrete blocks. One hand goes out to break my fall. The other has wrapped behind me and is pulling my son against me so that he won’t be thrown to the floor should I topple.

There is a sickening crunch. I’m not sure my left kneecap will ever be the same.

Oliver giggles with delight and drops lightly to the ground. “I’m gonna getchoo again mama.”


He is quiet. That’s usually a bad thing. I’m finally getting some work done on this cinder block border and I tell myself whatever he is yanking up, whatever newly-seeded bed he has opted to dig in, it is worth it to let him do his thing if I can just get this greenhouse done.

But he’s too quiet. When I can’t hear him I worry. When he wants to he can move like a panther, silent and swift, and in two seconds he can be out the front gate and in the street while I’m left spinning around, mistakenly thinking he is still right next to me.

I bound to the greenhouse door, eyes scanning for his little blonde head in the distance.


He is right there, waiting for me, looking up.

“Mama, come see! Come see mama what I found!” He is holding out his hand for mine, expectantly. “I found beeeee-uful fwowers, mama! Dey red ones! Dey RED ones!”

Red is his favorite color.

He leads me to a raised bed only a few feet away and sure enough several of the self-seeded nasturtium clumps are blooming a rich maroon. He half-hops, half-climbs up onto the edge of the raised bed and scooches his little butt along the edge until he is sitting right next to the clump of red flowers.

He reaches down, grabs a bloom in his strong, small fist and pulls.

I think how this must look from his height, not so much taller than the raised beds. Huge swaths of billowing plants everywhere and overhead. One day a plant is green and dull, the next day it has bright red flowers. Like magic.

It is all a jungle to be explored in his eyes. There is no differentiation between crops and weeds, no judgement as to what needs tidying up or isn’t growing well, no sense of failure if the broccoli buttons or the lettuce bolts. When he is hungry he grabs strawberries and cherries and peas. He started harvesting raspberries when he was nine months old. He thinks all omelets have chives in them and he is the official chive picker.

Fist held up and out, a mashed single-bloom bouquet held out just for me.

“I got you a fwower. A red one, mama!”

Nasturtiums have never looked so beautiful to me.


  1. Cathy Smith says

    Wonderful, enjoy these moments, my dear. You brought back memories of my oldest (now pushing 40 the hard way) bringing me in a handful of tulips. The flower part only, he had denuded every blooming tulip in the bed. But it was such a wonderful gift and the tulips came back next year. Thanks for the reminder. ^-^

  2. Jodi says

    How absolutely delightful. Thank you for sharing this precious story so beautifully, Dear. Our children are grown and gone now, but I look forward to the days ahead when my grandchildren will visit in my garden and help me pluck nasturtiums (red ones, of course!), eat strawberries and peas, and delight in every new sight, smell, and sound. <3 :-)

  3. Marilyn T says

    Erica, is such a joy to read your stories! You had me giggling through tears on this one. Thank you for the powerful reminder of years gardening with the children. Our four all enjoy growing things, something I am intensely pleased about. Now we are starting to garden again with the grandkids…
    (Hope your knee is ok…!)

  4. says

    Love these stories!

    Are there basketballs and soccer balls growing in your garden? Those thrive in mine (whereas other plants tend to mysteriously get crushed).

  5. says

    Wonderful!! (And yea gads! So glad I’m not the only one!!) Dearest Munchkin loves to help me weed but, by her magical toddler abilities, will only pull the NON-weed plants. I’m fairly certain after two seasons she has yet to pull an actual weed.

    Oh well, it gives me an excuse to go to the nursery and buy more, or plant more seeds (something she loves to do.) She is banned from the tomato patch though. I’ll sacrifice everything else to further her love of gardening, but not the tomatoes.

  6. says


    Very vivid. The highlight of my day is getting mobbed by two little girls everyday – a 5-year old and 18-month old. LOVED working with them in our garden, and they did the most hilarious stuff. But – yeah, it does sort of double the work.

  7. Bruce says

    Thank you, thank you, thank you, for enjoying your kids more than the flowers, the other plants, you plans (and maybe your knee cap)! I am so grateful that you can keep your priorities straight.

    Having raised 12 children who are off on their own adventures of family and work and school, I miss having them around to get in the way, to divert my attention from those oh-so-important tasks, and to generally stir stuff up.

    Thank goodness for grandkids!!

  8. Carla says

    Loved this post. It just summed up everything I love about seeing the world through my son’s eyes. It makes me so excited to be out gardening with my hell-on-wheels 19-month old boy this summer!

  9. joannamusician says

    I feel for your kneecap. I used to babysit my 3yr old niece whose mother lives in an apartment, works and goes to school full-time. After my niece adjusted to having an entire backyard to run around in, she would try to help me in the garden and get constantly underfoot, pull up things I just planted, try to give me bouquets of weeds, sniff all the leaves, try to dig and plant her own “garden”… ‘sigh’. We would both wind up exhausted and ready for a mid-afternoon nap: me in the bed, her in the dog bed with the dog! There’s something magical about installing the love of gardening in a child so young….

  10. kelly beth says

    love the story. my little girl is nurse napping in my lap right now. she isn’t old enough to even stand yet, but i can only imagine what she will want to do when she gets into our garden. she’s already eaten her share of dandelion seed heads and likes to lick the mint and basil when i get her close enough to sniff.

  11. dixiebelle says

    And people complain about your swearing… I think talking about your nipples is far worse. I am having visuals that I may never get out of my head. Please use as many fucks & motherfuckers as you like, but please, please, no more nipples!!!

    ;) (I’ll always be reading, Erica, even if you nipples made a daily appearance!)

  12. Jason says

    I have a pair of 3-year-old boy/girl twins, and gardening with them is a lesson in patience. The tomatoes would have been uprooted already if I hadn’t named each plant and told the kids it was their duty to guard them from monsters. They squabble over who gets to use the hose next and I constantly have to remind them to be a rain cloud and not a fire-fighter. My son insists that all strawberries should be picked — even the white ones — and my daughter likes to pretend she’s Gojira destroying downtown Tokyo as she stomps through the bush beans, roaring and throwing pine cones.

    …And I love every second of it.

  13. Michelle says

    I can relate with ALL the nuances of this tale. Especially the part where you are gardening in your pjs and sweating up a storm. We should know better stepping outside thinking “oh, I’ll just pull a COUPLE of weeds this morning,” while still wiping the sleep from our eyes. Three hours later…

    Love your blog. Keep it comin!

  14. Not Evelyn says

    My back aches just thinking about your lifting cement blocks– especially because you had to bend over to get them into position. If possible, please try to squat when you lift them so that you don’t end up with a bad back like I did.

  15. says

    I always thought gardening with Taj would be so great. I’m certified in agroecology, which involved living in a tent on an organic farm for 7 months and learning how to do it right. I believe in kids knowing how to grow their own food.

    So when Taj was about 2 years old, we got a bed at the community garden. I was expecting the joy of showing him how to dig the dirt, moving it aside and gently placing a plant in the earth. Then patting it gently and watering it. (now I think of that image and I kinda puke a little)

    Instead I spend half the time yelling at him. Don’t pull that plant. Leave that alone. And the very worst… SOIL COMPACTION!!! Get out of the bed! (said with the shame finger pointing. my dad taught me well) BUZZKILL MOM. I can’t tell you what a bitch I was.

    In the end, we brought his dump truck, and he was allowed to play outside the bed and we would fill his truck up with weeds and soil clumps. And I still yell sometimes.

    I asked him after reading this what he thinks of gardening:
    Taj: Remember that snake that shed its skin?

    Gwen: In our garden?

    T: Yea, mama. It shed its skin in our garden. It was a garden snake. King Cobras shed their skin in gardens, too. They are poisonous, and if you leave them alone, then they like you.

    G: What else do you like about the garden?

    T: Maybe there was a garden eel in our garden.

    G: I think that garden eels live in the ocean.

    T: No, garden eels peek out of the sand in our garden. I think they live in the ocean and peek out of the dirt in our garden.

    G: Do you like any of the vegetables we grow?

    T: Yea.

    G: What kind?

    T: Fruit. Vegetables.

    G: Like what?

    T: Salad and fruit.

    G: Ok.

    I have to say, for all the evil I did yelling at him, he really likes dirt. And he did learn to eat vegetables that year. He’d pick off the sungold tomatoes, eat carrots right out of the ground (organic dirt. whatever), and pick a long japanese cucumber and start in on one end. That was the year of an epic amount of cucumbers and tomatoes. We made salsa and pickles for everyone and delivered Christmas presents in September.

    I wish, though, that I could have spent less time making sure it was right, and more time letting him explore our bed and the plants therein. I don’t think he feels very welcome, and that’s what I was going for. Parenting is funny.

    • Samantha M says

      There’s always another season to plant. Give it another go. You might not have harvested much in the way of food, but you certainly harvested some fun memories that last so much longer.

  16. says

    Just have to tell you that you have a new fan!
    I’ve just moved to Bellingham from Texas, and I’m learning a whole new way of gardening, raising chickens and children. All of your posts are wonderful!

  17. says

    So vivid! The child on your back “gotcha mama” is such a familiar scene. Sometimes fun and full of laughter, other times resulting in banged knees or worse. Not to mention the strangling!
    And the crushed stemless flowers – such a precious gift or love and joy from an innocent. Not that I *always* am able to see it that way, but usually ;)

  18. says

    Your stories remind me of when my son was small like that and I had decided to start a small veggie patch. It was a lot of work as I had to hand dig the whole thing. I finally had my plants in place, among them a dozen tomato plants. They started to grow and every day we would go down and look. I also had another baby or two by then as I had the last three in less than three years. I turned my back to do something and Sean beheaded every single tomato plant. They were ruined! I stopped trying to do a vegetable garden until my youngest was 4. Now they have great respect for the veggie plot, but when they were really young, I couldn’t handle it all. It is such a wonderful experience for young ones, though!

  19. Lisa Cotter says

    Had me giggling and reminiscing at the same time. I never gardened with my children & now since I started gardening this year, they are grown and pretty much out of the house. Although your story brought back memories when my dad would put my oldest son, at the age of 9 months old, in the little red wagon with a 5 gallon bucket sitting behind him. Dad would drag the wagon down to the garden. About an hour later they’d come meandering up the hill, Josh happily chomping on a fresh cucumber, while my mom would have a fit that it had dirt on it. Dad would say, ” What do you think he ate while he was down there?”


Leave a Reply to Kirsten McCulloch Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>