Editor’s Note: This is a guest contribution as part of our Sustainability Scavenger Hunt series. Read more here, and download the fun activity book for families and classrooms!

by guest contributor Megan Minnick

Some of my earliest memories are in the garden. My mother had a huge organic vegetable garden, and from a very young age I was expected to do my part. Memories from young childhood are often in still-life, snapshots in time that stay with you forever: pulling weeds in the strawberry patch at sunset; sweating in the blazing-hot sun helping my mom pound in the stakes for the pole beans; the challenge of finding and picking sugar snap peas without eating them all along the way; the sound of the sprinkler as I fell asleep on hot summer nights.

A toddler in a green jacket stands amid clumps of dirt in the garden.

Megan’s son helping break ground on their garden plot.

I cherish these memories. My childhood in the garden has paid off in so many ways: I have an innate love of and craving for fresh healthy food. I have a hobby that’s not only a great stress reliever, but also gives nourishment to my family. And I’ve even been able to leverage the knowledge and passion that started in the garden to build a truly rewarding career in sustainable food.

Funny thing is, for much of the time I worked with my mom in the garden, I hated it. I griped about the weather, the time it took, the monotony, getting dirty. There was always a period of complaining and resisting, and then usually I just gave in and did the work that needed to be done. It was in those moments that I learned the most valuable lessons of the garden: how to push myself to get the work done, the fun that can be had with others when working together, the pleasure and pride of doing something well, and how the greatest pleasure comes from the most challenging tasks.

In my adult life, I’ve never had the space or time to cultivate the kind of garden my mother had. My gardens have ranged from tiny plots in the backyards of apartment buildings, to back porch container gardens, to community garden plots miles away from where I lived, to our current backyard garden that I squeeze in time for between my full time job and the kids’ baseball, karate, swimming, and the other myriad duties of modern family life.

Though the iterations have been many, I’ve always had some kind of a garden. Thanks to my mom, growing food is a part of me, and I can’t imagine life any other way. No matter how big, elaborate, or how much time or money you put into a garden, there is just so much joy in planting seeds and watching them grow into something that nourishes your body and delights your senses. This doesn’t change whether your yield is 500 pounds of tomatoes for canning or one single cherry tomato, savored in one moment.

As a mother myself now, it’s my turn to pass on the garden wisdom my mother gave to me. It’s rewarding to watch my children find joy in the garden—tasting, digging, planting, and playing—but I particularly relish the moments when they start complaining. This is when I get to teach them how to push past their grumbling and learn the joys of making literal fruits of their labor.

No matter where adult life takes them, I know that this garden time will serve them well.

For garden newbies, here are a few simple tips I’ve learned over the years that may help you get a successful start

  • Be realistic. It is really easy to get excited by seed catalogs and spring sunshine and plant a big garden with tons of vegetable varieties. Often, this spring ambition fades quickly as the mosquitos and heat of summer take over. Think carefully about how much time you will be able to devote to your garden, which vegetables you will realistically eat, and in what quantities. There is nothing wrong with starting small. You’ll get a much better yield (and much more enjoyment) from a small, well-tended plot than from a large garden that gets taken over by weeds or goes unwatered through a summer dry spell.
  • Don’t expect total success. I’ve gardened my entire life and have yet to have a year where everything goes exactly as I hoped. Invariably, bugs will attack something, or a hailstorm will hit, or an over-exuberant two-year-old will pick all the green tomatoes before they ripen. This is OK. Remember, especially for kids, the biggest reason for tending a garden is the experience itself, not necessarily the harvest. That’s what will stick with them their entire lives.
  • Take time to enjoy yourself! Inevitably, sometimes, gardening can start to feel like a chore. If this happens, slow down, look around you and take a few moments to simply enjoy what you have created.

Yes, kids should help, but encourage them have some fun as well. Let them get dirty, chase bugs, taste things, and play. This is a great way for them to learn about nature, and will make the work that has to be done that much easier to explain: “You know how much you loved to eat these sugar snap peas off the vine last year? Well, now it’s time to plant the seeds for this year’s peas!”

A little boy splashes in the mud while his mother gardens in the background.

Happy gardening!

Megan Minnick lives and works in Madison, Wisconsin, where she is the director of purchasing at Willy Street Grocery Co-op. She has more than 15 years’ experience in retail grocery cooperatives. She focuses on developing and maintaining relationships with local producers in order to ensure her co-op customers have access to as much fresh and local produce as possible.