Saturday, January 23, 2010

Gardening with Baby

I wrote this over three years ago - my baby girl is now four-and-a-half. But I like the essay so I thought I'd post it here for all you gardening mamas.

Though the days still float warm and sunny, the nights are cooling. Last week I consolidated some potted basil plants into one pot and brought them inside to over winter. I then let my twelve-month-old daughter go at it with the now plant-free pot I left outside, still half full of potting soil. This dark fluffy soil was more exciting to her than the chocolate cupcake we shared on her first birthday. She plopped both hands into the soil with a joyful yell: Dirt! Dirt all for me! I continued cleaning up the fall beds, weeding and mulching the kale, leeks, and radishes. When I turned to check on her, I found my daughter happily sitting in the fourteen-inch pot, dirt sprinkled atop her fuzzy head.

My little sprout loves the garden as much as I. We spend hours working and playing together outside, though frequently our goals conflict some. I would prefer my tomatoes to ripen, for instance, while one of her favorite pastimes is to sit next to the jungle of tomatillos and tomatoes, picking green fruits. She takes one bite, chatters at the hard orb like a squirrel, and tosses it into the mulch. This could go on for hours, I suspect. To save a few tomatoes, I relocate her to a shady patch of grass with some plastic pots to play with. She is happy for a while, but after not too long I see her monkey-crawling on hands and feet over to the pumpkin vine, where she likes to pat and scratch at the beautiful orange globe. Or sitting in the middle of the lettuce patch, babbling away and harvesting very baby carrots. Or perhaps plucking the irresistibly bright red heads off the geraniums.

With her help, the hoard of squirrels who share this land with us, and the short high-altitude season, I have not harvested quite as much this year from the garden as I would have liked. We have lived in this house just over a year, and the yard had been sorely neglected before we came, so I have worked hard to improve soil fertility and keep noxious weeds at bay. Every zucchini and carrot that makes it to maturity is worth a celebration; I got none of the strawberries, and out of six vines, only one pumpkin. In truth, though, I don’t mind. It has been a year of growing things other than food, including patience, a child who loves the earth, and a garden of exploration and discovery.

Many have said I was crazy to take on so much in the garden while learning to be a new mom, while caring for a babe. The garden, though, has kept me sane. When I don’t have soil to sink my hands into and a compost pile to tend, that is when I feel a little crazy. And it is here in the garden that my daughter seems to be happiest as well. She does not yet understand the connection between the plants and our food, but she knows the power of the land. When she was a week old, I removed her swaddle and tiny onesie and laid her on the grass. She relaxed into the Earth in the same way she would mold herself to my own body.

Now, a year later, she is almost walking. I ask her if she wants to go outside, and she speed crawls for the back door with a yelp of delight. I used to have to fish grass and wood chips out of her mouth. Then I had to make sure the tomatoes she picked were too large to pose a choking hazard. Gradually I have been able to let her play by herself for ten minutes or more at a time, always keeping an eye on her while I do other garden tasks. It has meant, though, letting go. I’ve had to let go of the baby pumpkin she picked early, and of her clean clothes when she scaled the compost pile. To release the idea of a perfect urban garden, because I have chosen to stay home with her rather than work, and money is scarce. I’ve had to let go, too, of always being busy or productive, and have taken time to just sit and watch her sweet little self as she dumps dirt or mulch over her head with a toothy grin. So while she chomps on green fruit and uproots flowers, I am happy, for she will be my baby only once, and I am growing a child who loves the Earth. To me, there is no greater harvest.

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