“Laura, can I (we) come to your house to play?”

Our front yard garden has become a discovery playground of sorts for young neighbours and small children. From their diminutive perspective, the grass and gravel paths between beds and under trellises promise a colourful, textural, ever-changing maze of delicious discovery.

I recall experiencing a similar sense of adventure when exploring my cousins’ grandmother’s garden when I was a child.

Tiny gardeners Sophia, Jack and Dave discovering the joys of buried potato treasure, during a recent visit

My next-door neighbours Sophia, age six, and her brother Jack, age three, are frequent visitors to our gardens. They understand that the gates must stay locked so that our little veggie dog Dave doesn’t escape, and they know that while most growing things are edible, they must check-in first before tasting. They know too, about the all important two-handed harvest, requiring one hand holding the stalk or branch in place, while the other tugs gently on a cucumber, cherry tomato, bean, pea, berry, or leafy green.

Sophia has taken it upon herself to pass this knowledge along to Jack. “You must be gentle Jack, so you don’t hurt its arms or fingers,” she says, applying the same logic that informed my over-the-fence suggestion that we not break tree and bush branches for fun. For her age, Sophia is very wise, and dialled-in to the natural world. Jack is a delightful dervish still, but will scream to a halt and focus entirely, when presented with the opportunity to dig for ‘pink taytoes’ (pink potatoes) or pick ‘odge topaytoes’ (orange tomatoes) or ‘twotumbers’ (cucumbers).

Sophia demonstrating the two-handed harvest to Jack

I look forward to next summer, when Sophia and Jack’s baby sister Julia is two years old and can run around in the garden, learning it delicious secrets from her siblings.

Last summer, when Jack was two, he learned to love tomatoes in our garden. I heard from his mum, while chatting over the fence, that Jack wouldn’t eat tomatoes or many vegetables at all, until he picked his own tiny ripe Sungold tomato from a front garden bed, and popped it straight into his mouth. I remember the look on his tiny face, as he bit down and smiled, while the naturally sweet juice ran down his chin and into his boots. He was thereafter a lover of odge topaytoes, and has since learned to love pretty much anything he can harvest himself. Cucumbers are his current favourite, self-harvested or passed through holes in the fence.

Kale salad and whole Early Girl tomatoes … why not?

Sophia was a veggie lover already when she first started visiting the garden. She loves the typical so-called kid foods like carrots, tomatoes, potatoes, peas and cucumbers, and has developed an affinity for sophisticated greens and aromatics like kale, spinach, celery, and fresh herbs. She will walk around and around the herb spiral, sampling every single variety, level by level, until she is satisfied that she can identify them using all of her senses. One can almost see the neurons firing and brain mapping — more healthy eating habits in the making.

Picking Italian oregano for penne pasta, and to enjoy fresh

There is a growing body of evidence supporting the benefits of involving children in growing, harvesting, and preparing their own food. A simple online search produces hundreds of citable research results, and details of school programs aimed at exposing children to the roots of healthy eating habits and good nutrition. Organizations like Big Green, City Sprouts, and Growing Chefs have been working in schools and communities to integrate the food gardening connection into school curriculum and activities.

Meal preparation is as much fun for kids as digging potatoes and eating pasta

Children are products of their environments and experiences; they become and expect what we teach them to become and expect. If we take time with small children, to plant and water small food gardens, and then celebrate and prepare the harvest, we are investing in a better world for children, for society and for the planet.

Carefully, carefully twisting Artis Gherkin cucumbers off the vine

We take time to drive to the market to buy vegetables, yet still so many of us hesitate to take time to grow them. Convenience, immediate gratification, lack of time, lack of knowledge — all factors contributing to the dis-connect. As a mother of three grown children, I remember how busy, busy gets, and how hard it is to fit it all in. One can’t in reality, something has to go.

Wouldn’t it be something if agriculture-based extracurricular activities ascended to regional club-based, even Olympic status? Imagine a world where agrarian athletes earned millions annually in celebrity endorsement, and our value system changed from accumulation of things, to growing things. Imagine.

Veggie dog Dave stole one of Jack’s Norland potatoes, but all is forgiven

Utopian, unlikely, impossible even. Thankfully there are inspired people and organizations connecting our school-aged children to food gardening, and thankfully there is a food gardening renaissance of sorts in the works across North America. Thankfully, those of us who have a bit more time than we once did, didn’t give away the child-size garden furniture, so that we can invite tiny people into our gardens and give their busy mums and dads a break to catch their breath.

Ten days ago, Sophia and Jack came over for a picnic dinner in our garden. We had planned it the week before, agreeing to harvest and prepare everything ourselves, from scratch. We dug some Norland potatoes ahead of time, leaving them covered in dry soil, to cure for several days.

Jack and Sophia, proud of their beautiful table setting and bountiful harvest

On the day of the picnic, the children arrived to the garden, scrubbed clean and in matching summer attire. My son and his girlfriend were on hand to provide on-on-one help in the kitchen so that I could take photos without someone falling off of a stool. The menu, choice of tableware, table setting and decoration, flower arrangement, vegetable harvest and food preparation, and post-meal worm-composting were designed and executed entirely by Sophia and Jack. I boiled the potatoes and pasta, and bought the ice cream, lemon and penne noodles, but that’s it.

Completing the cycle, Sophia and Jack place cucumber peelings in an in-bed worm compost

Sophia and Jack’s Picnic Menu

Pink Potato and Cucumber Salad
mayonnaise and apple cider vinegar dressing

Dinosaur Kale, Tomato and Cucumber Salad
sesame oil and apple cider vinegar dressing

Brown Rice Penne Marinara
home-canned tomatoes and fresh-picked oregano

Coconut Milk Ice Cream Sundae
home-made strawberry and vanilla bean preserves and syrup

Bubbly Water with Mint and Lemon

The picnic was of course lovely. Our tiny iron table and chairs, rusty bits and all, were happy to be set and sat upon, and Dave was happy to vacuum the kitchen floor and bee turf as the children moved from gathering potatoes and clipping cucumbers, to carefully chopping and mixing, to digging-in with unimaginable enthusiasm and delight.

After about three action-packed hours, I walked Sophie and Jack home. They were excited to share their stories and their leftovers with mum and dad, who told me the next day that they thoroughly enjoyed it all for dinner themselves.

For me the best part of the afternoon was watching the children imagine then assemble the pieces of their ideal picnic, and then recount the doing of it with pride to their parents. My guess is that Sophia will remember major moments of the picnic for her lifetime, and Jack will remember fleeting bits and pieces. I am quite sure also, that Sophia will recreate the picnic menu or some version of it, for her parents and possibly grandparents. I hope so, anyway.

I am grateful to Sophia and Jack for their friendship, enthusiasm, and eagerness to learn about growing and preparing food.

Our late summer garden promises corn, beans, squash, melons, kohlrabi, apples, pears, leeks, all manner of root vegetables … and perhaps, more picnics.

Until next week, happy gardening!