Tom Sawyering: Kids in the Garden


We gardeners have an unfair reputation as wholesome and honest. Upstanding citizens even.


Lies, I tell you. Lies!

When it comes to slugs or horn worms, many of us are downright vicious. And believe it or not, we aren’t always truthful…especially when it comes to discussing last year’s harvest–(it was epic. Thanks for asking…). Or coaxing work out of the mini apprentice gardeners who live rent free in our homes.

Now don’t get me wrong, when my Snow White or Sungold cherry tomatoes are ripe, my kids love to help in the garden. Or more correctly, the older one does. This will be the first summer when my son really has any opportunity to “help.” But if he is anything like his sister, he will help me pick bucketfuls of cherry tomatoes beginning in mid-July. Some of them might even make it into the bucket rather than onto his shirt and down his gullet.

But sometimes–I’m the only eager gardener at the house.

Actual conversation between me and Daughter Mine (DM):

Me: Hey kiddo—you want to help me in the garden?

DM: No. I want to sit here on the floor.

Me: You could help me pull weeds!

DM: I’m going to go play with my dollhouse. Bye Daddy.

So you see—even with motivational skills as well, skilled as the above, kids don’t always want to drop whatever they are doing (or not doing as the case may be) to help in the garden. Now, maybe I was a dumber kid, because I seem to recall that “no” was never a particularly realistic option in the above scenario in my childhood. Whatever. Every parent wants their kid to be smarter than they are. Eventually, of course.

At any rate, in an effort to get the kids outside and working in the garden, sometimes a little deception is warranted. Ok—total deception.

I like to call it “Tom Sawyering” after Mark Twain’s heroic lad who conned his friends into whitewashing a fence.  Last summer, when my daughter had just turned four, I initially tried to make weeding sound fun.

It’s great–you can pull on the plants and they come right out! Right out! Watch Daddy! Watch! No, look over here! Hey!

And nothing.

So then I thought of Mr. Clemens and tried again.

Me: Kiddo–you want to help me weed a little bit? Oh wait, no, never mind I can’t let you do that.

DM: Why can’t I help?

Me: It’s a grownup thing. You have to be a grownup to pull weeds. Sorry.

DM: I want to help!

Boom. And it was glorious. A glorious ten minutes, but still.  And it only worked once.

This summer, my tomato beds are overrun with nutgrass. This is despite my best efforts at prevention, like mulching and drip irrigation so only the ‘maters get water. And still nutgrass is everywhere.

If you can’t tell, I hate nutgrass.

But I love my daughter. And I love spending time with my daughter, especially in the garden.

And I love how her little hands are so perfectly suited to pulling said nutgrass out of the ground. Really, another win-win situation began to take root here. Time with kid and less weeding for me. And maybe even for longer than ten minutes. Could Tom Sayering work again? Maybe…

So I asked her if she wanted to help Daddy weed and got the usual response:

DM: No

The next day, however, I asked if she wanted to help me harvest nutgrass. I said it looked like the nutgrass harvest was going to be EPIC this year. And we needed to get as much as we could because the city was collecting it in our green waste bin.

She agreed. She was great. And her little hands did their job exactly as I’d envisioned it.

It was a glorious fifteen minutes. Tom Sawyer would be proud.



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