By Selena MillsUpdated Jun 22, 2022
Photo: Courtesy of Isaac Murdoch
Dirt, grime and sweat. While some aspects of gardening can be a turnoff, getting outside offers so much more. No matter how much space you have, starting small and learning together as a family can make for mud-, water- and sun-soaked fun. (Plus, it provides a welcome break from technology and the stresses of modern life.)
How do I know this? I’ve experimented with my own family. We’ve grown everything from a few heirloom tomatoes and salad greens in pots on the patio to zucchinis as big as my arm in our raised front-yard garden beds.
It’s been so rewarding to tap into ancestral ways. And when I say ancestral ways, I’m talking from an Indigenous perspective. As a mom who didn’t grow up with Indigenous kinship practices, the connection to my roots has been quite literal—I’ve always been drawn to connecting with the Earth and growing plants. Learning about Indigenous land-based practices when it comes to gardening and permaculture has transformed mundane, laborious tasks—germinating, weeding and watering—into a joyful, metaphysical connection. When I garden, I’m connecting myself to the land with a real and authentic love, allowing her to teach me. And this makes gardening far less of a chore—it’s more about self-care and nurturing myself and my family from the inside out.
I want to pass on these deep feelings of respect for the land to my kids. And we’re finally at a stage where gardening throughout the seasons can be a family affair. Gardening is hard work, however, and adding weeding and watering to the kids’ list of chores definitely contributes to, shall we say, some good old-fashioned growing pains. And I get it! Being a kid is tough. But it’s not my job to make everything magical for them. The value of hard work is a characteristic I fully plan on sprouting within them, too. It’s equally important to me that my kids grow up learning the medicinal properties of plants; I want them to gain an appreciation for food and where it comes from, as well as understand how growing our own food can affect our physical, mental and emotional health in positive ways.
Over the years, we’ve slowly added more and more mixed vegetable and perennial beds to our small space of land around our home, and while it hasn’t been easy, we’ve grown and learned together as a family. It’s not too hard to make things fun, either. Here are some things that have worked for us.
This year, we started to dream up our gardens in the thick of winter. Since we’re big on companion planting and mixing perennials with vegetables, we have some fun researching and drawing things out while keeping our budget in mind. We pull out markers, pencil crayons, sketchbooks and watercolour pads and start imagining. What gets created doesn’t necessarily reflect everything that gets germinated or planted (or split and transplanted in the case of larger perennials). Starting early this way with kids really helps build up the excitement to temper the tough work of spring cleanup.
I’ve recently discovered the kid-worthy allure of morning and after-school charts, where my kids check off each to-do item. We swap them out seasonally, so as soon as we start our seeds indoors, I add on garden chores. They each have a flat of seedlings they are responsible for, and after planting, they rotate days they’re in charge of watering and weeding the beds outside. I realize the lustre of these charts may wear off as they get older, but for now I’m running with it. And to go along with all the structured data management, I make sure there are ample opportunities for unstructured play or “breaking the rules.” After a back-breaking round of weeding, there’s little more joy to be found than jumping in a pile of rich, dark, damp soil and mucking about in it. This is a good time to haul out the hose and let things get muddy.
I’m all about turning things into a game, and gardening provides a rich assortment of such opportunities. If you haven’t heard of playing checkers with your garden before, all it means is splitting overgrown perennials to spread out into other areas of your garden. We usually do this in June and let the kids discern what can get moved and where. They love the freedom of getting to make these decisions—sometimes with a little extra guidance, of course, but I’m learning to give up control a little more each gardening season.
For many First Nations, Métis and Inuit parents, gardening represents a resurgence of who we are on the land, in that we are relatives of the land. This connection is woven into our cultural fabric through beautiful songs, dances, legends and stories about the vegetables we plant.
“We believe the legends and the stories are very important for child development,” says Isaac Murdoch, a traditional Anishinaabe storyteller and co-founder of Nimkii Aazhibikong and Onaman Collective. “These plants have spirits and they help our people—there is a very spiritual connection. The plants are in the ground, and that’s where our ancestors are buried, and we’re receiving knowledge when we eat what we grow. We teach our children this, and they are fascinated about the customs of gardening.” Murdoch incorporates Anishinaabemowin language games into the more laborious and repetitive tasks, a hands-on way to get (and keep!) their hands in the dirt. “How we groom them for the adult world is through the hard work of gardening. It prepares them to become loving and nurturing humans.”
Perhaps what Isaac loves most about gardening is seeing his daughter’s fascination with watching the changes. “I’m watching my daughter grow with the plants, and it’s such an exhilarating feeling! We sing songs to the seeds as we plant about how very sacred and special they are,” he says. “Children have this inherent love for the Earth. As much as I think I’m a teacher to my daughter, it’s the other way around.”
At the end of the day, gardening isn’t always sunshine, rainbows and Instagram-worthy shots of big, juicy, vine-ripened heirloom tomatoes and children gleefully frolicking through iridescent jets of a sprinkler. But at least we still own one (a sprinkler), our kids are getting dirty on the regular, and they’re developing an appreciation for hard work. It’s so important to maintain our connection to our first mother (the Earth) and the incredible bounty she yields if you respectfully, lovingly and diligently work with her as a team. In this age of prefab convenience foods, quantity over quality and the glorification of tech, it’s remarkably fulfilling to watch my children reap the benefits of their own hard work with pride that stretches beyond the abundance of a seasonal harvest.
A multidisciplinary creative professional and artisan, Selena Mills has more than 10 years of experience writing and editing for acclaimed publications, B2B and NFP content creation, social management, brand building, design and VA services. Passionate about elevating Indigenous, First Nation, Métis and Inuit stories, perspectives and voices in digital media, she strives to build bridges renegade-style.