Jun 11 2017

Uncanny Similarities between Parenting and Gardening

Daily life is frequently driven by our imaginings of present bliss and future success. As a gardener, I’m motivated to improve upon last year’s incarnation of growth, ideally assimilating lessons on how to grow healthier plants, deter pests of all shapes and sizes, and fill my harvest baskets (read: kitchen bowls) with a plethora of bright and nutritious food.

The dreamy musings of one’s future garden are part of the allure of gardening; the fact that one can plan a spreadsheet garden, miraculously free from hail, slugs, and blight, makes the whole endeavor appear wildly enjoyable. In the planning stages, a garden can be anything! Rows upon rows of delicate lettuces, unmarred by pill bugs. Perfectly trellised tomatoes, the plump fruit picked at the peak moment of flavor. Raised beds filled to the brim with a variety of vegetables and flowers, attracting pollinators and humans alike with their intoxicating beauty.

When the planning stage shifts from future dreams to present reality, it’s easy to imagine the easy joy of daily garden tasks. Harvesting dew-covered broccoli on a cool morning. Tucking row cover around kale seedlings to protect the perfect specimens you grew from seed. Lovingly snipping lettuces and plucking peas. And of course, as you peruse your garden, each plant that you’ve grown from seed is both healthy and planted exactly where your spreadsheet garden plan said it would be.

If only.

I am helpless to predict the craziness of a real garden, no matter the amount of research I undertake each season. Each year that I’m a gardener, I’m learning to embrace this concept, but have found my new identity as “mom” has accelerated this realization.

Taking care of a baby and taking care of a garden overlap with a shocking number of similarities.

There’s the research stage: what seeds should I order? How and when do I plant them? What happens when they grow? For a baby, similar questions abound: what kind of diapers should I buy? How do I swaddle a baby? When does a baby sleep and eat? (A quick answer to the last: whenever he wants to, of course!).

There’s the waiting stage: Thoughts of anticipation to start the first seeds, waiting to see how many germinate and then how they survive transplant. Waiting for the vegetables to get big enough to harvest. Waiting to see if they’ll thrive or succumb to a pest. For a baby, one waits to go into labor, waits to formally meet this new family member, waits for developmental milestones like rolling over and sitting up, and – most happily – waits (and ideally receives) award winning smiles and laughs.

Then there’s the most common stage of gardening and most of parenting, “the present”. This is when one’s research and planning have ideally laid the groundwork to problem solve and pivot when necessary. It’s also the period of repetitive “grunt work". For gardening, I’m referring to weeding, monitoring, the quick mental math of when you should harvest one crop to make room for another. The present is for spreading of compost and the observation of wilted or crispy leaves or plants that never flower and fruit. For parenting, the present encapsulates the hours of breastfeeding your baby, the learning of which cry means what. The diaper changes, tummy time, songs, fevers, and cuddles.

Finally, for both a garden and a baby, there’s the assessment and action stage, both in the moment and long-term. For example: I will add potassium to this bed because the plants’ leaves look yellow and crispy. I need to cover this bed with row cover because the eggplant are being attacked. At the end of the season: what was my biggest victory? What can be improved? In the parenting realm, I need to carry my son upright because he seems uncomfortable when being laid on his back. I need to make that silly noise again because he giggles every time I make it. He seems cranky in the morning, so I need to make sure I offer him milk.

These stages of research, waiting, being present, and assessing and acting are not linear. In fact, on a small scale, they happen simultaneously nearly every day. Ultimately, for both my garden and my baby, the best I can do is set up the most nurturing environment and be prepared to adapt when necessary, learning the entire time.

Last year’s garden taught me several lessons, all of which I’m attempting to implement this year. Last summer didn’t feature heat of any nature until mid August. While it was nice to not be constantly sweating, especially when pregnant, it did mean that the heat-seeking melons, tomatoes, peppers, and even butternut squash were severely effected. We did end up harvesting many tomatoes by late August, but I composted numerous green tomatoes at the end of the season. The melons all set copious amounts of green fruit, leaving me pained by the idea that we could have had tens upon tens of cantaloupe to eat. The peppers did absolutely nothing, a fact that was partially weather related and partially because they were grown in pots. And unlike the previous year’s butternut squash haul of 20 squash, I harvested a measly 2, along with a bunch of green fruit.

In my end of the season assessment, and subsequent research, I vowed to set up a more productive environment for this season. Here’s what we’re doing differently this year:

  1. We bought and set up an inexpensive greenhouse for heartier, healthier transplants. The previous seasons I’ve started and grown all of my starts under grow lights. This is certainly better than a windowsill, but I never had starts with the root structure I desired, and growing plants under grow lights in our shed didn’t provide the consistent heat I sought and they need.
  2. Start, and then plant, these crops sooner than last year. With the exception of the delicata squash, all of the green-fruited vegetables of last year are in the beds 3-4 weeks earlier this season. The delicata squash is a thorn in my side—they’re slotted for the front bed that currently contains potatoes and I’m waiting for the potatoes to flower. I may have to switch gears and put the squash in pots or in a different bed (or I’ll end up with more green squash this Fall!).
  3. Use landscape fabric for these heat loving crops: eggplants, melons, peppers have all been planted into a bed of reusable black landscape fabric, designed to warm up the soil. They’re also currently covered by row cover, both to deter pests until pollination, and to offer even more warmth.
  4. Fertilize more frequently, especially the pots. I neglected fertilizing my pots last year, which resulted in incredibly stunted, tiny peppers, and most likely contributed to the delay of the tomatoes setting fruit.