Growing a Gardener.

It seems that every time I’ve opened the computer this summer, my fingers freeze over the keys. Part of me is in shock that the summer—or at least, those relaxed, carefree, non-school days that denote summer in our home—is almost over.

Summer blooms

I’m rather verklempt about the end of summer.

Granted, as I sit outside, typing away with sweat rolling down my back while my daughter rides, I’d definitely appreciate a bit of cool autumn air rather than the 95 degrees. You know it’s hot when the horse is sweating sheets before Kristen tacks up. Poor guy. Still, the end of July means that schedules and homework and enforced bedtimes and meetings and activities are just around the corner, seriously impeding our family bonding. I like summer. I like staying up with the family, swimming in the dark or watching movies until midnight, when Peter gives up and says, “SOME of us have to work in the morning.” I love the peace in the morning when the kids sleep in. I adore the days when we have things to do, but no set timetable to do them.

Turks and Caicos
That’s not to say that summer is idle for us. I placed a moratorium on the number of camps the kids could attend this summer, giving us more down time rather than racing from place to place in an exhausted frenzy. We’ve enjoyed an amazing vacation, along with a week of staycation, plus some impromptu adventures thrown in for good measure. I’ve traveled so much this year, experiencing fabulous gardens and gardeners and destinations, and I’ve been slowly, slowly chipping away at editing the 4500 photos lurking on my hard drive so I can share them with you. (I won’t share all 4500, I promise.) During my last stint waiting for Kristen as she rode, I made a list of all the blog posts I owe you, and as of today, that number almost reaches triple digits.

Somehow, even with a relaxed summer, the writing muse took a vacation. I’m hoping that she’ll be back soon. Sometimes, I think half the battle is to put fingers on the keyboard and just start typing. Perhaps she’ll be inspired to take over and find clever words to share with you.

Until then, I do have a few interesting stories to share.

They involve this boy:


When I began gardening in earnest more than eight years ago, trading my garden play for epic endeavors, I envisioned our garden turning into a joyful family project. We’d plant together, harvest together, and create delicious, organic family dinners grown with our sweat. Instead, our oldest son’s teenage interests did not include dirt or 90-degree temperatures. Our daughter, while an avid nature fan, quickly lost interest in the seeds and weeds as she chased caterpillars and butterflies and ponies.

But then, there was Michael.

Perhaps it was the youngest child syndrome, where I might have micromanaged the first two kids or aggressively insisted that family gardening would be fun. Perhaps it was my lack of insistence that he join me in the garden, having failed with the first two and unwilling to experience that frustration again. Or maybe, by the time our third child came along, maybe I’d relaxed a tad. Maybe, just maybe I used the garden more as my respite to escape the busy-ness of the kids’ routines, my alone time to regroup and not fight battles. I didn’t force him to join me in the garden, but I’d often find him at my side. Whatever the reason, something clicked.

Michael's 10th Birthday

For his tenth birthday, Michael asked for his own garden.

My jaw dropped. Could it be? Would I actually have a garden buddy, one that shared my genes?

Thrilled with the birthday wish, I shared my excitement with Peter, who may or not may have rolled his eyes. After all, he’s grooming Michael to be his sailing crew. As so often happens, I insisted that I’d build the raised bed for Michael, which with the fabulous M-Braces from my friends at The Art of the Garden, normally makes constructing raised beds a piece of cake.

Of course, though, nothing is easy in our garden, with its lack of sun and crazy slopes. I dug, removed stones, tried to level the red clay. To his credit, Mikey did a lot of digging in 90-degree temperatures to prep his bed.

After much attempted leveling, Peter kindly intervened to save my back.

We laid down cardboard to smother the remaining weeds, then added one third vermiculite, one third peat moss, and one third compost (mixing both mushroom compost and cow manure.) The bed was ready. Now, it was time to plant, much to Mikey’s excitement.

Michael's Garden

At first, he decided he wanted to plant a Percy Jackson garden. You know the book series, right? If not, there’s no better pleasure read for summer—Greek gods, teenage protagonists, Hades, love children of gods and mortals, danger, adventure—really, what more do you need in a summer book?

Michael began making a list of plants for his garden inspired by Percy Jackson and Greek gods, like olives and grapes.

Immediately, my Master Gardener, know-it-all self started explaining how those wouldn’t work in South Carolina, how we needed to look for more practical plantings, blah, blah, blah.

He looked at his list with disappointment, and I saw my garden buddy slipping away.

In that moment, I swore to revoke my Master Gardener mentality.

It was time to play again in the garden.

Michael's Garden

It’s not an easy task. I’ve spent years reading, learning, trialing plants, growing from seed. I’ve battled bugs and conquered clay. It’s become my profession, with people relying on my experience to help them garden correctly.

But how many times have I also made mistakes in the garden? How many times did I pooh-pooh a hardiness zone and plant a coveted perennial anyway, just to see if I could make it work? How many times have I forsaken the amount of needed sunlight in our shade garden, trying to eek out a bloom or two on a rose?

I’ve made plenty of mistakes in the garden. But by squashing Michael’s ideas and enthusiasm, I was about to make the biggest mistake.

So, in an effort to grow his gardening passion, I made mental notes of how to help my gardener without burying his enthusiasm:

Listen, don’t lecture.
When Michael wanted to grow a garden based on Greek mythology, I was quick to point out what wouldn’t work in our zone. Olive trees? Forget it. Grapes? Muscadines, maybe, but the seedless grapes he loves would succumb to disease in our heat and humidity.

Michael's Garden

I listened to myself lecturing about why certain plants wouldn’t work, and then I stopped. What the heck? How many times have I planted something that shouldn’t work in the garden, just for the sheer fun of trying? Sometimes plants die—but sometimes, they don’t, and it feels like such a victory when I’ve pushed the envelope and grown something that shouldn’t work.

We added three grapevines to the garden bed. (I explained to him that I’ve already been growing an olive tree in a container for several years and have to put it in the greenhouse when it’s cold, so we didn’t add an olive tree.)

Support, don’t direct.
Michael created a very specific list of plants he wanted to grow in the garden. Some he based on the mythology theme, but others he added to the plan later. Originally, he wanted the grape vines to cross diagonally through the raised bed, thinking it would look “cool.” We talked a little bit about the other plants he wanted to grow—sun loving perennials and a blackberry bush, and I mentioned that as the grapevines grew, they’d cast a lot of shade on the bed—and he might need to find shade plants instead.

Michael's Garden

I tried to help him think about what his raised bed might look like in a few years, so that he could plan what he wanted to grow. He opted to place the grapevines in the back so he could still plant pollinator plants that love sun. As his gardener mom, it would have been easy to tell him to move the grape vines to the back, but instead I tried to give him information to make sure the decision was his own.

Assist, don’t micromanage.
One of the best parts of planning and planting the garden with Michael was watching him design the garden on paper—and then follow his design to a T. Grapevines in the back, blackberry bush front and center, pollinator perennials in the middle, an elusive red foxglove dead center in the bed—and then seeds for sunflowers and nasturtium. It was adorable. We went to three IGCs in search of the elusive red foxglove to no avail, so he placed an upside-down nursery pot in the center of the bed as a placeholder until he could find the foxglove of his dreams.

This is a seriously determined kid. He knows what he wants.

Michael's seeds

What was particularly funny was watching him plant the seeds. He decided that he needed six red sunflowers, three on either side of the foxglove. Not five, not eight—six. So, Michael planted three seeds, perfectly spaced, on either side on the foxglove. Now, we all know that had I planted those seeds, I would have crammed far too many seeds into that space, “just in case” some didn’t germinate. I even found myself saying, “Why don’t you plant a few extras, just in case a squirrel eats a seed or two?” His response? “I can always plant more later if that happens.”


Six red sunflower seeds perfectly germinated and are now three feet tall in his garden.

Be the staff, not the director.
This was probably the toughest task for me. I let my son boss me around in his garden. I don’t like being told what to do—just ask Peter—but I let Mikey direct the garden tasks while I became a silent-ish pair of hands. It wasn’t in an obnoxious way. In fact, it was pretty cute, which is why Michael got away with it. When I tried to add a few more nasturtium seeds to the border of the raised bed, Michael informed me that I was planting too many, and he only wanted six on each of the long sides and four on the short sides. When I mentioned adding some daisies to the bed, he let me know that he didn’t want to mess up his color scheme. As we worked together, planting seeds or loosening plants from their nursery pots, his confidence in the garden surprised me.

Like a really good boss, it was as pleasure to work for him.

Michael's Garden

Celebrate the victories, review the misfortunes.
A very happy garden boy ate the first blackberry from his garden and enjoyed the handful of grapes produced by the vines. When he questioned why I bought blackberries at the farmers’ market when he had a bush in his garden, I reminded him that it was a young bush, and for the first year or two, the harvest would be small—just like with my blueberry bushes. This year, though, our freezer is filled with blueberries, which gave him hope for his garden. When the bee balm stopped blooming and withered, we talked about how tough it is for perennials to settle in when planted in the summer—and how it might still rally with a bit of TLC. We cursed the Japanese beetles together, picking them off the grape vines and throwing them into the bucket of water with glee. We made a game to see who could round up the most of those jerks to feed to the chickens.

And we talked about what he might want to add to the garden. We sorted through boxes of my seeds, finding perennials to start in the greenhouse that he could plant in his garden next year and flipping through bulb catalogs for inspiration.

Michael's Garden

It’s such a pleasure to have someone in the house who shares my love of seeds and bulbs…finally! Keeping my mouth semi-shut while Michael established his first garden was worth it.

Not long after Michael planted his garden, he announced that he’s no longer eating meat.

Considering that it’s a consummate battle to feed him vegetables, I’m not sure how this will play out. Was he inspired by the garden? I don’t think so. More than anything, he loves animals. I didn’t worry much about his new found vegetarianism at first, thinking it was a whim that would last a week.

He hasn’t eaten meat in a month.

Now, I’m testing recipes, keeping logs of his daily protein intake, monitoring his eating to ensure that he’s not filling his belly only with chips. To his credit, he’s trying many new foods that he’d previously shunned.

But we’re not in the comfort zone yet. The child would happily become a breadavore if I’d allow it.

So, my friends, I need your help! What are your favorite vegetable dishes? Do you have a Pinterest board or blog posts with vegetarian recipes? Please share a link in the comments—I would be incredibly grateful!

My gardener/vegetarian/animal lover is currently preoccupied with his saxophone that we’ve just acquired. I’ve always been an orchestra mom—both Tyler and Kristen played violin—but now, I’m entering an entirely new world of becoming a band mom. Why saxophone, you ask? Because he wants to play the song in Star Wars—you know the one, where all the aliens are in the bar? Yes. That’s why he chose sax.

That Michael. He’s full of surprises.

Wish me luck.

Stay cool, and happy gardening!



P.S. Full confession: while Michael did request a garden for his birthday, he also asked for a Playstation. (He got both.) He is, after all, a 10-year-old boy. It could be construed that one of those gifts was really a present for me. You’d be right. I got a garden buddy!