Should we teach our children about nature?

As grows the garden, so grows the child.

by Don Trotter

ello fellow Earthlings and welcome to the garden. In our ongoing attempt to bring nature back into your gardens, we have not really touched on one of the most important reasons: why natural, organic gardening is so smart. Our children and the children of our communities, regardless of their socioeconomic background, really deserve to know as much as we can teach them about how nature works. The obvious classroom for this knowledge is the garden. Let's take a walk and discuss some of the ways we can increase awareness of the natural world for our kids.

As our society continues to sprawl into the open spaces that once surrounded our communities, we are continuing to lose precious native areas that once allowed us to take our families on hiking trips or picnics. These spaces continue to shrink and our choices for immersing our children's inherent curiosity in a natural place are getting fewer by the week. This is where the home garden, parks, or community/botanical gardens come in very handy.

Consider the amazing questions your children will ask you while they ponder the relationship between the soil and a plant or why certain bugs eat plants while other bugs eat them. This is something that we gardeners' can teach without having to resort to long trips that are excruciatingly boring to kids. There is a classroom right outside the back door. Just the opportunities to increase the vocabulary of our children to include such words as environment, or to give them an opportunity to make their own sense out of how things in nature work, is definitely worth the minimal investment of time on our parts.

Last year, I made my annual pilgrimage to the flower fields in Carlsbad to admire the beauty of the colors and to see what new evolution this wonderful place had made. I was enthralled by the myriad of questions being lobbed at a teacher who had taken her third or fourth grade class on a field trip. The children were more interested in how the plants grew than they were about the obvious eye candy the flowers provide.

I grew up with these fields and the gladiolus fields that are now becoming homes closer to the coast highway. I never tired of considering all of the possible ways these plants grew. I used to come up with some very creative theories and often shared them with my grandfather who was a local tomato farmer. I remember asking him one sunny day if the stuff they were spaying on the plants was suntan oil so the plants could receive more sun power. After busting out laughing (of course, I was hurt), he took the time to tell me about insects that ate the plants and that the stuff they were spraying was a poison for the insects. My next question, of course, was why the good bugs he had told me about weren't eating all of the bad ones. He thought for a moment and said that was a good question.

I was lucky enough to have a farmer in my family, and my grandfather was an oracle of wisdom. He used conventional methods of farming, but helped me grow my gardens without chemicals. Constant exposure to agricultural chemicals (including DDT) took his life way too soon, but his wisdom remains with me today.

No one has to be an expert biologist or horticulturist to give their children insights on how nature works. In the end, kids will make their own conclusions on how things "really" work. Nature excites their imaginations and feeds their tireless hunger for knowledge. It also gets them out from in front of the bloody Nintendo machine. They get an opportunity to breathe in nature, just watch them grow.

When my nephew Brandon was very young, he used to be fascinated by snails. He could watch them for hours. It reminded me of my interest in ant behavior in the vacant lot by my house when I was much younger (before imported fire ants). Brandon showed all of the signs of a born scientist; his curiosity and attention to detail was astounding. He shared his theories about snails and his insights were both hilarious and astute. It was very entertaining.

My friends and the publishers of my books just moved to a larger lot so they could encourage this kind of growth in their newborn daughter, Ava Francis. While more land may not be possible for many, there are an abundance of local places where a child's exposure to nature can take place. My favorite places are botanical gardens and regional parklands.

In closing this column, I would like you to encourage your children to get involved in the home garden, as well as giving them opportunities to experience away from the home. They will bloom like the flowers that you let them grow and pick. It only makes sense to familiarize them with what is the only planet they will get to live on.

Next time we will be discussing the purpose of feeding your lawns, some commentary on the hype being purveyed by some of the chemical fertilizer companies on this topic, and the impact lawn foods have on our waterways and beaches. See you in the Garden!

Got questions? Fax the Doc at (760) 632.8175 or Email him at Don Trotter's Natural Gardening columns appear nationally in environmentally sensitive publications. Look for Don's books Natural Gardening A-Z on sale now and The Complete Natural Gardener just arriving now from Hay House at bookstores everywhere and at all online booksellers. Check out Don's columns in Hearst's Healthy Living Magazine, coming in the March 2000 issue.