When I mentioned to my teenage sons that I’d finally gotten around to scheduling the contractors for new roof shingles and gutters, their eyes lit up. Not because they care about potential water leaks or drainage — no, they told me they already had plans for those old gutters. Two plans, in fact: a new strawberry bed on our wooden fence and a new water feature for our chickens.
This is both the joy and the challenge of having encouraged my sons from a young age to treat the backyard as a living laboratory. My original philosophy was that they would learn to appreciate where their food came from while providing a bit of manual labor in the garden.
Now they’ve outpaced me in terms of both imagination and energy. And they’re running circles around me in the amount of time they dedicate to watching online videos of DIY projects.
Every time they pick and eat something straight from the garden, they still get the same joy that I captured on camera back in 2010 (and peas are still a big favorite). But now the process of getting to the harvest is much more complicated—and often more expensive.
Never-ending science fair
Last year, for example, was the spring of the seed experiments. Both sons started plants from seeds in school, and they came home determined to test out a few ideas to take the in-class projects to another level. And so, one day after work, I came home to find a newly built table constructed from scrap wood (surprisingly level!) and all the preparations for hanging a grow light above it. Which of course I was tasked with buying later that evening so the project could be completed.
Long story short, their little tomatoes and kale did fine under the grow light, but the seedlings weren’t robust enough to withstand the rigors of the transfer into the garden. Ditto the cucumbers — though they put up a stronger fight. Undaunted, the boys hauled me along to buy replacements at the garden store.
Last year was also the year of the new chicken coop, some assembly required. Which we tackled on Mother’s Day, no less—because of course I had nothing scheduled on the calendar. The boys had carefully considered different structures online and, after much research, handled all the ordering (all I had to provide was the credit card information) and then, after the box arrived, they gathered all the tools and sorted out all the parts. They were also the ones to figure out I’d put some of the pieces together backwards, and they patiently helped me take them apart and reassemble things correctly.
And that’s the moment I knew the roles had been reversed. I’m now the provider of manual labor (and financial resources) in fulfillment of their ideas. Which is actually pretty wonderful, when I stop and think about it.
They know going into projects that things may not work out—that’s the nature of experiments, after all—and they are surprisingly OK with disappointment. Thus not only are we trying out those rain gutter planters, we used strawberries from rhizomes and from plants, as well as two varieties, to see which would thrive.
Perhaps the hardest thing for me has been to let go of the expectation that my backyard will be picture perfect. There are often patches of perfection, surrounded by unfortunate spray paint marks on the fence … and bare spots in the lawn under the zipline … and birdhouses that no winged creature would risk inhabiting. I’ve learned to celebrate all of it, knowing it’s temporary.
Hits and misses
Some of our lessons learned over the years include:
- The chickens – It took much convincing for me to add these to our yard, but they’ve been wonderful. They’re not as much maintenance as I’d feared, and they’ve definitely brought a wealth of life lessons. Now that you can rent the whole setup for a test run, I heartily recommend giving chickens a try.
- New vegetables – For my younger son, the unexpected win was cucumbers. For my older son, it was kale. He loves kale from our garden. Last year we planted four varieties.
- The zipline – We learned all kinds of engineering and safety lessons with this one, and we had no serious injuries. Unlike with the flower pot …
- Broken stuff – Throw it out immediately. The only time anyone had to get stitches was when my younger son cut his leg wide open on a chipped clay flowerpot. (Ironically, one of the boys’ favorite activities is breaking things. Sometimes intentionally, sometimes not.)
- Power tools – These can turn any project into something attractive to children with a Y chromosome. Case in point: When a tree fell in our yard during a storm over the winter, the boys spent hours in the cold helping haul out limbs and branches because I decided they were safety-conscious enough to cut them off the trunk with a small electric saw.
As for that rain gutter water feature for the chickens, I haven’t seen the plans for it yet, but rest assured that there are some, and they will be shared with me when the time is right. After all, Mother’s Day is coming up soon, and my calendar is wide open.