Gardening with my daughterchildren always seems to leave me doing all the work. Like adopting kittens or puppies they cannot live without, children somehow manage to convince parents to do things parents know will not turn out as children promise. Whenever parents fall for these "innocent" childhood promises, deep down inside, parents know they are biting off more than they really care to chew. Stuffing my mouth too full is exactly what happened with me the last time I gardened with my daughter.
Gardening with children can actually be loads of fun even though kids (as does my son) may spend the bulk of their garden time playing with dirt, catching earthworms, or chasing butterflies. Then, there are grasshoppers, mantids, and ladybugs that cannot help but distract young eyes or hands - such as my son's - during gardening time. After all, garden bugs are considerably more fascinating than plants and weeds. Then there are children who decide that developing a green thumb is the best route to take when in need of a school science fair project.
School science fairs that require students to submit entries using the scientific method routinely inspire children to instantaneously become electrical engineers, hand writing connoisseurs, public surveyors, detergent specialists, botanists, and a slew of other masterful occupations. As a result, under the influence of their uncertified expertise, these students set out to conduct profound experiments as if they were testing products for Consumer Reports or some other product-evaluating magazine.
Those with botanical aspirations may task themselves with growing flowers or vegetables from seeds or plantlets under unique conditions with intentions of proving which kinds of soil works best; how much sun plants need, as well as how much and how often plants need to be watered. This year would be no different and my daughter, after questioning me a zillion times, "What should I do for the fair?" eventually evolved into an entrant whose sole aspiration would be success in growing plants under unique conditions.
Following our usual science fair preparatory trip to the library during which we flipped through dozens of manuals with old, crinkly, pages of science fair projects, my daughter decided she would grow three different types of plants under three different lighting conditions. Unwilling to conduct her experiment exactly like the one in the book (because someone might copy her) she asked, 'What kinds of plants should she use instead of those suggested ones; and how should she go about altering their conditions?'
"Plastic wrap is transparent so it will let the light in and keep the plants warm. Plus, it comes in assorted colors," I told her. "You can use that to cover the plants. As for plant selection, it is 'your' project so you should choose whatever plants you want. Let's just go to the nursery and see what they have," I added.
At length, my daughter saved me by settling on Violas, Primula Acaulis, and Dusty Miller. I breathed a sigh of relief as we selected three pots of each, as close to the same height and bushiness as possible, and placed them in the cart. After purchasing the foliage, we set off for a supermarket where we purchased the plastic sandwich wrap. I was relieved that plastic wrap only came in a few colors. The small selection prevented me from pacing supermarket aisles while waiting another forty minutes for my daughter to select plant shields.
Anyone coming upon my daughter and me at the nursery might have thought my daughter's decision of which plants to use for a science project mimicked a presidential decision on whether to send troops into war. As much as I like flowers, repeatedly circling the same tables of the same flats and pots of flora lined up in rows for forty minutes does take its toll when I am not the one trying to make a selection. Had I not a surplus of patience that hovers above annoyances in sky scraping proportions I might have thrown nine potted plants in the cart and screamed, "All righty then! Let's go now!"
At home, my daughter and I set one of each plant on three separate trays. Afterward, we inserted one end of several bamboo skewers into the flowerpots and used opposite stick ends to hold the plastic wrap - blue, yellow, or clear - above the foliage. Then, at last, we set the plants to live long prosperous lives in a greenhouse window.
In my mind, once completing the setup portion of the experiment, my participation had pretty much ended. This was when I believed that aside from reminding my daughter to water, measure, and jot down observations in her journal, there would be nothing left for me to do except help her get the project to her class on the due date, and to enjoy her display during science fair night.
Well... Science fair night eventually came and went as science fairs do. My daughter's project, which she titled "Colors to Grow On" did not place but received a participation certificate. Following the fair, we took the plants home and then the question became - what shall we do with them now?
"I guess we can plant them in the front yard," I suggested. This was when I discovered that although my daughter relished treating her experimental plants like best friends forever during her scientific studies, she had no interest in their well-being once the observation period ended. It became clear that watering plants already set in pots that required no dirt digging, no outdoor monitoring, and no weed removal, sufficed as the distance she cared to travel while taking care of greenery.
Yes, I planted her science project friends in the yard and nurtured them until they began to sprout. Once they were established and I believed they would survive just fine with the assistance of the water sprinkler, and thus, no longer required my aid, I once again believed my participation in this botanical science experiment had ended.
No, it was not my daughter's, but my hands that sunk into soil, dug holes, removed weeds, tapped and emptied capsized pots, replaced soil, covered, watered, and nurtured her best friends forever as if I were a parent taking over pet duties once the novelty of the new dog wore off!
The violas and the primula acaulis, although very beautiful while prosperous, lived rather short lives. In fact, minus a vague recollection of dark purple viola flower blossoms, I cannot remember when last I saw the other two science project plants or what they looked like in the flowerbeds. They simply died off. The dusty miller, on the other hand, continued to prosper for years to come.
As the dusty miller continued to grow, they developed beautiful yellow flowers and went through a couple of unexpected life stages that, in fact, proved very fascinating to watch. At one point, they developed some unusual looking pods. The tiny yellow flowers erupted from the pods. Once the flowers died, the pods entered a claw-like stage during which the empty clusters took on half crab shapes - if you will - and threatened to poke holes into any finger that caressed them.
"Go outside and check out your plants," I'd beseech my daughter every now and then. "That dusty miller is growing like crazy!" I'd proclaim. My daughter would go outside to pacify me with the briefest of glances at her former best friends and then zip back into the house as if fearing she might miss something life threatening in her preteen world that did not involve gardening.
At any rate, although the dusty miller plants turned out to be beautiful and fascinating, they also turned out to be gougers. It seemed they did not care that lilies, daises, and geranium, to name a few, had lived quiet undisturbed lives taking in all the sun they needed to photosynthesize, and all the water they needed to drink, prior to dusty miller's implantation.
Before I knew it, the dusty miller began to act like weeds. They started towering high above the other plants in effort to grab all the sunlight. They spread roots deep below and far across the soil in order to swallow up all the water. If this was not enough, dusty miller, despite the fact they are not vining plants, reached through the other plants' leaves and flowers and stifled their ability to spread their wings - in a leafy sort of way of course.
In efforts to save 'my' plants, I proceeded to thin my daughter's bloodsuckers. "What are you going to do with them?" she wanted to know after I told her what gougers her plants were.
So much for the third time I fooled myself with thoughts that my participation in my daughter's plant project had ended after we'd placed her plants on trays and covered them with plastic wrap. Nearly a year had passed since that science fair began, and I still felt as though I were working on 'her' project! It seemed that my participation was constantly finding ways to renew itself!
"I don't know," I answered surprised that, in addition to registering my complaint, she actually sounded as if she had acquired a renewed interest in her best friends forever. "I guess "we' should put them in the plant recycle bin, so, come and help me. It's a lot of work."
Well… I guess I deserve an 'A' for effort but my daughter's idea of helping turned out to be assisting by watching - and talking, of course. Aside from lifting a few thinned plants that I removed from the soil, and placing them in the recycle bin, she proceeded to prance around while talking about everything under the sun - things having nothing to do with gardening, of course. It seemed that if my daughter had undergone a rare moment of renewed concern for her botanic best friends, that short-lived concern proved to be exactly that - short lived! About ten minutes into the task, I sighed with a chuckle while watching her pigtails dash through the front door!
After hours of work that I had no idea I had signed on for when I planted dusty miller in my flowerbed, I looked at my garden and was pleased that my plants could breathe again. I looked
at the dusty millers and said, "I wonder how long it'll be before you'll need thinning again..."
Twice a year became my good Samaritan plant takeover punishment. The dusty millers would have grown slower with less watering I later discovered; however, plants already in the bed required more frequent sprinkling. Therefore, dusty millers continued to make out and I continued to thin them until-
These days, I find it funny how irony can appear where least expected it. One day, dusty millers played a vital role in my daughter's science project. Next day, they drove me crazy with their determination to overtake my garden. In the end, as if finally banging their usefulness into my brain, they pleased me with their ability to survive hot dry Southern California weather. How wonderfully they managed to embellish my yard while minimizing my water usage. Who could have entertained a thought that my daughter's science project would fascinate me, irk me, and then make me grateful to have planted her best friends forever in my yard?
Until a water-conservation mandate spurred me to cut back on watering. Prior to the mandate, I often turned the sprinklers on an extra round or manually hosed my plants once or twice a week. After the mandate began, I stopped doing that. Cutting back on water did not fare well with some of my plants but the dusty miller continued to thrive. Their bushes became fewer, which eliminated the need for me to thin them as often; however, they continued to beautify my yard.
R. Renee Bremby is a prolific writer--yes, at Helium! She can show you how to get in shape by Dance-dancing, how to stay Healthy or how to teach kids about poetry and many other things besides.