It's common wisdom these days that kids who garden learn things their non-gardening peers don't: where food comes from, that carrots grow down, and how labor can mean the difference between nothing and something to eat.
These are good lessons, especially in an era in which many 8-year-olds can identify more Pokemon characters than native species in their home area. But life and gardens don't always teach the kind of lessons one would expect. This season our garden taught my sons less about the virtues of hard work and more about letting your mouth hang open.
After one planting of spinach and onions this spring, my middle son's garden plot had quickly devolved into a tangle of unidentifiable biomass. The sheer volume of weedy, woody growth was startling, and it was soon thrusting monstrous green arms far beyond his little raised bed. It took some restraint, but I eventually stopped chiding him to get in there and hack away the weeds so that his vegetables could get enough soil and sun. I figured when his brothers started harvesting their carrots and green beans, and when all he got were a few choked-up cherry tomatoes, he'd learn the hard way that work translates into product, industry into results.
Except that's not what happened. One evening a friend pointed out that the gargantuan growth snaking its way over an entire quarter of our backyard was not a weed but a pumpkin plant. That my son had never planted. That had popped out of a seed from last year's jack-o'-lantern and risen from the compost we'd tossed on the bed in April.
Once we learned this, my son started checking on his pumpkins twice a day. He'd pick his way among the leaves of the behemoth vine, marveling at the ever-expanding girths of its fruit. Sometimes I'd look out the kitchen window and see him just standing at the edge of green, staring.
So much for gardens and moralizing. It was negligence that birthed this pumpkin patch, not sweat. There are no sermon illustrations here, and nothing that can be applied to school ("Don't work hard, sweetie; you'll still get an A!") or adulthood ("Don't worry about getting a job; the rent money will just show up"). Our son showed off his pumpkins to friends and family who stopped by, and we tried not to make a big deal about the fact that he did squat to make it happen.
We picked the first four last weekend, and took turns holding their beefy bodies while balancing on the bathroom scales. The biggest weighed 28 pounds. Our son has already sold it for 10 bucks and has orders for several more. He's adding the money to a fund we've got going that will purchase a goat or a cow for a family in need somewhere in the world. We'll carve up a couple come Halloween, maybe toss their seeds in the compost to see if lazy gardening will work again next year.
Frankly, I'm as glad for what we learned this fall as I would be about the more garden-variety morals that vegetables offer. Perhaps just as important as learning that diligence produces rewards is discovering that sometimes you just need to stand back, open your eyes wide and watch stuff grow.
Valerie Weaver-Zercher is a writer and editor in Mechanicsburg, Penn.