“Hey, I see some carrots!” Emiliano Zeeb called out to his father, Brett.
Sifting through hundreds of packages of seeds, this vibrant 6-year-old was drawn to a bright package of Veggie Tales-brand seeds, illustrated with pictures of Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber. The boy’s father encouraged him to grab the package, while also selecting seeds for a variety of melons, which he knows his son will like.
“He’s a melon man,” he explained.
The Zeebs were among nearly 100 local gardeners who recently converged on Swedish Covenant Hospital for a seed swap hosted by The Peterson Garden Project. Many parent-child couples were in attendance, planning out their family gardens for the spring.
According to Dr. Nanajan Yakoub, a family medicine physician with Swedish Covenant Hospital, the benefits of this family activity go far beyond healthy eating. She believes gardening is an educational, nutritious and fun hobby which very well may stick with a child throughout his or her life.
“I find it gives them a sense of respect for the food that we eat and so much more,” said Dr. Yakoub, who gardens with her sons, ages 12, 14 and 16.
She explained that kids learn from and model their parent’s actions. So when parents are invested in healthy activities like gardening and encourage their kids to be involved, children often grow up with an enthusiasm and appreciation for “enjoying the literal fruits of their labors.”
She knows from experience.
For years, Dr. Yakoub’s family has grown Brussels sprouts, kale, basil, garlic, tomatoes, peppers and much more in their backyard garden. She begins each gardening season by taking her sons to different nurseries, where they select seedlings together.
When they were young, her sons learned how to help prepare the garden by tilling the backyard, mapping out where each plant should go, planting, watering and watching the seeds grow.
Even as busy teenagers, this tradition of gardening and spending time with the family is an activity they look forward to each year. It is also an exercise in patience.
“It takes time to get certain things. It’s not just a matter of going to the store to get it,” Yakoub said. “There’s a pride in seeing [the plant] go from a seedling that kind of withers a bit in the beginning, and then blossoms and starts growing and giving fruit.”
She added that her family takes the lessons from gardening a step further by giving away many of the fruits and vegetables from their garden to neighbors. She believes that this teaches her kids and everyone in the neighborhood about the importance of sharing and community.
Attendees at the seed swap all had similar stories and reasons for teaching their children about gardening.
Brett, for example, said that he and Emiliano became involved with Peterson Garden because they were looking for a way to spend time with one another while also teaching Emiliano about nutrition.
“I wanted him to know where his food came from. I thought it would be a good way to get him to try different vegetables; he could see it grow from a seed to becoming an actual plant,” Brett said — And it seems his prediction was right on. “He has been more likely to try something when he can see it change.”
Rebecca Wiesenthal, another avid gardener, couldn’t help but smile when she found an envelope of broccoli seeds at the seed swap.
“My boys have been asking for broccoli,” she said. Her four sons, ages 6 to 11, specifically requested green beans, corn, peas, potatoes and carrots for their garden.
Leah Ray, a volunteer with The Peterson Garden Project, is similarly tickled by the interest her 8-year-old son Dexter has taken in healthy foods. He learned a remarkable amount from gardening in just a year and is much more open-minded about eating things that he’s grown himself.
“It’s absolutely true that when kids plant something, they want to eat it, because they grow it,” Leah said. “Dexter goes to Stone Scholastic Academy, and as part of their science curriculum they planted basil last year. Dexter was very focused on eating his basil; he would walk up and eat it straight off the bush—just chomp on it.”
Kids are not the only ones who benefit from this experience.
Leah shared that she began gardening about two years ago, and was a blank slate in the beginning. After reading books on gardening, she saw a flyer advertising The Peterson Garden Project, and figured a community-garden setting would be the best way to learn.
“You learn so much by just chatting, looking around and seeing what happens,” she said. “The first year my mind exploded.”
Note: The Peterson Garden Project is Expanding
The Peterson Garden Project, which was started by LaManda Joy in 2010, is moving. The project, which is the largest community garden in Chicago, will now include three gardens on the north side, each of which will be larger than the Peterson location. To learn more go to petersongarden.org.