The red peppers and onions dangled overhead. The hams and the venison hung in their paper wrappings, and all the bunches of dried herbs, the spicy herbs for cooking and the bitter herbs for medicine, gave the place a dusty-spicy smell.
Do you remember that description of the attic from Little House in the Big Woods, where Laura and Mary would play house with pumpkins for furniture and a corncob for a doll when the late autumn chill drove them indoors? Maybe, if you’re lucky, you’ve re-visited the world that Ma and Pa worked so hard to sustain with your own little ones recently. It’s just as engrossing to read as an adult, and the careful descriptions of domestic endeavor are just as fascinating. I am certain my romantic notions about ‘putting up’ the summer’s bounty in preparation for the winter must stem from reading about this tiny attic when I was a child. And something about those drying herbs hanging from the ceiling – unlike the deer meat – took hold of my imagination and hasn’t let go since.
Though I love our vegetable plot in the backyard, I think the perfect garden for life with young children must be a perennial herb garden. It’s both manageable and delightful. I wish I had figured this out when my children were babies! Back then I determined with some disappointment that I must be immune to the gardening bug that had struck so many of my friends and family members. The truth was that I simply couldn’t get excited about nurturing new life in the backyard when my heart, mind, and body were so wrapped up in nurturing a baby. So I let my husband be the gardener – for awhile. Eventually my kids got bigger, and I found I was capable of forming ridiculous attachments to plants after all.
Last year we planted a small patch of perennial herbs in an area just outside our front door. The children, then two and four years old, loved tasting and smelling the leaves and I loved having fresh herbs available just a few steps from the kitchen. It looked a bit scraggly, but I could at least imagine the plants filling in the bare places and scenting the walk leading to our front door. (Remember, I’m dreaming of bunches of herbs drying from the ceiling). I was positively stunned to see the tiny sorrel leaves pushing up through the chilly dirt this March. Perennials are magical! How do they do it, harboring life under the dead soil all winter long? But there were the herbs, returning to life with renewed vigor. The thyme began to green, the sage leaves became pliant and fuzzy once again, and by April the cat mint and oregano seemed to have doubled in size. Magic, I tell you.
Perennial herbs are easy to grow. You don’t need to obsess over their care or expend stores of creative energy that you’d rather save for higher priority pursuits. They don’t need endless hours of bright sun like fickle eggplants and peppers, many are beautiful and feature delicate flowers, and the fragrance that floats gently in the air around a patch of them will delight any harvester. Children, who are so much closer to the ground (and so much more comfortable in a squat) are ideal candidates for the job! Plus, the sensory pleasures of herbs are most available to small people who are possessed of incredible powers of observation. Often I send my three year old out with a pair of green plastic safety scissors to snip a few leaves for dinner. He returns to the kitchen a moment later, immensely pleased with himself, carrying in a contribution to our meal picked by his hands alone.
Perennial herbs are fun to grow and harvest with kids, and fun to cook with too. One of the children had a nasty cough this morning. We were out of our favorite tea, but then I remembered the mint growing outside, already big enough to spare plenty of leaves. Out came the safety scissors. We snipped three small branches, covered them in boiling water, added honey, and waited five minutes. Our “homemade” mint tea was a great success, soothing an irritated throat and delighting the children with its simplicity and refreshing taste. Try it! If you’re feeling fancy, call it a tisane. Have a homemade tea party.
Make lavender sugar. Fry sage leaves for pizza. Have a child snip chives into tiny pieces to sprinkle on roasted potatoes, or blend olive oil and herbs for a pretty green drizzle that children can pour onto their own bowl of soup. Fill a vase with flowering herbs together to enliven a room in preparation for summer house guests. Sing Wild Mountain Thyme (a la Dan Zanes and Dar Williams) while you dig holes for baby thyme transplants in the yard. Sit in the sunshine amidst your hardy herbs and conduct tasting and smelling experiments. Who can – with closed eyes – identify the lemony sorrel, the sharp oregano?
The growing season is long, your labor will be relatively little, and your children will happily sniff their way through summer. The baby probably won’t destroy anything (and even if you think she did, it may very well come back next year!). It’ll be a lovely garden plot to share. Then one day, months from now, just as winter is finally over, you’ll notice little green leaves on an oregano plant that had seemed long dead. And it will feel like a gift.
For more garden reflections, come visit my blog, Homemade Time. Do you share gardening with your kids? Did any of you manage to garden with babies? Do tell!
About Meagan Howell
Meagan Howell is a freelance writer and social worker who loves art, books, yoga, friends, music, being outside, and helping to build communities of all sorts. Meagan lives in Maryland with her husband and two children and writes about motherhood at Homemade Time.