What I learn from gardening with my daughter

Image credit: iStock

Mummy Musings is a fortnightly column where Elisabeth Lee navigates the ups and downs of bringing up her daughter.

It’s been raining for weeks and we are both itching to get our hands dirty outside. Up here in the Pacific Northwest, the winters are long, rainy and cold. Even though we do our best to get outside for hikes in the forest and walks on the beach, my Singaporean soul misses the warmth and heat of summer. And my daughter A, who just turned three, wants so badly to go outside and play in the garden.

“Can I help you water the plants, mummy?” she likes to ask, pressing her nose against the window that looks out on the backyard. We both look out at the rain coming down in sheets. The yard is a sea of mud right now. “Not yet, hon,” I sigh.

Finally, spring arrives. It’s late this year – already May and the asparagus is only just beginning to push their green shoots out of their winter bed of straw. Last year we were feasting on asparagus – grilled, steamed, roasted, stir-fried in precious sambal belacan – in March.

This year, A seems happy to garden alongside me. I teach her how to recognise a weed, how to plant seeds, how to spread compost around each little plant. As a reward for being such a quick learner, I’ve set aside a little patch for her to garden on her own. She has her own trowel and rake, a selection of plastic pots, and a few seedlings – mostly random volunteers that have popped up all over the garden from plants that went to seed last year.

Now spring is in full bloom, and we happily garden in parallel. Me in my veggie beds, A in her experimental patch, the warm sun on our backs. It’s interesting to watch what she does when we let her have free rein. She mostly enjoys hunting earthworms – the worms are somewhat less happy about this bit – and burying “treasure”, usually interesting rocks or souvenirs from our walks.

Once in awhile, she will wander over to see what I’m doing or to show me something she’s discovered. So far this spring, we’ve talked about:

Maths. We count seeds. We think about things such as “if we need two seeds in each hole, and I have room for 4 holes, how many seeds do I need?”

Life cycles. Spring means the arrival of babies for just about every species, so we look for eggs and larvae of all sorts. Baby snails on the fence, tadpoles in the pond, butterfly eggs on the leaves and slugs just about everywhere. We talk about how animals reproduce, and the various life cycles of the wildlife we see and hear.

How plants grow. A is curious about the things we do when we garden. She’s asked about why we weed, why we water the plants, why we can’t water too much or too little, even why we apply fertiliser. “It’s like your vitamin gummy, except it’s for plants,” I tell her, before remembering to remind her not to eat the fertiliser.

Sometimes, we find a dead plant. It was a harsh winter, and not everything made it through alive. A is unfazed with discussing death – it’s beautiful and sweet how matter-of-fact she is.

Educators have known for a long time that gardening and being outdoors is possibly one of the best ways to teach kids about the world. It’s such a natural way for them to learn. Watching A develop as the garden grows has been one of the more profound joys of parenting.

But even more, gardening with your child can teach you so much. Patience. Wonder. Joy in the small things. How the world really is just a seed in a grimy, chubby hand, waiting for the right conditions.


Elisabeth Lee is proof that it is never too late to consider a second, third or even fourth career, having come to both motherhood and writing late in life. She occasionally freelances and can be reached at

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