In went the seeds, out popped a gardener

Even before my husband, John, and I adopted our two sons, we plotted how to encourage them to love gardening. I ordered them a set of children's gardening tools complete with a pint-size orange shovel, hoe, and rake. I envisioned them turning over the earth and raking leaves into a pile like Mistress Mary of "The Secret Garden."

On a frosty January night after a long flight from South America, we arrived home with our boys. As soon as the ground thawed, we handed them their tools and arranged the boys in a classic "American Gothic" pose. "Smile!" I called as I snapped their photo. A breeze lifted their black hair, and the orange hoe and shovel contrasted with their blue denim overalls.

Opening packets of seeds is one of the simple thrills of horticulture that fills a gardener with visions of succulent carrots and bouquets of red, pink, and orange zinnias.

Wee hands would prefer diminutive seed packages, I reasoned. So I searched seed catalogs until I found and ordered a special child's garden: a large envelope illustrated by a drawing of a perfect garden that contained small packets labeled Black Seeded Simpson lettuce, Cherry Belle radish, and French marigolds, along with Kentucky Wonder pole beans.

"Can we plant them now?" 4-year-old Mattie asked.

"It's too cold outside," I answered, "but we can start the marigolds."

While Mattie's hands filled paper cups with potting soil and set them on a tray, I helped 2-year-old Carlos press seeds evenly into flats.

Soon, the seedlings sported tiny flower buds, and each time the boys touched them, the greenhouse smelled of pungent marigolds.

In May, John tilled a five-foot-square plot. With my help, Carlos dropped bean seeds in a wobbly row while Mattie scattered radish and lettuce seeds into a shallow trough.

We encircled their garden with a white wire fence, and a few weeks later watched our sons harvest their first salad. We – and they – were proud when bouquets of their marigolds graced our table that summer.

Every spring I bought the boys the special children's garden seed mixture until Mattie lost interest in gardening, and Carlos decided to focus on other crops.

He planted large blocks of sweet corn and grew a prize-winning monster pumpkin that he exhibited at our local fair.

For Carlos, the scent of compost, the feel of wet dirt between his fingers, and the delight of seeing the first blades of emerging corn sank into his pores. A year after he graduated from college, he rented a small bungalow in the town where he now works.

"There's room for a garden," he told us on the phone. "And the person who used to live here planted lots of roses."

John and I drove the three hours to Carlos's new home, taking along an offering of tomato plants. Even before he showed us the inside of the house, we toured his backyard.

"I fertilized the roses, but how should I prune them?" he asked. "And what are those vines?"

I identified the clematis vine and hydrangea bushes, and suggested how Carlos could trim his roses. He pointed to a 4-foot by 5-foot bed.

"I want to plant some sweet corn," he said.

"Well, you'd be better off to stick in those tomatoes, a couple of pepper plants, and a bit of cilantro, and have the makings for fresh salsa," I said.

Despite our advice, Carlos planted several dozen kernels of corn and later that summer, lamented his pitiful harvest. Like a 19th- century frontiersman, he searched for more land. This spring, Carlos moved into a different house.

"This one has more yard," he said when he called us. "I have about three times the space for a garden. Is it too early to plant sweet corn? What variety would be best?"

John named a few favorites, including Kandy Korn, and I promised to start some melons for his expanded garden.

Last spring, we gave Carlos a man-size trowel and hand fork as a housewarming gift; this year we arrived with a couple of rhododendrons and peat pots filled with melon seedlings.

No longer does Carlos need my hands to help him pat in seedlings, but despite the miles separating us, we share our enthusiasm for gardening. Throughout the summer, we compare whose tomatoes ripened first and who steamed the first ears of corn.

The love of gardening we planted in paper cups of marigold and dirt now blooms across the miles.

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