Advent Crafts for Children

Advent Crafts for Children

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Advent is a beautiful season in the liturgical year, but it is often overshadowed by the busyness of the holiday season. I’d like to share with you a few ideas for celebrating this beautiful season in the Christian year with your children. These crafts are not only fun for kids, but will help them engage with the season in a way that is more meaningful and less “commercial.”

A Proper Countdown

Advent calendars are big business these days, and there are so many creative and unique ways that people choose to count down to Christmas. But, one thing I’ve noticed is that most Advent calendars, even Christian-themed ones, don’t have the right number of days! Advent very rarely begins on December 1st, and yet most Advent calendars begin their countdown, I assume to ease production costs, on that day. Here are a few ideas for celebrating Advent with children that are adaptable to allow for the right number of days.

Craft #1: Advent Spiral

This little angel will travel around on the stars (completely adaptable for Advent seasons with up to 28 days—the maximum amount) until she reaches the center on the Feast of the Nativity of Jesus, Christmas Day. To create this, I used an 18″ square piece of blue flannel, onto which I needle-felted a spiral of green wool roving. I cut out the stars from yellow felt, and crafted the little angel from a 3.5″ tall peg doll. Since the stars just rest on top of the flannel, you can put as many of them as you need for the correct number of days each year. This Advent spiral sits on a little side table, just the right height for little eyes and hands. Each day my children can take turns moving the angel along the path toward the arrival of Jesus in the world.

This could just as easily be made of paper, or felt, or whatever materials you have around the house. The goal of Around the Year is to provide inspiration, not frustration! And, I always want to emphasize that it’s not about spending money—engaging in the task is what’s important.

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Craft #2: Cardboard Advent Wreath

We have this little Advent wreath set up in my son’s play kitchen area, and I made it so that he can “play” along as we light our own Advent candles throughout the season. The “candles” were made of none other than humble toilet paper tubes painted purple, pink, and white with craft paint. The “flames” are painted popsicle sticks with construction paper fire glued on to them. I happened to have the small grapevine wreath and green playsilk already, but they’re not necessary. The candles do stand up pretty well on their own, but you might want to wrap a piece of yarn or string around them to make sure they’re not toppling over constantly. You could also wrap a long, thin piece of green cloth around the base of the whole structure to imitate greenery–or use real boughs if you have them!

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Craft #3: Glass Jar Advent Candles

One year I suddenly realized that it was the First Sunday of Advent and I hadn’t ordered any candles! So, I decided to create my own Advent candle wreath using glass jars, tissue paper, Mod Podge, and some small white candles I already had. I think, in some ways, it’s even more beautiful than the traditional wreath.

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For more ideas and inspiration for celebrating Advent, visit my Pinterest board!



Holy Cross Day

Holy Cross Day

“Discovery of the True Cross” by Agnolo Gaddi (14th century)

I saw glory’s tree honored with trappings,
shining with joys, decked with gold;
gems had wrapped that forest tree worthily round.


— from “The Dream of the Rood” trans. Jonathan A. Glenn (1982)

Many Christians celebrate the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross—also known as Holy Cross Day, Holy Rood Day, or Roodmas—each year on September 14th. Holy Cross Day commemorates both the discovery of the True Cross in 320 A.D., and the anniversary of the dedication of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 335 A.D.1

Although this feast day was established at the end of the seventh century, its roots lie in the early fourth century, when Saint Helena embarked on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in an attempt to discover the True Cross—the cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified.2

St. Helena’s Pilgrimage

St. Helena, who was in her sixties when she made her pilgrimage, had begun her life as a pagan but converted to Christianity later in life, possibly due to the influence of her son, Emperor Constantine I. Constantine fundamentally changed the course of history in 313 A.D. with his issuing of the Edict of Milan, an agreement that gave full religious liberty to Christians.3 Prior to the Edict, Christianity had been illegal and Christians had been subjected to terrible persecutions.

According to the Greek historian Eusebius, at the time that St. Helena arrived in Jerusalem there was a pagan temple dedicated to Venus lying at the top of the hill of Calvary (otherwise known as Golgotha), the site where Jesus Christ was crucified. Helena ordered the pagan temple to be destroyed and an excavation to be undertaken at that location. Three crosses were discovered buried some twenty feet under the ground, but it was unclear which was the True Cross (two other men had been crucified alongside Jesus).4 Legend says that Helena touched each of the three crosses to the body of a terminally ill woman—the wood that healed her was identified as the True Cross.5 Helena took some fragments of the True Cross with her when she returned to Rome.

The Building of the Basilica

Emperor Constantine ordered the construction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on the newly-discovered site of Christ’s tomb, which was completed and dedicated on 14 September 335 A.D. The church was damaged by fire in the early seventh century. and subsequently destroyed during the rule of the Fatimid Caliphate in 1009 A.D. Reconstruction began about twenty years later, and concern about the long-term safety of the church and the city of Jerusalem played a role in the crusades of the Middle Ages. Though the building and the city changed hands numerous times over the centuries, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has always served as an important site for Christian pilgrims, and today it remains a popular landmark in Jerusalem for visitors of all faiths.6

Celebrate with Children

Dear Lord, help us to treasure your cross above all things, and honor it in all the small crosses you ask us to carry as we follow you.
—from The Queen & The Cross

Holy Cross Day is a great opportunity to talk with children about Christ’s great love and willing sacrifice, and perhaps to discuss the cross as a Christian symbol. At our house we will be reading a book called The Queen and the Cross: The Story of Saint Helen, written by Cornelia Mary Bilinsky and illustrated by Rebecca Stuhff, which tells the story of St. Helena’s journey to Jerusalem and what she found there. We’ll also be painting unfinished wooden wall crosses that the children can put up in their bedrooms. Although typically baked on Good Friday, hot cross buns are also a perfect food to prepare for Holy Cross Day.

NOTES
Rood, from Old English rōd, crucifix, pole

SELECTED SOURCES
1 “Exaltation of the Holy Cross” by Fr. Don Miller, OFM, www.FranciscanMedia.org
2 “The Exaltation of the Holy Cross,” www.CatholicNewsAgency.org, 9/14/17
3 “313 The Edict of Milan” by David F. Wright, www.ChristianityToday.com
iv “The Finding of the Cross,” Christian Classics Ethereal Library, www.CCEL.org
v “Helen,” The Illustrated World Encyclopedia of Saints by Tessa Paul (Lorenz Books, 2014), p 94
v “Church of the Holy Sepulchre” www.ChurchoftheHolySepulchre.net

Here’s a quick and easy recipe (no yeast involved!):

Hot Cross Buns
adapted from Cooks.com

Ingredients:
[For the buns]
1 c whole wheat or all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
2 Tbsp butter
1 Tbsp honey
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 c raisins
1/3 c milk
[For the frosting]
1/2 c confectioners sugar
2 tsp milk
1/4 tsp vanilla

Directions:
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
2. Mix flour, baking powder, and salt. Cut in the butter with a fork or pastry cutter until it looks like coarse crumbs. Add honey, cinnamon, and raisins and stir gently to mix. Make a well in middle and pour in milk. Stir quickly with a fork and form a ball.
3. Divide dough into 6 round buns and place on greased baking sheet. Cut a deep cross through the top of each bun. Bake for 15-20 minutes.
4. While buns are baking, mix together confectioners sugar, milk, and vanilla. When buns are done, let them cool slightly, and then apply frosting in the shape of a cross on the top of each bun.

Lenten Season

Lenten Season

For years and years I struggled just to love my life. And then the butterfly rose, weightless, in the wind.
“Don’t love your life too much,” it said, and vanished into the world.

—Mary Oliver

Lent—that penitential season of the Church year that precedes Easter—has arrived once again, and I thought it might be nice to offer some ideas for observing this special time with children. Below you’ll find two crafts focused on the concept of metamorphosis, which I feel works really well as a metaphor for the Easter story, that is, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It also serves to illustrate the central tenet of our faith: Like the mystery of the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly, the mystery of Jesus’s death and resurrection makes it possible for all of us to be transformed into something magnificent and beautiful, too.

Lent & Easter Garden

Creating an Easter garden with children is a wonderful way to experience the miracle of the Resurrection. At the beginning of Lent, or anytime before Holy Week, fill a shallow planting dish with garden soil, then add rocks, a twig for a “tree,” and a small clay cave to the scene. On Maundy Thursday, sprinkle some wheatgrass seeds on the soil, cover with another layer of soil, and water generously (keep moist by watering daily). On Good Friday have children make a caterpillar from clay, wrap it in gauze, and place it in the cave. On Easter morning, parents can replace the caterpillar with a beautiful tissue paper butterfly. The wheatgrass seeds should pop up right on time—the dead and empty garden will burst into life overnight.

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Lent Vine Table Runner

To construct this table runner, you will need a piece of thick, white fabric (I used a small linen table runner I bought at a discount store), a few colors of green plus some black acrylic paint, a paintbrush, and a smooth, flat rock of some kind. Paint a green vine with green leaves, sweeping back and forth from side to side, with one leaf for each of the forty days of Lent. The last three leaves are painted black, to represent Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. The rock is painted the same color as the green leaves on just one side, and once that first layer is dry, a caterpillar is painted on top of the green background. If you’re not artistically inclined, you can just use a sticker. The other side of the rock will remain unpainted.

Throughout Lent the caterpillar will travel to a new leaf each day. On Maundy Thursday, the rock will be turned over to the dark, unpainted side and will remain that way as it moves through the next two days. On Easter Sunday, parents can remove the rock and leave in its place a beautiful butterfly. This could be a picture of a butterfly, a paper cutout, or even some sort of decorative object (available at most craft stores).

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Dyeing Silks with Marigold Flowers

Dyeing Silks with Marigold Flowers

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Creating plant-based natural dyes is a magical experience, and it’s actually easier than it looks! There are a lot of tutorials out there, and I read many of them, but the following instructions are based completely on my own process. My son absolutely loved this activity. For him, it was a real “Little Red Hen” moment: He planted the marigolds back in June, watered them all summer, harvested the flowers, picked off the petals, stirred the pot, added the silks, and voilà—magic. He claimed the first one as a cape for himself, and it looks beautiful rippling in the autumn wind. The other silk I kept for myself, to ring my vase of Michaelmas daisies and just to enjoy throughout the season. I have a lot of dye bath left over, and plan to use it to dye some worsted weight yarn as a Christmas gift. Don’t be afraid to give plant-dyeing a try—marigolds are an easy way to get your feet . . . or should I say hands? . . . wet!

Supplies:
Water
Alum mordant (buy here)
35″ x 35″ 8mm habotai silk (buy here)
Fresh marigold petals
An old spoon & pot you don’t mind getting stained

Instructions:
In a large bowl mix up your mordant: I used two tablespoons of alum per half gallon (8 cups) of water—make sure all of the alum is dissolved. Soak your un-dyed silk in the mordant for several hours (mine soaked while I was at work, about 6 hours total). Harvest fresh marigold flowers—you’ll need about 4 or 5 cups of petals to make a vivid dye. Fill your dye pot about 3/4 full with water and add the marigold petals. Bring to a boil, and then let simmer for at least an hour, stirring and smashing (gently) the petals periodically. You will notice them cook down quite a bit! Strain the petals as best you can from the dye bath—it’s okay if a few remain, as they won’t affect the dyeing process. Add your silk to the pot and submerge fully. Continue to simmer silk in the dye bath for another half hour or so, and then remove the silks from the pot (don’t pour out the dye bath because you can use it again, though the second round of dye may be less vivid). Rinse the silks gently in first lukewarm and then cold water until the rinse runs clear. Line dry or tumble dry on low, and then iron to give the silk a nice sheen.

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Berry Picking

Berry Picking

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We are very lucky to live in a part of the country where a wide variety of summer fruits grow in abundance. A couple of years ago we planted some raspberry bushes in our yard, which are finally starting to become good producers. To supplement our own humble harvest we like to visit local farms where berries are the main event, and some even let customers pick their own. One of our favorite local operations is Monadnock Berries, especially for its spectacular view of Mt. Monadnock. Picking berries with family and friends is a quintessential summer activity that should not be missed. And, if you have space, try growing your own—nothing compares to the flavor of blueberries right from the bush!

Even with kids in tow, I can pick over three pounds of blueberries in just under an hour, most of which I put in the freezer for later in the year when I want a taste of summer. Freezing berries is easy! Simply rinse berries in a collander, dry them lightly, and then spread them out in a single layer on a cookie sheet. Freeze berries for a couple of hours, and then transfer them to quart-size Ziplock bags and put them back in the freezer to store.

If you want to use your berries right away, I highly recommend making blueberry crisp and then topping it with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream—truly a summer treat that can’t be rivaled! Here’s a recipe I like to use (can be adapted to use with any type of berries, frozen or fresh):

Blueberry Crisp, adapted from a recipe by Williams-Sonoma

Ingredients:
4 c berries
1 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
3/4 c light brown sugar
1/2 c flour
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 stick butter
3/4 c rolled oats

Directions:
1. Preheat an oven to 375° F. Grease a shallow 1 1/2-quart baking dish with butter, or spray with vegetable cooking spray.
2. Spread the berries evenly over the bottom of the prepared baking dish and sprinkle with the lemon juice.
3. In a bowl, using a pastry blender or fork, mix together the brown sugar, flour, cinnamon, butter and rolled oats until well combined. Sprinkle evenly over the berries.
4. Bake until the top is golden and the berries are bubbling, about 30 minutes.
5. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool. Serve hot or warm, with ice cream or whipped cream!

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May is Mary’s Month

May is Mary’s Month
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Coronation of the Virgin by Diego Velázquez (1641-1644)

In the Roman Catholic church, the month of May is devoted to a celebration of the Blessed Virgin Mary. For this reason she is sometimes called the Queen of May—she is given the title “queen” in Eastern Orthodox and Anglican faith traditions, as well. Traditionally associated with the birth of new life, May is a natural month to celebrate the Mother of God.

Crown Mary Queen of May

There are many Roman Catholic traditions associated with Mary in the month of May, but perhaps none so beautiful as the “May Crowning,” also popular in the Orthodox Church, in which an icon or statue of the Virgin Mary in the parish church receives ornamentation on May 1st. Garlands of flowers are a popular choice. May Crowning can also be done by families at home. A crown is constructed of wire and children could add flowers and leaves to it. Once finished, the crown could be placed on the head of a Marian statue, or secured around an icon of Mary. Children will also enjoy making flower crowns for themselves, a long-standing spring tradition and perfect for wearing to a May Day celebration or gathering.

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Create a May Altar

Another activity that can be done with children is the construction of a home May Altar. If you already have a designated altar area, the addition of flowers and imagery showing the Queenship of Mary would be a nice addition. This could also be done with a nature table. If you don’t have a home altar or nature table, May is the perfect time to set aside some sacred space in your home. Besides being aesthetically pleasing, home altars can be a place for prayer, reading Scripture, journaling, or enjoying daily devotionals. Even a tiny space can become sacred by its use.

Plant a Mary Garden

For those that enjoy spending time outdoors, planting a Mary garden might be the perfect activity for the month of May. Dating to medieval times, the practice of dedicating a garden space to Mary was revived in the early twentieth century. A statue of Mary, alone or holding the baby Jesus, is central to the Marian garden. Mary has long been associated with flowers, and has been linked to the phrase “I am the rose of Sharon, the lily of the valleys” from the Song of Songs. More than 30 flowers and herbs are associated with Mary, including: Lilies of the valley, peonies, violets, irises, columbine, lavender, and marigolds. Nurturing plants is a wonderful spiritual practice, and a Marian garden is a calm, serene place to engage in prayer and contemplation.

For a wealth of information about Mary visit www.udayton.edu

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St. George’s Day

St. George’s Day
Detail from Saint George and the Dragon by Jacopo Tintoretto (16th Cent)

So on this day let’s celebrate
England’s valleys full of light,
The green fire of the landscape
Lakes shivering with delight


—from “The True Dragon” by Brian Patten

The Feast of Saint George is celebrated in Western countries on April 23rd each year. As the patron saint of their country, George is particularly popular with the English (and those anglophiles among us who love their culture, history, and “valleys full of light”). Though nothing certain is known about George’s life, there are some “facts” that are generally accepted. St. George was born in the third century A.D. in Cappodocia (modern-day Turkey). Raised in a Christian home, George joined the Roman army and served in the guard of the Emperor Diocletian. When confronted by the emperor and asked to renounce his faith, he refused. He was subsequently imprisoned, tortured, and executed in Lydda, Palestine on 23 April 303 A.D.

The most popular legend connected to the life of St. George is his defeat of an evil dragon that was terrorizing the countryside. This story became wildly popular in England, mostly due to the publication in the fifteenth century of a book called The Golden Legend. George’s signature look—a suit of armor and white shield emblazoned with a red cross—grew out of this legend. The romantic image of St. George rescuing a fair maiden from a terrifying monster is in line with the medieval masculine ideal, the miles Christi or “knight of Christ.” Though obviously not an entirely factual account of a true historic event, the legend of St. George and the dragon has deep roots in Christian theology: Christ (the knight victorious) triumphs over the horrors of evil.

At our house, we celebrate St. George’s Day with an English-style tea party and a reading of St. George and the Dragon, written by Margaret Hodges and beautifully illustrated by Tina Schart Hyman. We like to make Cream Tea scones and sip Twinings’ Prince of Wales tea. We serve everything on beautiful English china I got at a second-hand store. As always, I’d like to stress that celebrating the Christian year should be fun, meaningful, and strengthen our connection to God—no need to get stressed or break the budget. The beauty is in the mess.

SELECTED SOURCES
“Saint George,” BBC Religions, www.bbc.co.uk/religion
“Who is St. George,” St. George’s Basilica, www.StGeorge.org.mt

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Celebrate George and England with some tasty scones!

Cream Tea Scones
adapted from King Arthur Flour

Makes 12 scones

Ingredients:
3 c all-purpose flour
1 Tbsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1/4 c granulated sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups heavy or whipping cream
additional heavy cream, for brushing on scones
additional sugar, for topping

Directions:
1. Preheat the oven to 425°F. Whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar.
2. Sprinkle the vanilla over the dry ingredients, then drizzle in the cream, tossing and stirring gently all the while and adding just enough to make a cohesive dough. There shouldn’t be any dry flour in the bottom of the bowl, but the dough shouldn’t be particularly sticky, either.
3. Divide the dough in half, and gently pat each half into a 5 1/2″ circle about 3/4″ thick.
4. Brush each circle with heavy cream, and sprinkle with sugar, if desired.
5. Place the two circles of dough on the baking sheet, and cut each into 6 wedges. Pull the wedges apart a bit, leaving them in a circular pattern with about 1″ space between each wedge.
6. Bake scones for about 15 minutes, until starting to brown and baked all the way through.

Serve warm, split and spread with a bit of sweet butter and jam or preserves.

Gardening with Children

Gardening with Children

8 Ask the plants of the earth,and they will teach you; 9 Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this?
10 In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of every human being.

—Job 12:8-10

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Gardening is a wonderful activity for children that can last from early spring until late summer, even here in the frosty Northeast. Before the snow even begins to melt, we’re already excitedly poring over our seed and garden supply catalogs, trying to decide what tasty veggies we will plant this year.

While gardening is one of my favorite warm-weather activities, I just want to note that this page is not meant to be taken as expert advice about growing a garden—there are so many resources for that already, and I am still a beginning gardener, myself. However, I thought it might be nice to touch on some of the ways that children can play a role in planning, nurturing, and enjoying a family garden.

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Seed or Starter Plant?

We’ve had success creating gardens straight from seed and also with started plants. I think both methods have their benefits and drawbacks. Starting from seed allows children the opportunity to really understand the life cycle of plants, which is wonderful, but there is a lot of waiting involved and not everything you plant will be successful—we constructed a beautiful pea and bean teepee one year that really didn’t thrive and that was disappointing to all of us.

Using started plants from a nursery generally guarantees a higher rate of success, and there’s a feeling of almost instant gratification, especially with fast-growers like zucchini! The downside is that buying started plants skips one whole stage of the plant life cycle, and sometimes the plants aren’t as healthy as one would hope. Always buy your seeds and started plants from reputable growers.

Shall I not have intelligence with the earth?
Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mould myself.

—Henry David Thoreau

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Start with a Good Foundation

Vegetable gardens need a lot of sun, so it’s important to take some time to find the right spot for planting. I highly recommend using containers and/or raised beds to start, as they are so much easier to manage (i.e. less weeding), and you have a lot more control over growing conditions.

We actually have two raised beds (4x’8′) in our front yard because that’s the sunniest spot—they’re off to one side, so they’re not too obtrusive. We’ve also added a 1/2-sized bed (4’x4′) that we call the “Child’s Garden” for our youngest, most avid gardener. He has a space all his own to tend, and I think that is really special for him.

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More Advice for Beginners

If you’re new to gardening, start with some tried-and-true favorites like herbs (basil is a good one to try) or greens like kale and Swiss chard—they’re almost impossible to kill, and they’ll keep growing until you rip them out in the fall. If you find your greens are really prolific, you can always make smoothies with the surplus!

My favorite recipe is very simple: Cube a fresh pineapple, divide into four servings, and freeze in Ziploc baggies. When you’re ready to make a smoothie, blend one serving of frozen pineapple with a peeled banana and two handfuls of greens; add 1/4 to 1/2 cup of water until smoothie is desired consistency. Kids love these smoothies, even when made with strongly-flavored kale.

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I will reiterate that there are many, many resources out there for beginning gardeners, and it can be a lot to weed through (pun intended). I recommend starting with a university extension—this excellent utility will help you find your local office. I always print out the planting schedule from my extension, which gives me a rough timeline for getting my plants in the ground, and ensures I won’t end up planting too early or too late.

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Get Kids Involved

Besides selecting what to plant, there are many ways that children can help with the family garden. With supervision, they can excel at weeding, watering, and harvesting, to name a few of the many tasks that need doing throughout the growing season. We often have itinerant helpers (neighborhood kids) who stop by to assist and to enjoy a ripe tomato or two—depending on the circumstances, planting a garden can be a community affair, and even a form of ministry.

What was paradise, but a garden full of vegetables
and herbs and pleasure? Nothing there but delights.

—William Lawson

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Number One Tip? Be Prepared to Fail

My final words of advice: Don’t be too hard on yourself if things go all “pear-shaped,” as the Brits say. Gardening can be very rewarding, and also very frustrating. Sometimes plants die, or get covered in downy mildew, or have blight, and that’s all part of the experience. There are ways to prevent these things, but the solutions can be expensive and/or involve chemicals you don’t really want your family to ingest. Sometimes you take what you get, and you do what you can with it (to quote my parents). And, for added reassurance, I will confess that I’ve had tomato plants with nothing left but yellowing stalks and a handful of shriveled, brown leaves and yet they still produced delicious fruit. Things don’t have to be pretty to be tasty!

For more inspiration, visit the “Gardening for Children” section of my recommended reading page. You can also read my posts in the “Our Garden” series on my personal blog.

Happy gardening, friends!