My son is now old enough to engage in thoughtful conversations, and it’s times like these that I wonder what I’d ever do without the garden to help us make sense of the world. For example, he’s taken to the habit of putting everything and everyone into separate categories of “Wike” and “Don’t Wike.” It’s a temporary phase, I know, but it occurred to me that we adults never really grow out of the habit either. Maybe the garden had something to teach us.

Here Olaf catches mice with my son

Our dry creek after a few frosts and a storm

There is nothing in the world that my son loves more than our resident garden cat, Olaf, but one day, he made the innocent mistake of grabbing his soft, silly tail (his words, not mine). Olaf, as you can imagine, didn’t like it and responded defensively with bared teeth and a tiny scratch to my boy’s face. The betrayal stung deeply to a little boy who sees the world in terms of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, so it took a while for him to process it all. So after a day of silent thoughtfulness, my son dramatically announced the unthinkable: “I don’t wike… Olaf!” I could tell that he was troubled by this revelation, so I tried to explain how Olaf was awesome because he caught the little field mice (voles) that dug through our garden, killed our plants and destroyed our walkways. I watched my son’s eyes grow wide after trying to picture Olaf savagely devouring innocent little mice. “I don’t WIKE him!”

My son likes radishes, though will not touch them at dinner.

My son also likes lettuce, but only from the garden, anyways.

Around the same time, the little guy had formed a solid opinion of cacti, such as the big prickly pear cactus down the street. He hated that thing so much that we had to visit it on each and every one of our walks, all so that he could stare and point out the reasons for his mistrust: Big scary shape, prickley-claws… After stumbling for the right words, he said something that really resonated with me: “I don’t wike it… because I don’t know… what will happen. Because… it might hurt me.” I knew just what to do. We hurried home so that I could show him all the ‘soft cactus’ (Rhipsalis, Epiphyllum, Hatiora, etc.) in my garden that come from treetops in the jungle. I explained that animals eat cactuses, so some of them grow sharp prickles so that they won’t get eaten. Other cactuses don’t need prickles and are soft, because they grow up high in the treetops. “Because they don’t wike to be tickled and eaten!”

Succulents like these Haworthia are not too prickly…

Nor are these bromeliads. My son loves to touch both with his gardening gloves.

Like most toddlers, my son also includes vegetables on his ‘Don’t wike’ list. Of course he doesn’t mind planting the seeds, picking the green beans, touching the lettuce or pulling up the radishes; and even though his mouth remains clamped shut at the dinner table, he never hesitates to taste a vegetable that he grew himself... as long as we’re in the garden. He might spit them out after taking a bite, but the important thing is that he actually wanted to take that first bite. He tried them because he stepped outside, planted the seeds and watched the rosy red orbs pop up through the soil. He pulled them up, rinsed them off and proudly presented them to mom, because, as he puts it, “I don’t wike wadishes, but mommy wikes wadishes.” Now he’s even formed mature opinions of other things on the ‘Don’t Wike’ list. For example, he likes Olaf, but doesn’t like his sharp claws. He now likes all cactuses, even the prickly ones; “Because… I wike the soft cactus, and I wike the prickly cactus. But… I don’t have to touch the prickly cactus.”