My dad never made me learn plumbing, but I’m making my kids learn to grow their own food. Growing fruits and vegetables is one of the few skills I have, and I would be neglectful if I didn’t pass it on to my three children.

I watched my dad repair plumbing equipment on our driveway, I crawled under the house with him to look at pipes, and when I got in trouble at school he made me join him on the truck to go on calls. I watched him work, but he never explicitly taught me how to install a new sink, to locate a clog in a sewer line, to replace a water heater, to fix a leaky faucet. And by the time I was old enough to recognize how valuable his skills as a plumber were – 25 years old – he unexpectedly passed away.

I’ve decided I want to be more forceful with my kids. I’ve been making them learn to sow peas, to harvest potatoes, to water seedlings properly, and to raise chickens since day one.

Two days ago, I rounded them up and took them to the nectarine tree. “You’re going to learn how to prune a nectarine,” I said. “Why do we prune fruit trees?” I asked, once at the tree.

They’re four, six, and seven years old. “So it doesn’t get in the way of other trees?” said my seven-year old. “So it makes fruit?” said my four-year old.

“Yeah, good ideas. And imagine if we never pruned this nectarine tree. It would grow as tall as that avocado,” I said, pointing to the 18-foot tall Hass tree behind them. “Then how would we pick the fruit? Remember how soft nectarines are when they’re ripe and juicy and sweet? With a pole picker we would damage them. So I prune this tree to keep it down to my reach, so I can pick every fruit like this.” I mock-picked a nectarine just above my head.

“Can I use this?” asked my six-year old, holding a pruning saw.

“No, sorry. I’ve already made the big cuts on this tree so now we’ll just use clippers and make smaller cuts.”

One by one I took them around the tree looking for areas of branches that were too crowded. “Are there any branches that are touching each other? We want some space between the branches so that when the leaves grow they’ll each get sunlight and when the nectarines grow they won’t bonk into other nectarines.” 

Once each kid found a crowded set of branches, they got to make a cut. And we spent a little time talking about cutting just above a lateral branch or cutting just above the branch collar.

Miles makes his cut.

They all enjoyed cutting the branches, but still, as soon as they made their cut they handed the loppers to me and ran over to climb in the avocado tree with their siblings. They weren’t exactly begging to learn more.

I don’t expect that. Maybe my teaching method could be improved. I’ll think about that. Most importantly, they’re not going to become adults and then ask me to teach them how to prune a nectarine. I might not even be around to teach them.

Yesterday morning, Miles (my six-year old) and I were looking on my computer for toys he could buy with the ten dollars he had earned recently. Then we closed the computer and after a minute of quiet he said, “I wonder why toys are more expensive than food when you need food and don’t need toys.”

“It is strange how people will spend so much on things they don’t need,” I said.

“Like a whole loaf of bread is like three dollars,” he went on, “but a Lego set that size would be like a hundred dollars.”

For some reason, his bringing this up caused my mind to recall a man I met about a year ago. This man had contacted me asking if he could hire me to visit his large property in Escondido and help him start a vegetable garden and home orchard. When I arrived, I found a beautiful landscape of palm trees and ornamental plants.

He explained to me: “I go to the grocery store and they make me wear a mask in order to enter. I’ve realized that they can starve me by just finding a reason not to let me into the grocery store. I look around at all the palm trees and flowers I have growing here and they’re useless. I need to be watering plants I can eat.”

I don’t worry much about access to grocery stores, or restaurants, or even garden centers. I can grow my own, I can save my own seed. I know how to forage a little. I know how to raise chickens. I can even shoot and process a cottontail rabbit if I need to. There’s an absence of fear in my life about access to food.

Almost twenty years ago now, I moved to a small country in Africa called Lesotho to work as a Peace Corps teacher in a rural village. The white Land Cruiser of the Peace Corps dropped me off at my home for the next two years, a one-bedroom house on the grounds of a small school surrounded by farm fields off the edge of a small village. No electricity, no running water. No grocery stores around let alone restaurants. I had to learn to feed myself.

I wish my dad had made me learn his plumbing skills, or that I’d been smart enough to ask him to teach me. But now the best I can do as a father is teach my kids my food gardening skills, which are in some ways more important. They’ll thank me later.

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