Plants with stories are intriguing, says Jessie Alt of Madrid, Iowa. Because her mom was a librarian and her dad was a farmer, it was natural for Jessie to develop an interest in plants and science. Her mom brought home books that fueled Jessie’s interest. Her parents also developed a pumpkin business for Jessie and her two siblings to earn money.
“We had a pick-your-own pumpkin patch before pumpkin patches were a business,” explains Jessie. “School teachers could bring classes out to the farm and pick a pumpkin to take home. The only rule was the student had to be able to carry their own pumpkin. While at the farm, students got to pet whatever critters happened to be available and go on a hay rack ride. We also took truckloads of pumpkins into town and sold them off my grandparents’ front lawn. The pumpkin business showed me that being creative with plants could entertain people of all ages.”
Fast forward 20 years and Jessie spends her free time working in her garden with her two small daughters. They also plant pumpkins and squash, so her daughters have a chance to learn real-life lessons like their mom learned while she was growing up.
“Gardening relaxes me. I also like spending time with our girls. Combining the two allows me to relax while spending time with the kids,” explains Jessie, a research scientist for Corteva Agriscience in Johnston, Iowa. “There is no guilt about not spending time with the kids while gardening or alternatively not getting time to do my favorite activity because I am spending time with the girls. Often gardening with the kids looks like me pulling weeds while they chase bugs, dig holes, or pick dandelions. It is fun for me and fun for them. All three of us are happiest outside.”
Her husband, Brian, works the ground in the spring to prepare it for planting. Jessie says she and her girls experiment in the garden by trying new plants or different ways of growing things. Sometimes their experiments work and sometimes they don’t.
“Many of our ‘goofs’ and experiments have unintended consequences,” says Jessie. “For example, last year I didn’t get the last of the radishes picked. They grew taller and larger until they eventually produced a beautiful, crazy, wild looking flower patch. We unintentionally created a pollinator garden with radishes! The girls spent quite a bit of time trying to count insects in the bonus pollinator garden.”
Last fall Jessie and her family seeded rye grass onto the garden and pumpkin patch to provide ground cover over the winter. They learned that rye grass is a deer magnet.
“For the number of deer in our garden early April you would have thought we had a neon sign advertising ‘deer eat free’ at the end of our driveway,” says Jessie. “The girls loved counting the deer every evening.”
Gardening with kids takes extra time, extra patience, and often extra snacks for them, says Jessie. However, the results are more than worth the extra efforts.
“Each year I learn something new in our garden. Nothing is perfect. Often it is messy. Keeping it simple always yields the most fun and best results,” says Jessie, who hopes her interest in growing plants and practicing science helps encourage other females to pursue their dreams.
The great thing about building interest in science is that there is no right way, encourages Jessie. Just do what feels natural for you and watch the excitement happen.
“When a girl sees a woman or girl as a scientist they see it as a possibility for themselves. Recently, our oldest daughter developed an interest in cooking. She enjoys watching kids’ cooking shows but never expressed any desire to cook a meal entirely on her own. Then she saw a girl about a year older than her wearing the exact same sparkly blue cowgirl boots she loves to wear. Seeing that girl, wearing her boots, made her exclaim ‘Mom! She’s wearing my boots! She’s on that show! That means I can learn to cook like that!’ All it took was a glimpse of someone like her to boost her confidence. To this end, I volunteer time with students of all ages and encourage others to do the same.”