Each year I head for the garden, armed with battle plans to conquer the world -- or at least my corner of it.
I carry blueprints of my garden-to-be. The plans are drawn to scale. Every flower bed and vegetable plot is reduced to a few lines on graph paper. I agonize over these drawings for hours, trying to organize plants and outwit the pests that would attack them.
The plans never leave my sight. They are my hope for success against the forces of nature that are even now rallying to assault my garden. Bugs. Blight. Things that go munch in the night.
My wife thinks I'm nuts. She says this siege mentality does not befit an amateur gardener. She reminds me that I am not General Eisenhower, and that my tomato patch is not the beach at Normandy.
She's right. I take garden planning too seriously. So I've offered the job to someone less serious than I. Someone who keeps gardening in perspective. Someone who trusts Mother Nature.
Someone who draws the flower beds in crayon.
"How does this look, Daddy?" says Beth, presenting her garden plan. Beth, my 11-year-old daughter, is my new landscape designer.
She ought to be working for Disney.
Beth's flower bed is shaped like a rainbow, her lettuces have faces and the carrots are all wearing glasses.
It's not the garden I envisioned.
Beth's drawings have earthworms wearing straw hats and bonnets. There is also a floppy-eared rabbit standing at the garden gate, basket in hand, preparing to pick my produce.
Egad. I have nightmares about rabbits ransacking my crops, yet Beth draws them right into her garden plans.
The thought of wildlife in my garden makes me nervous. I grab an eraser.
"Bye-bye, bunny," I say.
Beth stabs me with a crayon.
"You've never kept rabbits out of the garden," she says. "Besides, they don't eat much of your stuff."
She's right. Despite hungry garden intruders, there are always enough veggies to go around. The bunny can stay. On paper, anyway.
Beth beams in approval.
We've been soilmates for nearly a decade, ever since Beth toddled out to the garden, plucked a fresh cherry tomato and toppled backward in amazement. An eggplant broke her fall.
We may disagree on horticultural tactics -- Beth likes to swipe earthworms from my side of the garden for her personal plot -- but I heed her opinions. She gives me a fresh slant on a diversion that can become the hobby from hell.
I dreaded having to dig dandelions from the lawn each spring until Beth declared them her favorite flower. Now we all rejoice at the unfurling of the first bright yellow blossoms. I can't remember why I ever cursed dandelions.
Beth helps with every aspect of gardening, from planting to harvest. Children enjoy sowing large seeds, like peas, beans and nasturtiums. Planting onion sets in the soft spring soil is also fun.
Encourage budding gardeners by giving them a corner of the family plot, but keep it clear of prickly crops like cucumbers and berries. Place boundaries of rock, brick or wood around this "special" garden, for your sake as well as the child's.
Let him raise what he wants, but suggest easy-to-grow plants like sunflowers and pumpkins. Avoid confusion by marking seed rows with string. Kids want quick results, so include a few store-bought transplants for instant gratification.
Invest in a child-sized set of garden implements: real tools, not the flimsy plastic sandbox type. Teach kids how to weed and water their plots, and have at least one free-for-all with the garden hose each summer.
Explain the difference between good and bad bugs, and offer youngsters a bounty on every beetle they trap. Rabbits, too. Just don't release them in my neighborhood.