My 12-year-old boy, Henry, an Aspie, has always had a difficult relationship with food. He finds fruits and vegetables with mixed textures and tastes challenging. Bright colors and strong flavors usually come armed with hidden unpleasant surprises like pips and plastic skin encasing wedges of acidic mini-pillows that involuntarily explode – and that’s just oranges!
But we’ve learnt over the years that familiarity with unappealing food breeds acceptance. So in our efforts to foster better relationships with our veg, we have taken to growing our own and it’s been a wonderful success, giving Henry new insights into what food actually is. Having control over what he grows and when he chooses to harvest it gives him a connection to what he eats that’s missing when food spontaneously appears on his plate. Henry’s also a scientist at heart and witnessing the rapid change in form and structure of a plant that happens to be food, appeals to his investigative brain.
We started out with simple stuff; growing salad leaves from seed in small terracotta pots along the window ledge in our garden room. Magical isn’t it? You wait and you wait and you wait (there’s a lesson there too), wondering if the seeds are actually viable and then one day, a pair of tiny leaves appear through the compost. From then on the rate of growth is quite something. Henry was reluctant at first to sample his juvenile crop. ‘Can I really eat this?’ He said eying the salad leaf suspiciously. ‘And what’s the difference between this leaf and the ones out there on the lawn?’
‘Not an awful lot,’ was my answer looking out at our unkempt lawn with a definite imbalance of dandelion and clover to the struggling grass.
Henry planted six salad leaf varieties with care and delicate precision, each with very different shaped foliage and a color spectrum ranging from the palest lime green, through apple, mint and jungle to the darkest viridian.
We love variety and kids, like salad leaves, are all just a little bit different and we celebrate that. Also rather humanistically, our salad leaves’ flavors and personalities developed with age. A particular peppery variety, with a heat hardly detectable at two inches high, after a week of uninterrupted growth produced fiery spice with a sharp intensity that on tasting resulted in one of the best disgusted faces I have seen from Henry and immediate ejection.
Other milder leaves were embraced and happily eaten either during absent-minded grazing sessions or as an accompaniment to a meal. Although, as with much of his food, the salad resides in a separate bowl and only one variety eaten at a time.
Henry moved on to more complex horticultural endeavors and with it the mixed textures of French and runner beans. We left it rather late in the season to grow these from seed so we bought the plants online.
We buy second-hand books online, huge quantities actually, to keep up with Henry’s consumption of two to three novels a week. One brown robust parcel looked like books but what a fabulous surprise to see twelve, four inch seedlings laid out in rows; head to toe, the roots with a little compost delicately encased in a plastic mini-bag. The next day three other packages arrived. These tiny bean plants went into the smallest size of terracotta pot and then three weeks later graduated up to massive two foot wide pots, two and a half feet tall.
We discussed at great length the needs and growth properties of these beans and in the end planted four to a pot in a mix of compost and carefully sieved earth. We arranged bamboo poles around the pots, tying them into a wigwam with string at the top for the climbing tendrils to take hold.
It looks like this year we’ll be self-sufficient in dwarf and runner beans and peas. Carrots we’ve yet to master. So far our carrot crops have been woody and lacking a carroty shape, taking on more of a beetroot form. Not a success aesthetically or culinarily (if that’s a word). We had better luck with broccoli, sunflowers (for their seeds), wild strawberries and a tea bush that grows so slowly we are only allowed one cup a week off it until it bulks out a bit.
I can’t tell you what a joy it has been to see Henry grow his own food. Our selection so far has been limited and restricted to what we can grow in our damp climate of unreliable summers. But I have just had a radiator installed in the garden room, which will enable us to create a semi-tropical temperature regime.
The orange tree has been ordered, so you never know; seeing that orange ripen and picking it off his tree will undoubtedly change his relationship with that fruit. In the meantime we’re supplying the neighborhood with early beans, which Henry of course proudly boasts to have grown himself.
Sarah Patten is the author of What to Feed an Asperger – How To Go From 3 Foods To 300 With Love, Patience And A Little Sleight Of Hand. Sarah has enjoyed an eclectic career that includes being an environmental scientist, writing and directing factual television programs and lecturing at universities both in the UK and the US. She says that the science and the communication skills honed in TV production were useful in fathoming her complex beautiful child and sharing their journey with you. Sarah, her husband and two sons now live in Tunbridge Wells.
This article was featured in Issue 39 – Working Together to Communicate Better