It's official, spring is here! Each year I greet spring with mixed emotions. I enjoy seeing the flowers bloom and watching the trees come back to life, but I dread the blazing hot days of summer. I much prefer bundling up to go outside and play in the snow to spending a day on the beach and getting sand in my swimsuit. I like curling up under a blanket on my couch and reading a book in front of the fireplace rather than taking off as many layers as possible and trying not to move just to keep from sweating. In the winter I can bake bread and pastries and enjoy the scent of them filling the air; in summer I have to wrack my brain for meals which don't involve cooking to avoid heating up the house.

Despite my reluctance for summer, there is one thing that I get excited about every spring: gardening! Growing up, we always had strawberries and rhubarb in the back yard, but it wasn't until moving to Kansas that I truly discovered the joy of gardening. Each year I enjoy tomatoes, green beans and cucumbers fresh from the garden. I can collect my extra eggplant and exchange it with friends for corn or squash from their own gardens. I also like visiting the farmers' market to see what other people have grown and the variety of things they have made from their produce.

As eating well becomes more difficult and more expensive, gardens are a wonderful and economical way to stay healthy. They are good for more than just our diet, however. Gardening gets you outside where you can soak up some healthy vitamin D from the sun, it gets you active as you dig and weed, and it helps you connect to nature. In fact, when you create a garden, you are benefitting more than just yourself, you are helping your local ecosystem as well.

Your garden will probably become a haven for a variety of wildlife. The moisture and the food source will attract everything from worms and insects to rabbits and birds. Some of these might be a bit of a nuisance as they enjoy the same foods you do, but others can actually be beneficial to your efforts. Lady bugs, for instance, are predators that eat other insects which may be harming your plants. The worms are providing fertile, aerated soil for better plant growth and the birds may eat a few seeds, but generally won't harm much. For rabbits, a small fence is probably enough to keep them from devouring your carrots.

And if you have children, the dirt, plants, bugs, birds and everything else are a life-changing, character-building experience that can't be beat. Each summer I take my very young children into the garden and let them play while I dig and plant. As they sit in the beds and dig with their hands they learn more than just that dirt tastes bad. They are discovering how the world works, where worms live, that water and dirt make mud (which is lots of fun), that plants lean in the same direction the wind is blowing, that animals come closer when you are still and quiet, and so much more. As they get older they will help me dig the holes and put the plants in the ground and we will learn about life cycles and where food comes from.

Even adults aren't immune to this process. You may already know that a caterpillar creates a cocoon and becomes a butterfly, but I bet you will never get tired of seeing it happen. This summer, get outside and garden. We can all use a healthier diet, a little more sun and an awe-inspiring experience that takes us back to our childhood.

If you would like to give the plants in your garden a little extra boost, stop by the zoo for some "Zoo Doo" our own nutrient-rich compost made from the generous donations of the zoo's animals. Keep an eye out for our spring sale or call us at 276-1250 to arrange a pick up. To learn more about our Zoo Doo sale and much more, visit our new website at www.leerichardsonzoo.org.