I’ve been working as a gardening teacher/educator for about 20 years. An urban children’s gardening facilitator might be a better title. ‘Facilitator’, in that, being part of nature, we have an innate ability to survive and thrive. Uncovering the layers of disassociation from the land, paves the way for ancient knowledge to come through. We’re a hop step and jump into the life force of soil, the brilliance of root systems, the vitality of plants, the role of flowers, the harvest and feast and the final event of back to the soil.
Below are some tips for gardening with children that I’ve gleaned over the years:
1. Change tasks often and swiftly. Line them up, ready to go. Tidy up later.
2. Be prepared to change your plans. Seize the moment, help that sad looking plant that may need transplanting, feeding or watering even though it was NOT on your days’ agenda. Discover that cucumber under the leaves? Cut it into a salad of cucumber, petals, a few borage flowers, shredded mint, touch of salt, lemon and olive oil. Delicious!
3. Allow kids to come and go. If I am doing something interesting, the kids arrive.
A student, graduating from pre-school, who had worked with me in the garden, demanded,
“Call me by my name when you start something else, I want to be there only for new tasks!”
This made me wonder, should I insist he stay for the tedious parts?
I chose to allow his request based on my principal: If interested, the ability to work through the tedious parts will come.
“But I do not know your name, Logan,” came my reply.
“Humph,” he said, not noticing the joke, “it’s LOGAN!”
4. This leads me to my next point which is that my sense of humor might go over their heads, so I try to keep it simple.
5. Simple is very important and I know if the task is not executed, it’s usually my instructions at fault.
6. All concepts can be explained. The younger the student, the less detail, but the concept, broken down to its elemental form, needs to be available for all to hear. And….
7. Repetition is the key.
They may not get it immediately, but continual repetition works. I’ve seen it with students I meet later in their lives. They keep the word SOIL (not dirt!!!!)
I explain to them all the time:
“Dirt is something you need to clean, wash off. Soil is alive; it houses the critters that run the soil life and the root systems that draw up water and nutrients from the soil into the stems, leaves, flowers and fruit. Living soil is a vital building block to healthy plants that leads to healthy humans.” Over and over.
8. Eating food out of the garden is not a give and often needs patience.
Pulling carrots from the earth is an excellent way to lure in potential gardeners. They are hard to resist and a great segue into a whole gardening experience. When a vital, edible ORANGE root is pulled out of the earth, perspectives can change.
Peas are an excellent 2nd place, easy to grow, sweet crunchy, fresh, abundant, recognizable and delicious.
3rd place goes to…kale. Kale chips with a light coating of olive oil, baked and crisped in an oven are a hit. I love them, as well, for an odd reason perhaps; most likely in its’ life time, kale will have had a visit from a cabbage butterfly (those little white guys with a black spot on each wing). They dot the underside of the leaf of kale with tiny yellow eggs, one at a time, so each caterpillar that emerges will have a food source. My gardeners look for these eggs all the time as this is an easy stage to remove (just wipe them off), but the caterpillars, tiny when they emerge, grow furiously, depleting the leaves we want to harvest! Spotting them, removing them and finding out about their life cycle is a fabulous deeper look at the role of insects and the interdependence between plants and insect both pests and beneficials
4th place goes to celery that students can pick (as long as they eat). Served with peanut butter or a ranch dip. I’m always surprised by how a taste for this somewhat bitter stem is cultivated. I think the desire to pick overcomes the distaste of eating it. And if it is well situated there are many stalks for the plucking.
FYI strawberries are fruit so they do not count in this section and they are no 1 of all fruit – especially the ‘everbearing’ variety which yields all summer.
9. Lastly, my motto is: You grow it, you try it. And can spit it out if you don’t like it. No pressure.
Early introduction to gardening cancels the idea that all food comes from super-markets. The experience informing the knowledge! I think it reduces fear of touching soil, worms, eating a flower, or daring to taste a leaf.
I despaired that my son would never eat from the garden. I can safely say he was exposed! Then he grew up, become eco-conscious, wants to compost, cut back on fossil fuels by growing his own food. And he loves to cook with home grown ingredients. What a waste of worry energy on my part. I often ask employees working in the garden nurseries if they gardened as young kids. I know this is anecdotal, but most often the answer is yes.
My thinking is that if I am the facilitator who points out how all systems of nature are interconnected (including ourselves), the students will step lighter on the earth, become conscious of the preciousness of water, soil, seeds and value the food we eat. They are the future custodians of the earth.
I know this is a lofty ideal. It comes from living in Los Angeles where I see mc-mansions built on small properties that exclude gardens almost completely; I see abundant fruit on trees in front yards that occupants are afraid to pick or eat; I see asphalt on school yards instead of grass or stones or earth; I see food insecurity in my alley; hungry citizens digging in my garbage for recyclables to sell so they may eat, I see lawns being irrigated with water that travels up to 444 miles while the rivers and damns are at critically low levels (not to mention that grass NEEDS chemicals to keep it pure). The alternative to lawn right now is almost worse for me. Turf grass is made from petroleum-based products, that can reach up to 150% Fahrenheit in the sun (try stepping on that) smelling of rubber when at that heat, emitting a significant source of microplastic pollution every year and this number is growing and preventing water from seeping back into the water table while adding to our runoff that goes to the ocean.
Lighting small candles, one student at a time, instead of cursing the darkness, gives me hope.
That and germinating seeds.
Which goes to the bottom line:
The impact of witnessing and actively participating in the miracle of gardening goes beyond any measurable metric. It goes to essence of how to survive and thrive in harmony with all systems of the universe. There I go lofty again.
A seed is formed in the ovary of the female part of the flower. It has techniques for its dispersal, for finding its environment to grow, flower, create more seeds and continue.
The sprouted plant uses the food it creates, through the process of photosynthesis, to send a slime or exude into the earth that in turn attracts beneficial fungi. Nematodes (microscopic organisms) eat the fungi, leaving minerals it does not want at the plant’s roots. The plant, with no ability to walk, has knowingly attracted vital minerals to itself in an absorbable form. Later when the plants shifts into seed production the components of that slime changes.
When that plant has accomplished its life’s work (to make seeds) and dies, the entire plant breaks down and becomes part of the earth, wasting nothing, recycling minerals and nutrients stored in the plant. Once again, those microscopic good guy bacteria and fungi and other recyclers like earthworms, and roly-polies get to work, imbibing energy still stored in leaves and stems, powering (like gasoline) the underground system that creates soil health.
And in between this, humans eat the fruit, the roots, stems and leaves, eat and absorb the sun’s energy (just like the insect recyclers). The very same nutrients that the plant has attracted through its roots from the soil, are vital for human survival. We are interconnected.
Though I have never found this actual quote, I hold it to be a truism
You do not need a classroom, only a garden.
It’s an honor.