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Notes From the Garden: Raising the Next Generation of Gardeners

Wednesday, January 21, 2015
My love of gardening comes from my grandfather, John Lenat. He introduced me to his garden and fed me tasty things right from it. He never made me pull weeds, a sure way to discourage young gardeners.

In today’s world, many children don’t have a special person to teach them to garden, or a place to garden. Many have never planted a seed or eaten a carrot or tomato picked fresh.

Maybe we need to look at our schools as venues for education about more than the core curriculum. I mean, which is more important: Knowing that 7 times 9 is 63, or teaching our children to garden and to appreciate fresh food that they have grown? In terms of health and longevity in this day of fast food and prepared junk food, shouldn’t we be teaching our children good eating habits as well as math? I recently visited a school where all the kids love veggies and fruits — food grown right at the school.

The public elementary school in the town of Haiku on Maui, Hawaii has included gardening in its educational program. Each child gets 20 weeks of gardening instruction each year, one hour per week for 10 weeks in two different seasons. The school enrollment is about 440 students in grades K-5. The class I visited in the garden had about 25 children, and was taught by a half-time gardening teacher, Crystal Summers.

Ms. Summers was helped on the day I visited by the second grade teacher, Joan Junger, and a volunteer the kids called “Uncle Steve.” A class of 25 needs extra adults if each child is going to do meaningful work in the garden. Parent and community participation has been key to the gardening program’s success. “You have to have a principal who is on board,” Summers said. Fortunately, in Haiku, they do.

On the day I visited, the children each participated in three activities. In one group they each planted a six-pack of marigolds with seeds saved from their garden. They had planted seeds before, and most knew just what to do. The children will sell the marigolds at a school flower festival in April that raises money for the garden program.

The second activity was weeding. The kids were just back from vacation, and weeds had popped up in the walkways while they were away. The children used simple dandelion weeders and dug up shoots of new grass. Since they were all doing it together, and they had to weed for only about 10 minutes, and the children did not seem to consider it drudgery.

The last activity was picking beans. They had a huge bush of “gondule beans,” also called pigeon peas, that had both ripe and green pods. Each second grader was given a pair of scissors and asked to cut and sort the beans. Green pods went in one basket, dry in another. At the end of class, the children cut up and ate the fresh pods, along with tiny pieces of a fresh radish that had been harvested that day.

Eating the garden produce is an important part of each visit to the garden. The children are learning not just how to grow fresh vegetables, but how to enjoy them, even if, like the radish, the food has a taste that is different from what they are accustomed to.

One of the things the children like best are the green smoothies they make with garden produce. The principal donated a blender to the program, and Summers uses it to make smoothies. In the blender goes kale and other greens from the garden, and fruit from the garden or donated by parents. They are lucky — they can grow papayas and bananas right there at the perimeter of the garden.

So how does all this translate for New England school gardens? Because of our climate, we have a much shorter growing season, but now is the time to think about it. First of all, get your principal and parent-teacher organization interested. For example, the garden in Haiku had wood-sided raised beds, which is a good idea, but an initial investment. Fundraisers to get materials for the program would be a big help, since most school budgets are pretty tight.

Next, get the school board interested and committed to it. Getting a teacher or an aide assigned to the program would be a big help, but also a budget line item. Although a program could be initiated and run by a volunteer or master gardener, it would be best to have a paid gardening teacher who can work with children of all grades. That gardening teacher can also link what is happening in the garden with what is being taught in the classroom. Gardening has the potential to increase math and language arts skills if integrated into a comprehensive program.

There are plenty of fast-growing greens that can be planted in early spring and harvested before school lets out in June. I love the idea of green smoothies — blending lettuce or spinach with bananas and apples, for example. They are delicious and healthy. And yes, someone needs to buy the fruit here in New England, but if we can get our kids craving healthy foods instead of fat- and sugar-loaded snacks, we can, perhaps, set a lifelong habit that will make a difference.

I feel so lucky to have spent part of my vacation visiting a school that teaches more than the three R’s. And I hope we can do more here. Every little bit counts if we’re going to raise the next generation of gardeners.

Henry Homeyer is a lifelong organic gardener and the author of four gardening books. His website is www.Gardening-Guy.com.

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