A Farmer in the Garden

I recently helped my friend, Josh, plant some seeds and starts on his farmland out in the Northeast Kingdom. Josh’s family has always produced vegetables on their small-scale farm for area farmers’ markets, but this year Josh is running the operation on his own.

When I visited Josh’s land, I got to help him plant some of the usual crops that I have in my small garden: tomatoes, squash, pumpkin, green beans… but the planting process was a little bit different here. Forget the gentle loosening of roots on the tomato starts. Just drop them a couple paces apart for the length of the field and then walk back through and quickly tuck them into the soil a few inches above the roots. And while in my small garden I planted every squash seed with an exaggerated amount of care, here we just opened up a small hole in the soil every three paces, dropped three or four seeds in, and were on our way.

It’s funny how long my friends and I took to plan and decide and gently dig up homes for plants in the small garden plot we have when I compare it to the farmers’ methods. But I guess it’s only fair; any farm must be at least 50 times the size of our garden. It wouldn’t be as big of a deal if two or three tomato plants didn’t survive on the farm since this is such a small fraction of the crop.

While I am not about to move away from the more gentle and tedious methods of the gardener, I’m glad to have a farmer friend as a resource. The next day, when Josh visited our garden, he shook his head when he saw how I, on hands and knees, meticulously plucked out small weeds from a bed of soil I hadn’t planted anything in yet. He grabbed a hoe and we broke up the weeds. I grabbed a small rake and pulled out many of  the larger weeds before scooping some of the smaller pieces up in my hands.

In all reality, the garden isn’t just a place to grow food. It’s a place to relax, work hard, get dirty and watch life grow. So, while the farmer has some shortcuts that will still yield a good crop, I know I’ll continue to take the longer and maybe more laborious route for my miniature field of vegetables. I’ll continue to use my farmer friends as a great resource for planting and pests and so on, but somehow the garden would still feel like a productive use of my time even if it failed to produce much of any food.

Bikington Vermont

As community gardeners get to work with starting their gardens, I still see some empty plots that have yet to be rented next door to mine.  This is surprising to me, since I have heard Burlington has such a big demand for community gardening spaces. I guess this demand does indeed exist, but it is a demand for more of the smaller garden plots that are sprinkled between all of the housing close to downtown. My community garden is a little bit further from downtown, and this extra travel time is likely a deterrent for those who lack their own transportation.

However, with this being such a bike-friendly city, it’s refreshing to see that many gardeners choose to bike to the garden. Even for those that need to carry garden tools or plant starters, there are some great basket carts such as this one:

I’m very impressed with this trailer… notice the grooves in the plywood designed for oversized garden tools!

 

While some might see the extra traveling as a barrier to starting a community garden plot, hopefully the growing accessibility of bike lanes, bike paths, and affordable bikes, will encourage more people to get pedaling and get growing.

 

What Nutritionists Can Learn from the Garden

For all the nutrition-minded science geeks out there who want to understand the health benefits of community and school gardens: it isn’t just about the fruits and vegetables.

I started this blog just a few months ago as a way to track my experiences spending time in the land of community gardening. As a graduate student in nutrition research, I’m a big fan of learning about any programming designed to encourage better eating habits or better food environments – particularly when it involves increasing fruit and vegetable consumption.

As a way to reflect on what I have been talking about on KidsDigGardening, I copied and pasted all of my posts into a word cloud program. The words you see here in the largest font are those I use most frequently, which should give you an idea of what I have been emphasizing about the gardening environment with this blog:

KDG through the lens of Wordle.com…

So what have been the hot topics? The words garden, kids, school, and food have come up a lot, as has the word community. However, being nutrition-minded, it’s interesting to note some words that are not as prominent as they could have been: fruit, vegetable, produce, nutrition… Here and there while writing this blog, I have touched upon the importance of getting kids to eat more fruits and vegetables, such as when I shared this very entertaining video that models vegetable consumption, as well as the functionality of home versus community gardens in getting adults to eat more fruits and vegetables.

However, you may have realized – like I have – that the health benefits of gardening are greater than simply providing fresh fruits and vegetables. One of the words that has been most important and repetitive in this blog is community. In my time spent with the local organization Friends of Burlington Gardens, I have learned that garden programming is not only largely supported by volunteers… but that the volunteers also become those who benefit from the program.

Consider how the stakeholders affecting our larger food environment may clash: the food industry’s interest in what foods we purchase is largely driven by profit and sustaining business by selling more product, while parents’ interests are at least partially driven by what they deem healthy for their children. Put simply, parents’ and industry’s interests don’t always align. For instance, consider the impact of food marketing on your food choices. Even I have ranted before about how packaging and familiar spokes characters could influence what kids eat – for better or worse (‘Cap’n Carrots’ anyone?).

However, what I take away from my blog’s emphasis on community is that, when we work on a smaller scale within our own communities, the number of stakeholders decreases. Consequently, there will likely be less conflicting interests, and so these smaller food systems can be a win-win for everyone. In the case of the small-scale garden programs within a single town like Burlington, each volunteer hour or seed sown can be a direct benefit recycled back to that same community.

WP 5/8

The Abandoned Garden

After some frost this weekend, I’m hoping we’re finally over the last leg of cold weather and that I can start planting next weekend. My roommates and I visited our community garden plot yesterday for our own orientation and had a great time chatting about growing plans while we did some weeding. We have some very ambitious plans for our garden… after seeing the size of our 30×20 plot yesterday, we asked our garden coordinator about renting a second plot… LOTS of planting space! Easier said than done I know, so hopefully we can keep up with all the work we have ahead of us.

Glorious piles of packets of seeds!

One of the rules at our community garden is that raised garden beds can be no more than about 8″ higher than the rest of the garden. There are two reasons for this: 1) deep trenches in the garden, if not smoothed back out well enough at the end of the growing season, will be difficult to drive the tiller through come next year… and 2) if the garden gets overgrown because it is abandoned, it will be a safety hazard for those who walk through that space in an attempt to salvage the garden plot.

These rules make sense to me, and, actually, I suppose we still could create some shorter raised beds if we wanted to, but what’s more interesting here is that the garden committee anticipates (and has a plan to deal with) garden abandoners. Garden abandoners… I hadn’t really thought about this – these are the garden renters who seem to disappear mid-season, Continue reading

First Impressions of the School Garden

This past week, I got the chance to hang out with a crew of kindergarteners as they took their first chance at digging into a small school community garden plot abutting their classroom. The kids were super-excited to get outside and use garden trowels, and while the main lesson of the day surrounded the planting of seeds for sugar snap peas, the kids were most enthusiastic about the earthworms…

Earthworms!

Early in their orientation to the garden, the kids were asked to think of what ways they should behave in the garden Continue reading

Teaching Kids Food Safety: The Oreo Lesson

This weekend, I made it out to the orientation for one of Burlington’s community gardens. We lucked out with some gorgeous, sunny weather that encouraged me and many others to stick around for a while and begin weeding and loosening up the soil for some spring planting.

While most of the adults began hoeing and digging and planting a few seeds, five or six children played around in the garden or by the playhouse. One young girl crouched down by a garden bed and grabbed some soil in her hands. While I didn’t catch on to the possibility that she might try to eat the soil, one of the adults must have sensed this because she told the young girl, “Don’t eat that [soil]. That’s not food dirt. The only good food dirt is crumbled-up Oreo cookies.”

Now, I understand the message this woman was trying to get across to the little girl, which was: soil is not food. Beyond this, the woman may have been considering health risks associated with consuming contaminated dirt. After all, this garden site might be made up entirely of raised garden beds because of known soil toxicity.

In any case, I was really interested in this woman’s way of explaining safe and unsafe food. Translation: don’t eat soil (unsafe), but do eat Oreos (safe)!

Shucks, I’m thinking of those trendy health books with titles like, “Eat This, Not That” where the calorie counts of foods are compared, but here’s how it would look with those Oreos:


I know we want to prevent the girl from eating soil, but might there have been a better way Continue reading

Local Foods: Slowing Down and School Lunch

Hey, here’s a fun listen: Test Kitchen Radio shares a story about school lunch and the impact of local foods in what children eat! The best part: the program interviews one of the coordinators of the Farm to School program at the Dorset School here in Vermont. Check out the program here (start around minute 14:00).

What I like about this story is Continue reading

One of the Perks of Joining a Community Garden Plot

This weekend, in anticipation for digging into my own garden plot, I attended an event on cold frame building and season extension at one of the community gardens in town. Well… actually, the workshop had to be rescheduled because the workshop leader wasn’t able to make it…

But if you ask me, that didn’t really even matter. While I was interested in learning about cold frames, I was also attending simply because I wanted to see this community garden space and meet other gardeners.

And, on that note, the workshop actually had a pretty small turnout… there were four of us present – two of whom were assisting with the event – which means really just me and one other person – Natalie* – were officially attending the workshop.

I have to admit that generally, when I think about who attends these kinds of workshops, I expect to see that stereotypical experienced gardener who arrives in grungy jeans and sneakers with calloused hands. Natalie didn’t fit this description at all with her manicured nails, sunglasses, and a short latte cup. Having moved to Vermont just recently from the South where there is a year-round growing season, I think Natalie’s motivation for attending the workshop was similar to my own: she just wanted to meet other gardeners and learn a few things as she started her own community garden plot.

Ground cherry seeds in their tomatillo-like pods

And while the workshop didn’t happen, Natalie and I still were offered some great resources. Natalie was set up with a trowel, a pot, and a little direction for transplanting some mint which she took home, and then we were both introduced to ground cherries – which are best described as a small, pineapple-like relative to the cherry tomato. Seed pods from last year’s ground cherries littered a few of the garden beds, and I stuffed a big handful of these into my coat pocket.

I’m getting super-excited to start some seeds in my own community garden plot this spring, and I’m thankful to be splitting it with my boyfriend and my friend so we can share the workload and garden knowledge. Natalie, on the other hand, will be managing her own plot. My first thought about running my own plot was, “Ugh, what a load of work, and do I really know enough about gardening to pull this off?” But after the spontaneous assistance from other community gardeners, I think I’m starting to get a sense of the meaning of the “community” in community gardening. Although it might initially feel more challenging to maintain a plot if you’re newer to the garden scene, there are plenty of resources available within the gardening network to ensure your hard work returns a fruitful harvest.

*Name changed

FN 4/9

Signs, Signs, Everywhere There’s Signs

Burlington has no beef with pink slime, but are the kids aware? (Read this if you’re out of the loop on the debate about pink slime in school lunch beef)

Dansk: Hakket oksekød English: Ground beef

As the local food movement continues to gain momentum across the country, people are ever more interested in knowing where their food comes from… but local food isn’t always promoted clearly. While 42% of Middlebury College students mistakenly thought the majority of meat served in their dining program was locally sourced (less than 1% actually is), while I bet many students in the Burlington School District have no idea that their lunch program now purchases thousands of pounds of local beef each year. Wow! How do we get the word out?

This hot topic of ground beef quality and pink slime sounds like a bit of a tangent to kids’ gardening programs, but here’s what they all have in common: these programs are all looking (and sometimes lacking)the clear communication to explain their successful efforts. Can some simple, homemade signs help?

During a recent meeting at Friends of Burlington Gardens, the conversation jumped rapidly between planning several summer programs and activities, but the discussion seemed to cycle around this chorus: We need to make good signs for that.

The song went something like this:

  • Want to make children learning to speak English more comfortable in the garden? Let’s make some signs in the gardens for various plants that are written in different languages.
  • Want to make students more aware of the greenhouse activities at their high school and encourage them to join? How about we put up signs around campus to say what we’re doing? Let’s have some artsy students come up with a sign and maybe a motto we can display outside the greenhouse.
  • Want to show the community the flourishing school garden in its prime? We should get lots of good signage…I wonder who has nice handwriting?

A wealth of signs piled in the closet at FBG

Signs are essential for communicating what’s happening in the land of garden education – they can decorate the garden site and give kids a way to contribute – but they also can be a marketing tool used to recruit students and showcase successes for the community. While the cardboard signs handwritten in marker and those hand-painted wooden signs might be kind of old-school, I think they’re an appropriate way to deliver these messages. Tweeting to the world or putting up a Facebook page about the garden might happen too, but simple signage is intimate and personalized for the immediate community. What are the ways that members of your local food system get the message out about the good work they’re doing? Are handmade signs part of their marketing toolkit?

FN 4/2

Coordinating the Communal Community Garden

(say that ten times fast!)

Community gardens are about community, right? More often than not, community gardens are divided into smaller plots, in which individuals or families can rent a personal space for the growing season. But some gardeners prefer a more collective effort, where one big plot of land is worked cooperatively by the community. These communal gardens are a great idea in theory, but do they work?

NPR recently aired a story on their radio show All Things Considered where they discussed this issue. They shared some instances where the communal-style garden was a success for the community, but also explained how these gardens oftentimes fail. The main reason for failure? Community members lacked the time or commitment to maintain the garden.

community gardens boston, mass.

Jenn from Friends of Burlington Gardens told me about a community garden site here in Burlington that had tried to coordinate a communal plot. The garden has since switched to individual plots. The biggest reason for quitting the communal garden approach might surprise you… the garden produced a bountiful amount of food that went un-harvested. While I have mentioned theft in gardens before, here is an example of just the opposite: no one wanted to be too greedy about taking food that others might need more, and so food rotted on the vine!

So, whether food doesn’t grow because there are not enough people committed to garden maintenance… or because people are shy about reaping the benefits of their hard work… the communal-style garden is not so popular. I prefer to have my own small garden plot because it feels less complicated. I still want to mingle with my neighbors and meet others in my community, but maybe I can do this well enough without the communal style plot.

How do you prefer to garden? Do you rent your own garden plot? Do you share a communal plot? Or do you have a private garden at home?