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

Are we leaving kids’ health up to the schools?

Teaching garden programs are popping up across the nation. Kidsgardening.org, a useful site for resources on getting kids in the garden at home or at school, notes among the many impacts of these programs that they can improve nutrition attitudes, which potentially lead to better dietary habits. While lots of us may be getting out in gardens more than ever, children’s garden lessons are increasingly occurring during school hours as part of a classroom curriculum.

Great! Here is one more way we can try to improve children’s eating habits and address the jaw-dropping rates of childhood overweight and obesity. I am excited to see programs like these – called teaching gardens or simply school gardens – as well as many other school-based interventions, which encourage better eating and activity habits for kids. But are we putting too much pressure on the schools to manage our kids’ health?

You might just view the school garden as another great way to get kids outside, but these gardens help tell a bigger story in which schools are becoming increasingly liable for the health of kids. The question becomes: who should be held responsible for kids’ health? I found an interesting article on this topic that presented arguments for both sides.

On one side of the debate, many will argue that because kids spend so many hours at school each week, of course their diet habits need to be addressed by the school. For instance, UC-San Diego pediatrician, Howard Taras, was quoted: “Whoever is providing food for our children should be responsible with what foods they provide. In fact, schools may bear a certain increased burden, because as a teaching institution, they need to be a role model.”

But, on the other end of the debate, others argue the school environment can only go so far in promoting kids’ health. Parents and the community are important resources that need to be held reliable. What’s more, the school can only promote health to the extent that the parents and community will allow and work with the school. The classic example is the parent who wants to bring cupcakes to school. If the school is regarded as the most responsible for children’s health, the parents look bad if their own food choices are not up to snuff with the school standards. Consequently, a parent might be upset about a school controlling their child’s diet. I for one have met parents who are extremely defensive about the idea of the school telling the parent what their child can and cannot eat on school premises. For instance: Who wants to be told they can only pack their child a lunch if the yogurt they pack contains no added sugars? Might there at least be some gray boundaries in terms of what we each consider healthy? What’s more, those who support this latter argument may feel as though they should be able to give their child a treat without being denigrated by the school.

So is it the parent, the school or someone else who needs to direct what kids eat? More on this  tomorrow…Stay tuned and share your thoughts!

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

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

What Le(a)d me to Think About Cold Frames…

Here in Burlington, Vermont, we are lucky to have the resource ReSOURCE, which is a nonprofit that reuses and recycles goods that might otherwise be thrown out. In addition to re-selling some items (such as my coffee table and some dishes), the organization has a branch called ReBUILD, which finds a home for old building materials – either by re-selling the raw materials, or by creating a new product such as these gorgeous cutting boards:

On a recent visit to Friends of Burlington Gardens, I found out that ReBUILD is also selling cold frames made from recycled window frames… ‘What a fantastic idea – how nice to see more affordable resources for gardening!’ I thought, and so did Jess… until she decided to ask if the window frames were coated in lead paint.

The clerk said it was quite possible they were. Yikes. Lead is a serious problem for anyone, but it’s an especially large health risk for young children as it can affect development of the nervous system. Not only could a child be at risk through direct contact with the lead (say, if they touch or eat this sweet-tasting paint), but this cold frame would also leach lead into the soil and into the food we eat.

The clerk added that a flyer with information on reused materials and lead exposure was available to customers who purchased the cold frames… but how many customers do you suppose actually read these warnings? Jess has since been in touch with ReBUILD, and I don’t doubt they’ll recognize the mistake and address this matter quickly.

This is an issue beyond one organization. After hearing about ReBUILD’s toxic mistake, I was curious how much the DIY gardeners considered this same health risk. In some websites giving directions for building your own cold frame, such as this one, the authors have been thoughtful in explaining safe building materials:

…But not every website on DIY cold frames will remind you of this warning. I could find any warning within the University of Missouri Extension’s detailed directions for building a cold frame.

Lead exposure is a serious health issue, and yet I would argue, based on the ReBUILD story and my visits to several DIY websites, that we expect it’s on the consumer to watch out for lead exposure. If you buy a lead-laden cold frame or building supplies and plop that structure into your garden, it’s your own fault you were exposed to poison. Certainly, there are many, many resources available on lead risk and safely removing lead from a home in Vermont and from the EPA. But does that make it okay to sell a product that is almost undoubtedly going to result in lead exposure?

I’m not a public health expert, but I suspect that the greater majority of people at least understand this: lead is detrimental to health. But are you 100% confident when you purchase reused materials or a product made from reused materials that it is not coated in lead paint?

So, at the same time that we want to promote the health of our communities by increasing gardening activity and by working with affordable, reused materials, how do we be more conscious of the health risks? Do you think we need to place more liability on those who sell products or building materials containing lead? I’d love your feedback on this. And also consider that many DIY-ers will collect materials from yard sales and antique stores… maybe it is better to just leave it up to the consumer to figure it all out?

FN 3/26