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.

Way to go, LA Sprouts!

It has been so inspiring to see so many gardening programs popping up in schools and summer programs across the country this spring. Last year, before I really had begun to dig into the gardening scene, I felt like I might have been on the fringe of something big as I started to volunteer for a middle school gardening program. Now, as I have the amazing opportunity to research teaching gardens as part of my Masters program in Nutrition, I am amazed to see how much research is being committed to understanding and evaluating these programs!

Just this past week, the program “LA Sprouts” was highlighted in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. The study assessed some markers related to better eating habits, such as preferences for fruits and vegetables or changes in beliefs about cooking and ability to prepare fruit and vegetable foods at home. The study was conducted among fourth- and fifth-graders in a Latino community, who indeed reported an increased preference for vegetables as a result of the 12-week program. Researchers have argued that an increased preference for vegetables can suggest an increased likelihood that children will consume vegetables, but this can’t be taken as definitive proof that kids are definitely eating more of these foods. An interesting finding from a previous paper about LA sprouts, however, was that this same program resulted in a slower amount of weight gain in overweight children than those in a control group, so there is some  promise for these programs to either improve what kids eat or get them to be more active.

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

Schools and Kids’ Health: Take Two

Yesterday, I started to discuss the role of schools in children’s diets. While we see some wonderful school-based programming such as teaching gardens that promote children’s health, is it up to the schools to direct children’s eating habits? I think getting kids to garden is a great idea, and possibly a way to get kids to eat higher-quality diets. But as schools continue to offer programs such as this, and as schools continue to provide a large percentage of children’s daily diets, how responsible should they really be for their students’ health outcomes and dietary habits?

Independence High School's cafeteria during lunch.

Independence High School's cafeteria during lunch. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

More and more, I believe the responsibility for children’s health must fall in the hands of schools. In the right school district, a child now could potentially eat all meals at school… There’s the School Breakfast Program, the National School Lunch Program, snack programs like the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program and the Afterschool Snack Program… and now some schools offer dinner too! On top of that, there may be snack bars, school stores, and vending machines available at school. If a child has so many opportunities to make eating decisions during the school day, 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

Enough Seeds to Go Around

Nothing BEETS sorting seeds, I’m sure you all MUSTa-heARD! It really brings me into a PEAS-ful state of mind…!

And so this is how I broke out into vegetable puns this past week while visiting Friends of Burlington Gardens (FBG). After studying biochemical pathways and nutrition jargon, nothing could have been more enjoyable to me than my time sorting and labeling seed packets. During the past few weeks, FBG has coordinated a few workshops and events for the community to swap seeds, donated by area businesses. After these events, there were still several boxes of seeds remaining, which were to be used by the FBG’s summer garden program, as well as by other school and community gardens around the state.

Among the seeds I sorted was a large selection of peas, green beans, winter squash, sprouts, pumpkins, summer squash, okra, and mustard greens. I tidied up a limited supply of celery, tomatoes, leeks, cauliflower, and eggplant. We also had an overflowing box of flower seeds, which the director decided was not even worth attempting to organize.

In the upcoming weeks, garden coordinators will be invited to rummage through these seeds and select some to put towards their own gardens. Without having thought to ask, my feeling is that these seeds are a surprise ‘bonus’ which garden programs get to take advantage of while planting their gardens this year. Other popular favorites, such as kale and salad greens and broccoli and carrots, may be supplied through other donations, or purchased through the garden’s personal budget.

How wonderful it is to see these excess seeds get passed on to other gardeners. Can you think of the number of times you might buy a packet of seeds and only use one-fourth or half of the contents? There are so many plant varieties to try, and it is so fun to have garden of many subtle flavors…

Finding a local seed swap, or at least a place to donate excess seeds, is a sensible way to have a diverse garden, prevent waste, and maybe make a few friends in the community, while you’re at it!

I would love to hear how others plan their seed purchases and any seed-sharing stories!

Grant Money Not Taken for Granted

Every growing season I re-learn the same lesson: a garden takes more effort than simply sowing a seed. It’s easy to get convinced otherwise because nature handles most of the work. Many plants (particularly weeds) thrive without the help of a green thumb in the presence of the basics: sunlight, soil and water. But it is silly to think a garden can succeed without more input and labor and resources. For one thing, it takes human energy to tug out those thriving weeds that threaten to steal prime real estate from my vegetable crop.

That said, it is no surprise that school and community gardens are always in search of resources to sustain their own garden programs – whether they receive grant money and cash donations, garden supplies, or volunteer labor. One of the goals of Friends of Burlington Gardens (FBG) is to coordinate funding for these gardens through mini-grants, which may be used to purchase supplies such as shovels and rakes and mulch, or to pay salaries to garden coordinators, among other needs.

But how can FBG coordinate these grants, in addition to coordinating other events, and funding their own programs? Grants are the sustenance of this organization. I had never noticed it before, but the FBG’s director pointed out the  whiteboard calendars hidden behind the entry of their small office. Short notes have been scribbled on the four-month calendar in various colors. She pointed out the days with notes written in red, which signified due dates for grant applications.

I counted four to six dates with the red handwriting within each of the months. Seriously? Four to six grant applications to complete per month during the busy season for garden planning?

Sure, I suspected FBG relied heavily on grants, but I couldn’t believe this two-person team had so many grant applications to keep track of! The director explained that FBG generally receives about 60% of the grants they apply to, so they use this estimate to plan their budget for the upcoming summer and fall. This is shaky for the organization, since the plans they create now bank on this estimated revenue. How will they manage if they receive less money?

While FBG also continues efforts for fundraising and approaches businesses for garden supply donations, the year-to-year success of the organization will continue to be funded by grant money based on the previous year’s success.

While it is surely stressful and time-intensive for FBG to complete these applications, I didn’t get the sense that the director was bothered by this process. In addition to the most obvious benefit of completing these applications – funding – this is an opportunity for the program to constantly evaluate itself. By discussing the program’s successes and failures in grant applications, I bet FBG has a more balanced view of their organization, and also more foresight into best strategies for the future garden seasons.

FN 3/5