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.

 

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

Endive Gone Bananas Over You…

If anyone out there is compiling a list of the top ten best pun-laden gardening songs, this video should top the list. Songwriter Michael McConkey runs a really SWEET fruit nursery in Afton, VA, called Edible Landscaping. Listen carefully to catch these fun and quirky lyrics… I know they leave me artichoked-up in my heart...!

NOTE: The beginning of the video is some information about the business; skip to minute 3:00 if you just want to get to the puns

I had posted before about media that models healthy behaviors – such as promoting vegetable consumption – and I don’t think Michael’s song was as consciously designed to influence children’s (or adults’) behaviors, but I have watched this video so many times trying to get down all of the great puns that I wonder if it might make me crave some certain fruits and veggies. Endive anyone?

Share your favorite pun here!

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

Garden Hygiene?

English: A picture of compost soil

Image via Wikipedia

We want kids to optimize their health by eating fresh produce from the garden, but should we be concerned about microscopic germs creeping in the soil?

During my most recent visit with the Friends of Burlington Gardens, the director met with Phil*, a representative from a well-known and respected nonprofit. Phil is in the process of planning a fundraising event where as many as three-thousand people would be asked to each plant an individual flower or vegetable seed in their provided container. For this big event, Phil plans to collect donations of seeds and soil and provide a unique growing container. With the supplies mostly lined up, he visited Friends of Burlington Gardens to ask for help with the logistics of actually getting three-thousand people to sow their seeds in their containers. Similar to a previous seed-starting event I posted about earlier, Phil is looking for help to direct children and adults on how to plant their seeds at soil stations set up at the event.

One of Phil’s logistical concerns was sanitation. How would three-thousand people wash their hands after getting muddied up from the soil? Besides a little dirt under the fingernails, Phil commented that his co-workers – less comfortable with gardening and getting down in the dirt – had been concerned about how hygienic or sanitary this might be and wondered how they might be able to set up hand-washing stations in the park where the event was to be held.

Dirty soil. I had not thought much about this before. It is true that soil is loaded with microbes – some more friendly than others – so how concerned should this event be with providing water and soap to the participants after they plant the seed starters?

Phil added that he was less concerned about the sanitation issue himself, so really he was bringing this up more on the behalf of his co-workers, but the Friends of Burlington Gardens director supported his idea. Hand washing stations make sense for such a large crowd. Plus, they could be used to rinse out the planting containers as well.

I agree with Phil and the director that hand washing stations would be appreciated simply because this will be such a large event. But it got me thinking about the response Phil’s co-workers had to gardening and the less obvious matter they may have been expressing… In the grand scheme of things, how concerned should we be about children’s health and sanitation when playing in the dirt?

If you ask me, a little dirt won’t hurt. Some exposure to germs is important for building up that natural immunity. But should I be sympathetic to those who are more germophobic? Certainly, there are cases where the soil might be poorer quality and truly unsafe for growing food. (TLC Home shares some tips on remedying polluted soil in these scenarios.) Not all soil is the same…

So for those who might be less comfortable with a little dirt under the fingernails, are there ways we should try to make the gardening experience more hygienic and ‘clean’? Or do you think getting dirty and grubby is a necessary rite of passage for the gardener? I would love your thoughts on this, as well as suggestions for a more hygienic dirtiness!

*name changed

FN 3/12

Seed Starting Workshop: For All Ages?

In anticipation of warmer weather and softer soils, Friends of Burlington Gardens (FBG) hosted its first annual seed-sprouting event to get kids ready for spring gardening. The event was conveniently held at the same time as the neighboring winter farmer’s market, but it was an awkward juxtaposition to see plots of soft summer grass, a badminton net, and a lemonade stand in the drafty basement of a municipal building.

This Saturday was my first time working with FBG, and my job was to help kids plant seed starters in small plastic drink cups. I introduced myself to my host, and then was promptly put to work setting up a workshop table with the plastic potting cups, labels, a watering can, soil, and a few dozen seed packets. I worked the earlier half of the event, when traffic was slowest, but I helped about 8 or 10 kids plant their soon-to-be fruits, vegetables, and flowers.

If I were stranded on a desert island where I committed the rest of my life to teaching kids how to make their seed starters, and I only could bring one kind of seed… I would bring watermelon seeds. These seeds are big and easy to tuck into a soft bed of soil, and kids loved the idea of growing this juicy fruit. Whenever a child was too shy or quiet (or distracted by badminton games) to pick a seed, I pushed the Moon and Stars watermelon seed.

Although some of the very youngest preschool-aged kids needed plenty of direction and were rather timid, the older elementary-schoolers dug into the project with little hesitation. At one point, three girls were planting their seeds together and making their own tags (which they all labeled with their names, rather than the plant’s). The girls planted 2-3 starters a piece and followed the reading instructions on the plant packages with me.

Many of these girls must have planted starters before, I thought. How could this be such an intuitive process to them? Sure, Mom helped some with directions, but the kids piled soil into their potting cups and dropped in seeds without asking many questions. I thought my job would be more about directing shy children all day and prodding them to try planting, but it was just the opposite: I had trouble keeping up with watering the plants for kids as they finished up! I suspect most adults would be much more timid to create starters, out of fear of making a mistake, maybe burying a seed too deep in the dirt or spilling too much water into the cup. These children, on the other hand, had no fear of mistakes or the knowledge they lacked. At what age do we decide gardening is only a task for the master gardener?

FN 2/6